Changes in How We See Scientific Inquiry

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Ask 20 teachers what scientific inquiry is and it’s possible you’ll receive 20 different answers. From a series of proscribed steps to a lab-based free-for-all, conceptions have shifted over time. In the National Research Council’s (NRC) 1996 National Science Education Standards (NSES), inquiry held a prominent position as its own content area, but the term rarely comes up in its 2012 Framework for K–12 Science Education (Framework). What Ever Happened to Scientific Inquiry, a report by the Midwest Comprehensive Center and myself, details how notions of inquiry have changed in recent history, particularly as seen within the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). A further section of the report that won’t be described here analyzes how the science standards of upper Midwest states describe inquiry.

In preparing this report, we reviewed articles about science inquiry from both current and historical perspectives, analyzed national science standards and related documents, and interviewed national science education experts.

Historical beginnings

In the early 20th century, John Dewey proposed a list of five steps scientists use in their work, intending to emphasize their reflective work practices, but educators instead interpreted those ideas as the five linear steps to doing science. Pedagogy and curricula through the 20th century showed the increasing popularity of labs with proscribed procedures and the idea of a set “scientific method.”  

Standards era shift

In 1993, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Benchmarks of Science Literacy clearly pushed on this idea of a set method and discussed inquiry as a “habit of mind.” The 1996 NSES attempted to further clarify notions of inquiry with the five big ideas of inquiry in its own section of the content standards. With a follow-up report, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (2000), the NRC stated that, “Students do not come to understand inquiry simply by learning words such as ‘hypothesis’ and ‘inference’ or by memorizing procedures such as ‘the steps of the scientific method.’”. In the NSES, inquiry instead described the way scientists study the world and build explanations based on evidence.

Teachers nevertheless continued to use the scientific method as a convenient way to organize scientific investigations and what it means to think like a scientist, and instructional materials supported this approach. Textbooks today continue to include separate chapters on a scientific method. According to Dr. Joe Krajcik, a member of the NGSS writing team, “While well intentioned, when the National Science [Education] Standards assigned inquiry to its own separate content area, it meant that inquiry remained separate from other science learning.” And, thus, got its own chapter in the textbook! Therefore, as noted by Dr. Melissa Braaten, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, “In schools, inquiry had come to mean one narrow image of doing formulaic, defined experiments. Teachers would refer to it as ‘the scientific method’ like it was a titled thing.”

Framework and the NGSS

The writers of the Framework and consequent NGSS aimed to clarify ideas of scientific practice, moving away from varying ideas of “inquiry.” As emphasized by Dr. Helen Quinn, a researcher with the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and chair of the NRC Framework committee, “While it is what we do—we inquire—scientists do not use the term inquiry.”

To summarize, in this report we emphasize four big ideas from the Framework and NGSS that take the place of some traditional conceptions of inquiry:

1) Inquiry is a means for constructing scientific understanding; it’s not a content area

Students should be involved in asking questions and investigating natural phenomena in the world around them. Instead of learning steps of a scientific method, they’re doing science.

2) Inquiry is a fluid set of practices that scientists use

As Dr. Krajcik notes, “Having the eight practices doesn’t mean that you start with a question, then move on to the next practice… There is no linearity implied. The practices are tied together and any one of them could lead to another.” Further, when working with the practices or discussing their use as a class, they shouldn’t be numbered.

3) Inquiry involves three-dimensional learning

The science and engineering practices are the means to gain scientific knowledge while investigating phenomena with a lens of the crosscutting concepts. Or, in other words from Matt Krehbiel, assistant director of science at Achieve, Inc., inquiry is “woven into science learning throughout the year, where practices are exercised and integrated with learning of the crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas.”

4) Inquiry is independent from science pedagogy

Inquiry-based teaching is essential, but it’s not the only appropriate type of instruction. Varying instructional practices based on student learning needs make sense.

Final thoughts

I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t do inquiry-based lessons; however, I would suggest that you rip out the chapter of your textbook on the scientific method and consider ways to structure labs beyond hypothesis testing. There are as many ways to “do science” as there are scientists, so allow the practices to infuse your instruction where they naturally and logically fit rather than in any prescribed way. 


