Published Online: January 14, 2009

Best Practices: Students in the Driver’s Seat

There is great value in learning the basics. We cannot write without an alphabet, or understand chemistry without the Periodic Table of Elements. But Henri Poincaré said, "Science is built upon facts much in the same way that a house is built with bricks, but the mere collections of facts is no more a science than a pile of bricks is a house!" I think our students get bored with the collecting of facts, but when they get to build for themselves, engagement grows.

Students can best learn science by actually doing science. They get excited about learning math when it helps them accomplish something useful. They learn history when they become historians. The key is to put the student in the driver’s seat.

My science students enjoy doing hands-on investigations, but I have found they sometimes get bored when the procedure is laid out for them like a recipe in a cookbook. Mix part A with Part B, observe, record, and answer the questions that follow. Ho hum.

I had an epiphany a few years ago when I took a workshop at the San Francisco Exploratorium’s Institute for Inquiry. The leaders had us engage in an inquiry cycle involving soap bubbles. We began by exploring, then we came up with questions we were curious about. Some of these questions were not ones we could investigate, but others provided the basis for experiments we then designed and conducted. It was a blast!

I realized after this experience that the trouble with cookbook labs is the students are investigating a question they did not ask, following directions they did not think up, and so there is not much of the process the students actually own. Furthermore, they are missing a lot that is involved in real science. The most important thing a scientist can do is to ask a good question—one that can be answered through investigation. The next most important thing a scientist can do is figure out how he might answer that question using available tools and materials. If we want our students to learn how science works, they need a chance to do this for themselves.

In my classroom I set about to try to recreate this experience, and settled on a process called guided inquiry. I allowed my students to explore a given material, such as dry ice, and conduct informal experiments like putting it in water or in a zip-lock bag. Then I asked them to come up with questions we could investigate. Then we sorted the questions, and as a class decided which we could actually do experiments to answer. The students were then challenged to design their own experiments to answer their questions.

This is a lot tougher than following a recipe, and students need guidance to design experiments that include a control, and careful collection of important data. But the students are actually doing science, not simply walking through pre-ordained steps. Students struggled at first, but when it came time to do their experiments, they were the ones in charge, and engagement was much stronger than with the cookbook labs.

Here are some guided inquiry science projects offered by the Cornell Science Inquiry Partnerships.

Guided inquiry is one process that I used, but there are others that put students in charge of their learning as well.

Problem-based Learning (PBL) has students focus on a complex issue and develop their own investigation and solutions. This article on Edutopia shares several convincing studies showing that these approaches are effective at boosting student engagement, decreasing absenteeism and even improving test scores.

Project Based Learning is a similar approach, where students are given a real-world challenge to solve, and they must use their hands and minds to get the job done. The Buck Institute for Education has a good introduction with links to great resources.

High school history teachers can find examples of students operating as historians here.

In an essay for Teacher Magazine last year, “Students Can Do Hard Things,” I wrote:

Our students can do hard things, but they do not always know that. High self-regard is important for all the kids we teach, but it is not built through empty praise. It grows as the student actually succeeds in creating quality work. True satisfaction comes when we know for sure that we have achieved excellence.

I can’t say it any more clearly than that.

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