Including inquiry in instruction may seem time consuming, require materials, and could lead to chaos without good planning. However the benefits in student learning and skills can outweigh the difficulties. When the inquiry is directed toward learning a concept, those concepts are learned more deeply than through presentations or reading. At the same time students are learning the skills of science and scientific ways of thinking.


Inquiry is the way science operates in its quest to understand the world. By involvement in inquiry, students learn about the nature of science and develop skills that can guide them in their own investigations. Students also learn ways to make judgements based on evidence. When students learn science concepts through inquiry activities, the concepts are learned more deeply and retained longer.

What is Inquiry?

“Inquiry is a step beyond ‘science as a process’ in which students learn skills, such as observation, inference and experimentation. The new vision includes the ‘processes of science’ and requires that students combine processes and scientific knowledge as they use scientific reasoning and critical thinking to develop their understanding of science” (NRC, 1996) [page 2]

Inquiry is a process of asking questions about how the world operates and investigating to find the answers. Science has a variety of methods to investigate questions and has certain criteria for the methods including evidence, reasoning and reproducibility of results.

In the Minnesota Science Standards, the concepts and skills for inquiry are described in the Nature of Science and Engineering strand. There are two related substrands:

- Understandings about Science describes how inquiry is used in science.

- Scientific Inquiry and Investigation describes the skills that student gain in doing their own inquiry.

[more explanation of these sections plus related information in substrand 3]

Planning & Instruction

How do I intentionally plan for and use inquiry?

There are many methods of classroom inquiry that range from highly structured and teacher directed to more open, student directed activities.

Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A guide for Teaching and Learning

The style of inquiry that a teacher would use in a particular lesson depends on several factors, such as the learning goals of the lesson, student background/training in inquiry skills, time and materials.

It is also depends of the role of the activity within the design of the lesson (link to Lesson Design)

The immediate impression when hearing the term scientific inquiry is to think of hands-on experiments. However inquiry is done in many ways in science, including reviewing previous experimental data and publications, conducting literature and Internet searches, modeling relationships on computers, and using reasoning and mathematical relationships.

Some of the essential features of inquiry include [see chart above]

- Asking questions. Asking science questions that can be empirically investigated is an important science skill that can be developed intentionally over time.

- Providing evidence…

- Formulating explanations…

- Communicating and justifying explanations..


Role of Laboratory and field experiences in Science Instruction

Laboratory and field activities are often used in inquiry-based instruction, but not all laboratory and field activities are inquiry. Teachers utilize laboratory activities for a variety of purposes::

- Learning investigation skills such as measurement or the procedures for using a microscope.

- Applying concepts or skills that have been learned, such as a confirmation experiment or the application of a formula

- Developing a base of observations for later discussion and/or generating questions

- Designing a device that meets certain criteria

- Learning a concept through discovery

- Pursuing a student generated question

- examining a claim.

Each purpose affects the style and structure of the activity design.

TALK: Reflection & Discussion

  • What are some barriers for using inquiry in instruction and how can they be overcome?

  • What are some strengths and limitations of using inquiry?

  • To what extent are inquiry skills “caught” by students participating in inquiry and to what extent must they be intentionally “taught”? How do you intentionally teach inquiry skills? (see How Students Learn Science)

DO: Action Steps

  • Select a structured laboratory activity that you currently use and analyze it based on the Essential Feature of Inquiry chart. Then alter it to be one or two more steps toward the self-directed side of the chart.

References & Resources

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. National Academies Press. Washington. D.C. [include website]

* National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. National Academies Press. Washington. D.C.

* National Research Council. (2006) America’s Lab Report. National Academies Press. Washington. D.C. Inquiry Within