Teaching families the skills of inquiry

By Heather King - March 2011


Allen, S., & Gutwill, J. P. (2010). Creating a program to deepen family inquiry at interactive science exhibits. Curator: The Museum Journal52(3), 289–306.


Many informal science institutions design exhibits to encourage inquiry and experimentation. But the authors of this paper suggest that often museums have found that visitors lack the expertise or confidence to engage in coherent inquiry. They report here on their efforts to equip visitors with key inquiry skills through providing families and groups with focused trainings on how to use inquiry-based exhibits.

The wider project, named GIVE (Group Inquiry by Visitors at Exhibits) sought to help families ask and answer their own questions at novel exhibits. At first, the project team created a set of six inquiry skills derived from the [school-based] literature and informed by the learner-directed values of informal learning settings. These skills were:

  1. Exploration (observation and unstructured experimentation)
  2. Question generation
  3. Generation of multiple alternative models
  4. Choice of explanatory model with empirical or theoretical justification
  5. Significance (making personal connections)
  6. Metacognitive self-assessment ("but what we still don't know is . . .")

However, from the evaluation of the initial sessions it was clear that participants either did not remember the skills or, if they perceived them to be too difficult, did not use them. Skills 3 and 4 were found to be particularly challenging, which accords with previous research findings which report visitor explanations to one another as being brief and partial and rarely leading to well-developed scientific argumentation. Skill 5 was dropped as participants reported that it did not fit easily into the inquiry sequence. Skill 1 on the other hand, was found to be so natural that it did not need emphasizing, and skill 6 was folded into the activity rather than being a separate step.

The project team thus focused on two skills: proposing a question (preferably one that none in the group knew the answer to, and yet could be answered at the exhibit) and interpreting a result at the end of the experimentation. They then designed pedagogical structures to support the targeted inquiry skills. These included the use of questions and prompts within game activities with rules and printed cards allowing the facilitator to "fade away" as the group became more confident. Separate roles for each group member to facilitate group collaboration were also used.

The team found that the activities could be learned within a timeframe of 20–30 minutes and that they were enjoyable. Most significantly, the groups trained in such skills were found to spend more time at exhibits, use one or both inquiry skills (ask a question or interpret a result) more often and conduct more investigations building on prior results in a coherent way.

The authors acknowledge that the training may not be appropriate for large groups and that the process is costly. They also note that the program may be difficult to implement in the chaotic environment of a public museum floor. However, they note that the program could be modified for use by visiting school groups, where adults leaders are often seeking structures to support focused learning.

The authors also note that such skills may not be appropriate for living collections (zoos, wildlife parks). They do not address natural history specimens. Other researchers, however, have explored ways of supporting natural history inquiry and have found that the key skills required are observation of features, reflection on and comparison of features, and speculation on the use of such features or the evolutionary relationship of specimens (see King, 2009).