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What is inquiry? Setting standards for the next generation of science learners

By Hui-Hui Wang

If you asked a science educator to describe the essence of science education, the answer very likely would be "inquiry" -- how a scientist (or anyone) goes about finding the answer to a question. So it is surprising that the word "inquiry" does not appear at all in a new policy document that will set standards for science education in the US for years to come.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is now under review nationally, and you are invited to read and comment through January 29. It is being developed by the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, the facilitator.

Inquiry was a central element of science education as defined by the predecessor to NGSS, the National Science Education Standards, published in 1996. But now, the hottest topic among science educators is the NGSS.

One of the biggest questions is where inquiry is, because the word is not mentioned in the NGSS. But inquiry is still there, if you look. It is embedded in many of the practices of the NGSS -- the way we as educators can lead youth to harness their own curiosity to learn.

The challenge in teaching inquiry is that it has been interpreted over time in many different ways throughout the science education community. The hypothesis-research-predict-test-conclusion model is the familiar way in the classroom. In a nonformal setting, we are able to let youth lead the inquiry in different ways. Many science educators "know" inquiry and the importance of teaching it.

But there is no one way to teach it. Therefore, parts of the NGSS do explain better and extend what science inquiry means, and the range of cognitive, social, and physical practices that it requires as performance expectations. Instead of inquiry, the NGSS uses the term "practice". It emphasizes that engaging in scientific investigation requires not only skill but also the knowledge that is specific to each practice. Teaching inquiry in the NGSS becomes concrete practice, rather than an abstract concept. I would say that "inquiry unpack" is a better term to describe this action.

The NGSS is scheduled to be published in March, and I intend to write about the final version in a future blog post. The NGSS will be the guideline for science education in the US, and will be the basis for judging program quality, for all stakeholders, including founders. You can give your feedback on this important document through January 29.

Starting this year, science teaching and learning in the US will enter a new era. How do you think about practices in NGSS that relate to inquiry? Have you commented on the NGSS?

-- Hui-Hui Wang, former assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

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  1. It seems like we are just getting to the point of people becoming more comfortable with "inquiry," and thus a change may be a little frustrating to those who help young people learn STEM concepts (teachers, volunteers, after school staff, etc.).
    The term "practice" may be more user-friendly than "inquiry" in community learning environments outside of school (and in school too). Hopefully the standards and its terms will make things easier in the long run. We're all on the same team with similar goals for young people, after all, and perhaps this will put us on the same page!
    I'm looking forward to your next blog post, Hui Hui.

  2. Heidi,
    I know. Many science educators has the same frustrating as you. It is a big discussion and debate among many many people. Personally, I think inquiry is in NGSS, but just not be intentionally mentioned. NGSS emphasizes DOing and LEARNing cannot be separated. So I think to many 4H educators, this is not a new thing to them. The question is going to be how can we design our programs to DO (inquiry) practices. All the eyes now are on NGSS and everyone is waiting it to be finished. I will pay attention to it and keep everyone update.

  3. Andrea Lorek StraussFebruary 4, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    Thanks for this update Hui Hui, it clarifies things for me.
    So much attention has been placed on inquiry/science practice, what we call it and how we explain it, that it's easy to forget the part I think is most important: capitalizing on curiosity. The educator's challenge is really about recognizing when that spark is happening, and knowing how to "blow" on it with questions, shared interest and providing opportunities that will ignite the flame of passion. How we structure what comes after that is just detail in my view.
    I agree with the frustrations with the changing vocabulary. On the up side, though, the process of science will always be the process of science regardless of the language trends.
    Thanks for helping me stay informed about the NGSS, I'll watch for your next blog post!