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Teaching as inquiry in science

Effective teaching requires the teacher to reflect critically on the teaching–learning relationship. The teaching as inquiry cycle is a tool for teacher reflection and knowledge building.

(The New Zealand Curriculum, p. 35)

The three inquiries

Critical reflection can begin at any point in the Teaching as Inquiry cycle but will always include three inquiries: focusing, teaching, and learning.

Focusing inquiry in science

The focusing inquiry involves knowing your students’ backgrounds and aspirations and their science strengths and weaknesses, backed up by their relevant science achievement data. This requires the teacher and student to work together to identify the student’s learning needs by focusing on their prior knowledge, interests, and learning goals. It also recognises that the student’s cultural and social background, science experiences, and future ambitions are vital to the development of effective learning experiences.

Use this to set priorities for teaching and learning for a target group of students. Design a learning programme and plan approaches to address their learning needs and assess achievement.

Ways to identify student learning needs:

  • Before beginning to teach a class, create a class profile. Ideally, this will identify students’ capabilities, needs, and interests; recognise potential groupings within the class; and highlight the teaching and learning approaches that will support the groups and the class as a whole.
  • Before starting a new unit of work, use a diagnostic assessment to provide information for programme planning, for example, brainstorm what you could share about fossils.

Useful information can be gained from sources such as:

  • previous assessments and portfolios
  • student interviews
  • a KWL chart, in which students identify what they know, want to know, and have learnt
  • practical activities (such as a measuring task used as a diagnostic tool), co-operative learning activities, or a rich task (generated through the learning pathways approach)
  • question-and-answer sessions in which the teacher provides an “answer” and students suggest the question, or in which students write their answers to a question on mini-whiteboards and display them simultaneously
  • student self-assessment against established criteria, in which students identify the knowledge and skills they already have, what they need to revise, and the areas they are unfamiliar with
  • AsTTLe, PAT, STWE (NZCER), Star, and Probe data, particularly for information about strengths and needs in literacy and numeracy
  • students’ contributions to discussion on the reasons for particular science phenomena (for example, surface tension or capillary action).

Teaching inquiry in science

The teaching inquiry determines which strategies are most likely to help students develop the prioritised understandings. It uses outcomes from the focusing inquiry and takes place both during and after teaching as teachers monitor and reflect on student progress.

Choose teaching approaches that will address science concepts that may be challenging for students (PCK). To achieve this, teachers may need to find out common student misconceptions and research approaches to address them, for example, students may not understand directional flow of electrons – placing an ammeter in each part of the circuit can provide evidence of the theory.

Discuss with colleagues possible teaching approaches to use when developing specific science concepts.

Learning inquiry in science

The learning inquiry involves assessing the effectiveness of the teaching in terms of student outcomes. It is ongoing, taking place while learning activities are in progress and also after units of work or programmes come to an end. It requires the teacher to critically reflect during and after each lesson, and determine the next steps for learning based on the target group of students.

Keep a record of your reflections and actions to consider the next time this lesson is taught to a different group of students.

Evidence can be gained from:

  • teacher observation of student engagement, including practical activities
  • student feedback on their learning
  • completion of group and individual tasks.

Regularly use formative assessment strategies during teaching to gauge student progress and adjust the programme of learning accordingly.

The final step of the learning inquiry is assessing how effective the teaching has been in promoting a target group’s learning and well-being:

  • Have I made a difference to my target group of learners?

This leads to the setting of new goals and a further iteration of the teaching as inquiry cycle.

Teacher inquiry and knowledge-building chart

Use these questions to reflect on what you are doing to promote the science learning of your target students.

What are my students’ learning needs?

  • What do they already know?
  • What sources of evidence have I used?
  • How do I build on what they know?

What are my learning needs?

  • How have I contributed to existing student outcomes?
  • What do I know that I can use to promote improved student outcomes?
  • What do I need to learn to promote improved student outcomes?
  • What sources of evidence/knowledge can I use?

Design of tasks and experiences

  • What strategies will I develop and implement in my teaching to meet my students’ needs, linked to the professional learning goal?
  • What is the goal for my target group?
  • What is my teaching plan?

Teaching actions

  • What specific teaching strategies will I use to support these students?
  • What support will I need to achieve my goals (for example, feedback on my teaching, coaching, resources, readings, or focused observations of others)?

What is the result of our changed actions?

  • How effective have these actions been in promoting my students’ learning and well-being?
  • How will I know that I have made a difference for my target group? What evidence is there of improved achievement and the effect of my teaching?
  • What is the new goal for these learners?

See also: Teaching as inquiry on the New Zealand Curriculum website.

Last updated July 28, 2021