The meaning of science inquiry: what do teachers think?

By Heather King - August 2011


Gyllenpalm, J., Wickman, P-O. & Holmgren, S-O. (2009). Teachers’ language on scientific inquiry: Methods of teaching or methods of inquiry? International Journal of Science Education 32(9), 1151–1172.

Educators have long been urged to facilitate inquiry as a way of enhancing learners’ understanding of science beyond that of basic concepts and skills. But in what ways do educators themselves understand the nature of inquiry and specifically the key terms of hypothesis and experiment? In this study, the authors report on a study examining 12 secondary-school teachers’ understanding of inquiry and related terms, and also their use of such practices in their everyday teaching. The findings indicate that the teachers in this study did not have a good understanding of the term hypothesis and defined experiment in very simplistic terms such that it was regarded as synonymous with testing or doing something without knowing what will happen. When asked about inquiry, these teachers responded by talking about the products of science rather than emphasizing the processes of scientific inquiry. Such a finding suggests that ambiguity exists amongst teachers regarding key terms in contemporary reform documents.

The study’s findings clearly point to the need to clarify the meanings of terms and distinguish between the scientific practice of inquiry, and the approaches used by educators to teach content. The findings also highlight the need for informal sector practitioners – particularly those engaged in teacher professional development or in direct interaction with learners – to have a strong understanding of inquiry and to be familiar with common misconceptions around key terms.

The authors’ study, conducted in Sweden, involved interviewing 12 secondary-school teachers of varying experience. The teachers were asked to bring an example from their own teaching that they thought represented an instance of scientific inquiry. Probing questions were then asked with regards to the meaning and use of certain words, such as hypothesis and experiment. The teachers were found to use hypothesis as meaning an educated guess about what might happen. Experiment was seen as synonymous with laboratory work. Further, they found that the teachers did not consider an understanding of scientific inquiry – its nature or the process involved – as conceptual knowledge. Rather they saw it as a pedagogical approach for learning about the content of science involving certain methods of teaching – which the teachers themselves described as lab work, and investigations or experiments without differentiation.

In their discussion of these findings, the authors acknowledge that words and expressions often evolve over time, and that some words have conflicting everyday and scientific meanings. Nonetheless, they argue the incorrect usage of key terms seriously impacts on learners’ understanding of key concepts. As examples of this misuse of terms, they note that scientific knowledge is theory-laden and as such hypotheses in science are based on theoretical assumptions and the results of previous enquiries: they are not guesses. Moreover, hypothesis are constructed in an attempt to explain phenomena. A controlled experiment, meanwhile, is a way of assessing whether a hypothesis is fruitful or not, and different types of controls are used in different experimental set ups, for example double-blind and quasi experiments.

The study includes a short review on the nature of science and nature of inquiry. Key findings in the literature, such as the need for learners to be explicitly guided on the nature of inquiry (Abd-El Khalick and Lederman, 2000) and the role of theories, models, and hypotheses, are emphasized. Further, the process of inquiry and key terms associated with each stage are discussed. In sum, this study serves to remind educators of the nature of inquiry; to recognize common ways in which they may conflate or misconstrue key terms associated with inquiry; and to acknowledge the importance of language when teaching science.

Reference cited:

Abd-El Khalick, F., & Lederman, N. (2000). Improving science teachers’ conceptions of nature of science: A critical review of the literature. International Journal of Science Education 22(7), 665–701.