Making Inquiry Elementary

Teaching through inquiry poses special challenges to elementary school teachers. “They often feel they don’t have the freedom to be pedagogically innovative because they don’t have a deep level of scientific knowledge—or because they’re given lesson plans from their district that are highly specified,” says Jeff Nordine, an HHMI-supported professor of science education at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

Nordine gets creative to overcome these hurdles. He runs Trinity’s Science Teaching Institute, a week-long summer workshop for K–5 teachers from a large and predominantly poor district in urban San Antonio. He designed the workshop based on research on effective professional development. For example, teachers are admitted as teams from a single school and only if their school’s principal is on board, because most teachers need support from peers and supervisors to fundamentally change their teaching methods.

What’s more, “we’re very intentional about modeling good instructional practices,” Nordine says. On the first morning of the workshop he walks over to an easel with butcher paper and writes down the big question they’ll ponder that week: “What does great science teaching look like?” Then he asks the teachers what they’d like to learn about science teaching, thereby dividing the big question into smaller ones. Educators call this approach a “driving question board.” It helps make instruction coherent, promoting a deeper understanding of what’s being taught, Nordine says.

Nordine also tells workshop participants about a framework they can use to describe the three key parts of a scientific argument: making a claim (clay is the best insulator), justifying it with supporting evidence (when we heated the bowl, the temperature didn’t change as much as when we used the other two materials), and laying out the reasoning (insulators prevent temperature changes by keeping heat from flowing through the bowl). Back in their classrooms, teachers can use the driving question board, framework, or both to teach science and model good scientific inquiry simultaneously. “Whenever I explain [the framework] to teachers,” Nordine says. “They say things like ‘Yes! I’ve always struggled with that but never knew how to help students make sense of an explanation.’”

-- Dan Ferber
HHMI Bulletin, February 2012

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