A Glimpse of the Inquiry-based Approach in Science Teaching

15 Jan 2017

The study of science leads us to discover the world and things around us. More than often, it is that spark of curiosity that leads us to find out the hows and whys of the things around us. 

  • Why is the sky blue?
  • Why does it rain?
  • How is rain formed?
  • Why is there a rainbow?
  • How is a rainbow formed? and the list goes on…

There are several approaches to go about teaching and learning Science, but in recent years, educators around the world, including the Ministry of Education, Singapore (MOE), have advocated the inquiry-based learning approach, weeding out traditional rote learning methods. This move aims to arm our students with 21st-century competencies so as to thrive in a fast-changing world. The competencies as identified by MOE are:

- Civic Literacy, Global Awareness, and Cross-Cultural Skills;

- Critical and Inventive Thinking;

- Communication, Collaboration and Information Skills

What is inquiry-based learning and how can it bring about the aforementioned competencies? Let's take a step back and have a look at how learning happens for a child. 

For a child, picking up a skill or equipping himself with knowledge comes by incidentally. "Incidental" is defined in the dictionary as "happening in connection with or resulting from something more". Going by the definition, learning could happen through play, conversations with an adult and even mischief! It is during the process of these situations that he asks, investigates, discusses and reflects on the question at large to give meaning to his experiences, which will eventually equip him with the skills and knowledge. In a nutshell, inquiry-based learning is:

- Raising questions to derive knowledge and solutions
- A result of incidental learning

As a case in point, let's look at how a child who has just learnt how to count money can relate to the concept of finance and investment in a game of Monopoly (incidental). He may question (inquiry) the buying of several properties:

  • Is really worth to take the risk of buying several properties ending up with low cash-flow or even bankruptcy?
  • How about just concentrating on a few properties for high rent?

To win the game, the child may want to consider apply money saving strategies (because he has just learnt how to count money). To complete the inquiry-based learning approach, the parent can question him about his strategies as it gives him opportunities to reflect and access his choice made. 

How is inquiry-based learning carried out in schools?

Drawing back to reality, inquiry-based learning in schools is more dynamic. Rather than being the provider of information, teachers take on the role of a facilitator. As a facilitator, teachers are no longer just content experts but also planners who artfully include open-ended questions or topics based on the curriculum to illicit students thinking and questioning. 

As students actively participate in questioning and building on their own knowledge, the ability to analyse, synthesize, and evaluate information or new understandings indicates a high level of thinking. This process involves a continual cycle of asking, investigating, creating, discussing and reflecting. Most of this process is incidental than deliberate.

In the context of our Singapore science curriculum, inquiry for teaching, learning and assessment are done through a continuum of teacher-guided and student-centred learning experiences using a thematic approach. In some classrooms, inquiry-based teaching (teacher-directed inquiry) is more predominant than inquiry-based learning (pupil-directed inquiry). In other contexts, especially for older students who have some degree of science literacy, inquiry-based learning is more predominant than inquiry-based teaching. In general, most teachers would traverse along the continuum of inquiry-based teaching and inquiry-based learning approaches as teaching and learning are two sides of the same ‘coin’. The ‘coin’ refers to the attainment of the learning outcomes, which is the litmus test of good inquiry-based teaching or learning.