A former middle school science teacher and education researcher, Kevin J. B. Anderson, PhD, NBCT, is the Science Education Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

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14 Responses to Changes in How We See Scientific Inquiry

  1. Harry Keller says:

    It’s great to see someone clearly explaining where the silly “Scientific Method” came from.
    Scientists inquire all of the time. It’s what they do. I think that they cannot help themselves. They constantly seek the truth or look for evidence or compare data — things like that. For most, it carries over into their private lives. Carl Sagan said that every trained scientist carries a “baloney detection kit” around. He means that science practices become ingrained and used in everyday life. He was strongly for every person having those same practices for their everyday use.
    Memorization does the opposite.
    Inquiry does not deserve a separate chapter. It should infuse every chapter. You should feel it as you read those chapters. Actually, books should be removed from our classes. We can do so much better with technology today. Learning science must become a highly interactive process that uses the best that technology can offer.
    Harry Keller, PhD
    President and Chief Science Officer
    Smart Science Education Inc.

  2. Bryce Lockard says:

    Question, how did we get to this point of understanding? I’m not a PhD but don’t most humans use “the method”, even simply, when trying to solve problems? Also, why would you endorse ignorance by “ripping out the chapter”? I am still trying to understand why the Education Industry constantly “reinvents the wheel”, instead of building on productive strategies. No other industry does this. –Much respect to you, just curious.

  3. Harry Keller says:

    I cannot speak for Dr. Anderson, just for myself. I spent long years as a scientist — undergraduate research, graduate research, industrial research, and academic research. Having been so thoroughly trained as a scientist, I am not certain what “most humans use.” To my eyes, it seems that they simply go by their guts without any methodology at all.
    For this reason, I can see the attraction of a simple, step-by-step method. This, however, is not how science works. Call it something else if you must, but do not associate it with science. Dewey was explaining the various sorts of things that scientists do, but he was not a scientist himself. He certainly did not prescribe a step-by-step process. “The Scientific Method” is misleading and a waste of class time. That’s why you should remove the chapter.
    OTOH, the remark about education reinventing the wheel seems rather true to me. I keep seeing the same ideas recycled under different names. Sometimes, someone who is ignorant of the past thinks they have found something new. Other times, someone merely seeks to make money (profit or grant money) off of the new, shiny label for old stuff.
    The facts are that very little new has been found in education since the early 1900s. It’s a matter of sorting through all of the stuff we do know and determining what works best. Sometimes, we combine ideas. Sometimes, we adjust them. The basic modes of learning remain the same, though.
    Still, I think that “building on productive strategies” often does take place in education. I see that sometimes that process is sidetracked by some new and seemingly exciting thing, e.g. the “new math.”
    Education is tough. It’s not engineering or even science. You cannot accurately reproduce conditions. You cannot even perform a design-test-improve cycle. You can use only extreme success or failure as a measure of your efforts. Everything in between is ambiguous.
    I’m not sure the education should even be termed an “industry.”

  4. Bryce Lockard says:

    I have no credentials to speak of, so please I will only speak as a “blue-collar” educated American. Re: “most humans use”…If I teach kids Soccer and we are against an unknown team, do we not 1) question their capabilities, 2) figure out a possible strategy, 3) test that strategy, 4) analyze how it worked, and 5) communicate our results to the rest of the team? I am no scientist, but this is what I’ve done with plumbing, marketing programs, sports, games, quality control, cards, automotive repair, upset wife….I don’t know any actual ‘scientists’ so I may be in error and ‘using my guts’ but isn’t all of “science” already operating in the universe and all we are doing is uncovering and explaining it in its formalized way? I understand in the sciences, actual work in those fields is probably vastly different than a classroom where “The Scientific Process” is useless to you and your colleagues. Just my experience; the kids I’ve worked with, it is a useful device to encourage inquiry, scaffold, and focus children’s rather scattered thought processes.
    -Education is now data driven. Either by legislature or administration; teachers and students (and even whole districts with Mission Statements that include “Data” in them) are monitored and evaluated based on it. P&L statements are too. Responses to students and parents are quantified. They are now called ‘scholars’ not children, or kids. -Agreed, education is tough.

  5. Cathy Baumgardner says:

    All good points, gentlemen!
    Bryce, I agree that the scientific method is a great place to start with kids. It’s logical and it gives them a simple structure they can understand and relate to. When I use it with my fourth graders, we change it to “A” scientific method and I make them aware of the fact that it’s not the only way to do science.
    I use Page Keeley’s “Doing Science” probe to discuss all the options and understand their perspective. Once they are ready, I also use materials and ideas from the Understanding Science site to help them explore the options and begin to see the complicated and iterative nature of science. (
    The Engineering is Elementary curriculum is also great for introducing the engineering design process and helping them develop what they term “engineering habits of mind” which really are the habits of mind of problem solvers.
    I also find project-based learning is the closest I can get them to experiencing and understanding the true nature of science and engineering. Projects tend to help them see the connection of science to their lives and futures. I teach in a private school, so I have fewer mandates to deal with and I can spend more time on these practices. I also recommend the ExploraVision competition if you haven’t tried it. It’s a lot of work but the kids love it and it’s free to enter.
    No doubt, education is tough and my hat is off to all those striving to do their best for our kids.

