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Coping with Inquiry

author: Tim Barclay
description: "Coping with Inquiry," published in Hands On!, 1987, argues that "promoting inquiry in the classroom is a creative act, a process more easily described when it goes awry than when it's nurtured." The article does detail some obstacles to inquiry, but then provides strategies to help teachers build an inquiry-based classroom using technology.

published in: Hands On!, TERC
published: 1987
posted to site: 07/23/1998

Author's Note

Since this article first appeared, there have been significant advances in telecommunications technology that can provide valuable support to students and teachers who are working in an inquiry mode. One outcome is that classrooms are increasingly using electronic networks to do collaborative investigations. Yet the issues and strategies I originally presented are still timely and can be applied broadly to student investigations in mathematics and science.

Promoting inquiry in the class room is a creative act, a process more easily described when it goes awry than when it's nurtured. In classrooms using Microcomputer-based Laboratories (MBL) -- tools that have the potential to empower students to be scientists and creative explorers of the world -- there have been examples of both types. The one clear determinant common to all of them is the teacher.

Succeeding and Failing at Inquiry

Instead of inquiry there is often proceduralism. Such was the case in one MBL classroom at a large, suburban, junior high school where the teacher spent all the introductory time emphasizing a proper sequence of menu choices needed to follow the activity sheet instructions. When the students broke up into small groups, each with their own microcomputer and probes, the task had become "do it right." But what was that? They did not remember for sure what was right, and they did not read the instructions on the activity sheets either. No one reads instructions. They called on the teacher. "What do I do next?" "Is this right?" "Why didn't it work?" Lacking any sense of the nature of the activity, the means had become a meaningless end. Completion was all; understanding was beside the point.

In another suburban school, student activity sheets became the master, and filling-the-blanks the task. Here the students even read the instructions. They carefully wrote in answers at each place where a blank was provided. When the activity sheets suggested extensions and tried to encourage the students to become the originator of the questions and the designer of activities, they floundered. There were no blanks to fill in. The suggestions were ignored and all activity ceased. Here, too, science had not been the point of the activity.

As a teacher, I know the classroom limitations. Time is short, the material is complex, and the students are anxious about doing well. In response, I have tried hard to make it work by ensuring that the instructions are clear and everyone understands how to fill in the lab sheets. And I have had that sinking experience in those classrooms of procedurialism replacing inquiry and understanding.

The best examples of using MBL materials in the classroom occur when the microcomputer and the software work as tools for the teacher and for the students -- not as content, but as teaching and learning aids. A seventh grade class that used the MBL Sound Unit for several months is an example of tool-empowered inquiry. The two science teachers started by using the unit with their whole class as a group investigation. A single microcomputer was set up at the front of the class. Initially, the teacher posed the problems with the students suggesting how to find an answer and then using the probes to try it.

As the unit progressed, students began to pose the questions. The probe and the micro became tools for studying sound -- sometimes to quickly show something, other times for an investigation that took up a whole class period. At the end of the sound unit, students did their own projects. These involved research and experiments and reports on topics that ranged from comparing the wave pictures from different musical instruments to analyzing bird songs. The teachers had made MBL their own, used it in their classrooms, and then passed it as a gift to their students to make into their own tool as well.

Underlying the development of the TERC MBL units is the premise that for students to understand science rather than simply learn facts, they need to have tools that enable them to find answers to their own questions.

An Inquiring Attitude

How can a teacher create an atmosphere for inquiry? There are no simple answers, partially because of the vast differences among schools, teachers, and students. What can work in one situation may be impossible in another. Still, there are ideas that have helped teachers to think about this issue.

One of the problems in classes where inquiry seems inhibited has been the focus on the tools themselves rather than the science. The solution is not to ignore the procedural issues, for it is important to know how to use the tools. The solution is, rather, to explicitly separate learning to use the tool from doing the science. One is a skill, the other an intellectual activity.

When inquiry is encouraged, students often start asking questions the teacher cannot answer. This can be very threatening. In the traditional classroom, the teacher and the text are seen as the fonts of information and the locus of authority. MBL opens the possibility for authority to be seen emanating from the real world. The teacher can say, "I do not know the answer, but we have a tool that can help us. How can we use it to find an answer to your question?" In this way, the teacher models a much more valid and empowering individual, that of the scientist as investigator. The locus of authority shifts to the real world, which is where it surely belongs.

The teacher's role here, however, encompasses more than just encouraging student questions. Not every question is appropriate to pursue; a question may be too amorphous, or it may be valid but diverge too far from the theme of the class. Sometimes the question is good, but too ambitious.

Questions need to be encouraged, but then discussed, preferably by the whole class. If there is a plethora of questions suggested, then discussion can help people sort out which ones are feasible given available equipment, which are most relevant to the science topic being investigated, and which may be shelved, possibly for later group discussion or as topics for individual student projects.


Structuring a classroom to promote inquiry can seem a paradoxical task. Is the teacher in control? And, if so, isn't encouraging student inquiry a form of hypocrisy? Are the students supposed to do their own thing? Then, doesn't everything get out of control? Resolution of this dilemma lies in rethinking the classroom dynamic.

Instead of control descending from above, it can arise from the group with the teacher as co-investigator and leader of the group. Part of the leader's role is to help the group exercise control, to be a facilitator, and to be responsible for the breadth, depth, and pace of the activities and learning available in the classroom throughout the year. One of the ways that teachers organize is to write curriculum plans for courses and lesson plans for individual classes. This important tool for planning and preparation cannot now be the final end, the dictator of what will be taught.

If students' questions are honored, this can mean altering plans and moving in new, unforeseen directions. To feel comfortable doing this, the teacher needs to see the actual process of science as a goal of high priority, not just rely on pre-established facts and theories as the goal. Content is important, since a process cannot happen in a vacuum, but there is more appropriate content in the larger world than we can ever begin to cover.

Finally, when students' questions are honored, everyone can end up doing something different. Because this can be demanding, and even chaotic, it is important to think about teaching strategies that will help make diversity manageable and productive. One strategy is to agree ahead of time, as a whole class, on the expectations put on individual investigations. This can include group discussion about individual ideas, clarifying what sort of report or final product will be required, and agreeing on schedules and time commitments, both inside and outside the regular class period.

Sometimes there may emerge from individual investigations a published collection of papers or a science fair day when students demonstrate and explain their projects. A few minutes can be set aside at the end of the period or scheduled for the beginning of the next class to share what was found out and which questions are still being pursued. Sometimes it may be important for one person, teacher or student, to clarify and summarize investigations, or the background science that underlies them, or conclusions that have come out of them.

There is no single way to provide a supporting structure for investigations, but when you find an effective strategy, a learning synergy can occur that makes the struggle worth the effort.

Microcomputer-based laboratories bring the potential to enhance the quantity and quality of science learning to our schools. The potential lies in the tool; its realization depends, as always, upon the teacher.


Tim Barclay is the Director of Curriculum Development for the Hands-On Universe project, a collaboration between the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and TERC.