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5 Steps to Inquiry Based Learning

Unsure about how to make the shift to inquiry-based teaching under the Next Gen Science Standards? Follow these steps to lessen teachers’ anxiety.

By Ronald J. Korenich

As school districts begin to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), they may find teachers and staff are worried about how to implement inquiry-based methods of teaching. For many teachers, inquiry-based instruction can be scary, or at the very least, require a leap of faith.

I know this first-hand. More than 10 years ago, in my role as district coordinator of elementary education for Fox Chapel ASD in Pennsylvania, my charge was to implement inquiry-based instruction for both science and social studies.

Teachers wanted to provide quality instruction but were uncomfortable because they didn’t feel equipped. When students engage in inquiry, lessons can take many twists and turns, and teachers were concerned they wouldn’t have the content knowledge to answer student questions or wouldn’t be able to tie in the overarching concepts students were required to know.

Although progress was gradual, the end result was such an improvement in both teacher confidence and student learning that I don’t think any other method of learning is even an option now.

For any district moving from a non-inquiry-based curriculum to an inquiry-based one, there will always be a steep learning curve. Here’s what we learned in my district.

1. Start with pedagogy, but don’t forget content. Teachers need to know the pedagogy of inquiry-based learning—their role, students’ role, how to implement the lesson—in addition to the content. For better or worse, you can’t learn one without the other. In the beginning, though, most of our training focused on pedagogy. We walked teachers through sample lessons: what might happen during a lesson, how to handle veering off-course or unexpected experiment results. Teachers were excited to see that once they knew strategies to capitalize on those moments, incredible learning occurred.

2. Rich materials are crucial. Schools must not only choose materials that are robust in content for their science curriculum but also those that provide teacher support. Publishers that provide training sessions or whose materials are tied to Web-based support are the most helpful. In my district, teachers also appreciated curriculum that was structured so they could take specific steps to reach student goals.

3. Schools need to accept initial teacher missteps. Teachers may not be completely successful at first, and that’s to be expected. Rather than view these experiences as failures, schools and districts need to understand them and continue to support the teachers. We found that sharing “mistakes” during professional development sessions provided some of the best learning opportunities.

4. Teachers need to accept mistakes, too. It can be difficult for teachers to pull back from “teaching” and let students pursue their own conclusions. However, when teachers create an environment where kids aren’t afraid to be right or wrong, they are much more inquisitive and engaged. The teacher can always turn “wrong” answers into learning opportunities by pointing out common misperceptions or by making a connection between the mistake and critical learning content.

5. Professional development needs to be ongoing. Training for inquiry-based learning is continuous. For example, we were surprised in one of our schools that a simple unit on levers and pulleys generated sophisticated questions that required physics knowledge. The district brought in more content training on physics, and as a result, both the students and teachers achieved a depth of knowledge on the subject that we had never imagined previously.

When most of us think back on what we know, we realize that we’ve learned best when we were actively engaged in the learning but had someone supporting and guiding us. It’s the same for elementary students. Teachers who understand how to meet students where they are and guide them along a path of inquiry are engaging students in the real work of scientists. Today we have the opportunity to encourage children’s natural curiosities, coach them on how to interpret what they’re discovering, and help them understand the impact of what they’re learning while they acquire important knowledge about science content and process. This engagement and resulting depth of knowledge is where we want our students to be in STEM subjects. Other teaching methods can’t achieve this, which is why implementing inquiry-based learning, although sometimes bumpy at first, is so critical in today’s schools.

Ronald J. Korenich, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and former coordinator of elementary education at Fox Chapel Area School District, Pennsylvania. He is a member of TCI’s Science Advisory Board.

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