  6. Harry Keller says:

    Project-based learning (PBL) is done with projects. Almost always, these are engineering projects that use science rather than do science.
    Students should learn about engineering, but learning about science is more important for the reason that it’s harder to find outside of the school environment.
    Science does not involve, except peripherally, making anything. Science “makes” ideas. Engineering involves ideas too, but basically is about making things.

  7. Harry Keller says:

    “Education is now data driven.” This remark is wishful thinking for two reasons. Firstly, not all that many schools collect all of the necessary data. Secondly, these data are flawed because you cannot control the variables. Every comparison is of apples and oranges. All that data may make you feel better about whatever you’re doing, but it doesn’t prove much.

  8. Cathy Baumgardner says:

    I agree completely, Harry. Engineering and science are like peanut butter and jelly, you can’t have one without the other!
    Science is the making of ideas, the unraveling of mysteries, and the solving of puzzles. Engineering is the application of scientific and mathematical principles in the creation of a product or solution.

  9. Harry Keller says:

    Interesting that you say that, Cathy.
    Engineering breakthroughs in the form of more precise instruments or instruments that measure the previously unmeasurable almost always seem to precede science breakthroughs. Much of science does not inform engineering (e.g paleontology), but lasers come from science and are used to do some amazing science.
    Some science is just thinking. Some science is “big science” such as CERN.
    Ultimately, science is unraveling the mysteries of the universe through methods that require reproducible data and disprovable hypotheses. Because infinite precision does not exist, scientific results will always have the potential to be revised.
    Despite all of this, we see broad theories, such as evolution or plate tectonics, as being “established science” and so subject only to adjustment around the edges. Many scientists live to work on those edges, though.

  10. Cathy Baumgardner says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if that’s what Aerosmith had in mind when they wrote Living on the Edge?
    I am far from an expert, but sometimes it seems a little bit like which came first, the chicken or the egg? the science or the engineering?
    Happy pondering:-)

  11. Harry Keller says:

    That’s an easy one. Roman’s were engineering aqueducts long before science was even invented. The first cart was engineering. Early in history, superstition stood in for science. I think that Galileo was the first to use actual measurements to decide what makes the world tick. That was a step toward real science.

  12. Cathy Baumgardner says:

    Ye! I have his words on my wall………..”The universe stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand it; without these, one is wandering in a dark labyrinth.”

  13. Bryce Lockard says:

    -Cathy, thank you for your links and comments, they are greatly appreciated.
    -Harry, exactly right! Coining the term ‘Education Industry’, my comment (albeit slightly sarcastic) is because the people in charge of districts are forgetting, or ignoring, your perspectives and creating applications that do not work or are so cumbersome they wreck the ability to effectively teach (or learn).

  14. Harry Keller says:

    I am saddened when I see P&L statements coming from schools. Really?
    You cannot run certain public agencies like businesses. Doesn’t work. Examples include police, fire, education, and government itself. In each instance, the bottom line overcomes the true objective of the organization.
    California, where I live these days, used to have one of the top state education systems in the country — all the way from K through college. It’s been destroyed and now ranks near the bottom. Blame can be spread widely. Government administrators, legislators, teacher unions, parents, textbook publishers, district administrators, and the general populace all partook in this dismantling of a wonderful educational system. We cannot return to the world of 35 years ago.
    I am one who has hope for the future. New technology holds much promise to create an entirely new learning environment. It also holds the seeds of destruction. Too few educators know enough about technologies, learning theories, subject matter, the history of their subject, and so much more that all must be synthesized in order to use technology effectively.
    This is my specialty, combining a deep understanding of computer-based technologies, of my subject matter, and of pedagogy to synthesize ideas that can transform just a tiny piece of our learning ecology. If enough such people put together their pieces, we could eventually have a new world of learning. In the meantime, I will continue to work hard, to read, listen, and learn, and to create so that this future may come sooner rather than later.

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