DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY
The Need for Inquiry
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When scientists actually do science, they do not lecture to each other about things that are already known. They investigate things that are not yet understood. They inquire. As long as we teach science from the viewpoint of giving our students information to memorize, so that they can learn things that are already known, we are giving them only a small fraction of what science really is. No one can dispute that, to discover something new, we must know what is already known. However, we should not look at our classes as nothing more than a venue in which to provide that information to students. We should look at our classes as an opportunity to help our students learn what science is all about. That means we must give them experience in doing science.
"Inquiry" is a rather vague term. Any scientist will say "that's what I do," yet different scientists in different fields do things differently. Some follow the "scientific method" as outlined in many textbooks. Many follow different methods entirely. Teachers may view "inquiry" as a teaching method. Or, they may see it as a way of learning. Or, they may see it as "open-ended laboratories" in which students are given free reign to do what they want. In some sense, all are true, but in different contexts. Here, I will discuss it from a different viewpoint from that typically found in the educational literature, in the hope that it will clarify some of the issues.
It is instructive to ask, "what are the key features of scientific investigation?" I might list them as follows:
- identify something to investigate
- figure out how to investigate it
- do the investigation
- examine the information that resulted from the investigation
- use that information to develop an understanding
I have intentionally omitted the traditional terminology of "hypothesis," "experiment," "observation," "data," and "conclusion." Different fields sometimes use these terms differently.
When we teach our students by giving them previously-learned information, we are, in essence, giving them the last word in this sequence--the understanding that we develop from the information available. All of the real science has already happened. It's over. Somehow, this doesn't seem like it's quite fair to our students, since the preceding steps are the fun part.
On the other hand, it is virtually impossible for our students to re-discover for themselves all of the previously-learned information. We just cannot cram several centuries' worth of investigations into one year or one semester. Somewhere, we must identify a balance between full-fledged student investigations and guidance by the teacher. Sometimes, that balance may be achieved by giving the students the opportunity to do a portion of the investigation, while controlling the rest. Sometimes, the balance may be achieved by presenting the students with a puzzle that interests them, and that provides a hook to get them engaged as we provide the information that they need to solve the puzzle. Different fields, and different topics within those fields, may require quite different approaches.
This is important in any science, in any field, if for no other reason than the simple fact that science is more fun when we do it than when we memorize previously-digested findings. It is especially important for evolution, because it moves the learning of evolution from the Acceptance of Received Wisdom (provided by the teacher) and into the realm of students understanding where the conclusions come from, and why they make sense. As certain politically-active groups voice their complaints about how we teach evolution, this becomes even more important.
The fundamental tenet of science is that conclusions must be supported by data. Phrased differently, conclusions are derived from the data. This is as true for those who follow the Scientific Method as for those who do not. The Scientific Method requires that we state our hypothesis at the outset. That hypothesis is not a guess, and is not a prediction of what will happen during our investigation. That hypothesis is a statement of our current understanding of the system we are investigating--based on our previous observations and data. Those who do not follow the Scientific Method also develop an understanding of the system, based on observations and data, but define this understanding at the end of the investigation. The Scientific Method also develops an understanding at the end of the investigation, but in the form of evaluating the validity of the previously-stated hypothesis, and often modifying the hypothesis to account for the new information. Either way, the understanding--the hypothesis, explanation, model, or whatever term we choose--is developed from data.
What kind of data can we possibly have to support the idea that fish evolved into land animals? That happened quite some time ago. No one saw it. No one has reconstructed it in the laboratory. Common sense suggests that it is implausible. Therefore, when we present the current theory to our students, it may not be surprising if they don't get it. We haven't given them data to support the conclusion, and common sense suggests that we can't get data, at least not in the form typically described in the Scientific Method: the results of an experiment.
But, what happens if we do give them data? We can show them the fossils (or drawings of them) that have been found from different ages during the course of this evolutionary transition. We can show them (or describe) the additional information from other fossils and from the character of the rock in which the fossils were found, that inform us about the ecological setting in which these animals lived. We can give them the time-frame between the earliest fossils in this series and the latest (some 15 million years or so--which is not exactly an eyeblink). Here's some data; what do you think might account for it?
With this particular example, we define the question for investigation, as well as the methods to be used in gathering new information. We give the students the data. Their job is only the last part: making sense of the information. This is not a full inquiry. How could it be--they can't go to Greenland to collect the fossils! Nonetheless, it involves the students in the critical part: reasoning from the data. They will not go home saying that the teacher said fish turned into amphibians. They will go home saying that it sure looks like fish were the largest animals on the planet at that time, and that some of them had bones in their fins that were somewhat like our limb bones, and over millions of years, as different species came and went, some of them had bigger and stronger bones in their fins, and some of them had fins that looked a bit more like feet, and some of them actually did look like feet, so maybe there was a gradual transition from fins to feet. They may wonder how such a thing could happen (providing a jumping-off point to discuss genetics, mutation, and selection), but they won't say that scientists made it up and "believe in it" without justification. They will know that there are data, and that the data lead to an explanation--and that what the teacher is telling them is the current best explanation for the data that currently exist.
As this example illustrates, an "inquiry" can be tailored to meet the constraints of the classroom, yet still provide students with a valid opportunity to practice scientific thought processes. Different types of limited-inquiry lessons can give them practice at different aspects of scientific investigation. Which aspect is most accessible for a particular topic will vary. As we saw above, experimental design and execution are sometimes tricky with evolutionary issues. They may be more accessible with biochemical questions, or plant growth.
I would argue, however, that the single most important skill that students need to develop is reasoning from the data. This is necessary to understand why evolution is accepted as a valid explanation of the diversity of life. It is also necessary in life in general, wherein we must often make choices between alternatives. Our students will be better prepared if they have learned how to (i.e. practiced enough to develop skill) obtain information, and use the information to inform their decisions.
last updated: Dec. 22, 2008