Teaching Science – Enquiry Skills

24 May 2021

There is no doubt that a defining feature of science is the pursuit of new knowledge, new insights
and new understanding. Put simply it is the quest to explore, to experiment, find out. Scientists
discover new insights through a number of ways, there is no simple formula for finding out. However
there are particular skills and approaches which appear repeatedly in the process of finding out and
it is through school learning that we hope young people will experience and develop competence in
these skills and processes.

What are these skills and processes?
Let’s start with using measuring instruments, such as a ruler, kitchen scales, thermometer. Each
instrument has a way of use, a user’s manual so to speak. There is also a scale of values from which
measurement and unit are taken. So by first showing learners how to use an instrument and then
offer plenty of practice we have a place to start. Listen to voices to find evidence of competence:
‘Miss, the pencil is 22 cm long’, ‘this beaker can hold 350 ml of water’.
Although it is far better to introduce measuring within a context which requires the measurement,
separating the instrument from a context is perfectly acceptable by way of introduction and a first
experience. Once we know how to use it, then let’s use it.
Recording measurements in a systematic way is a skill. Making use of a table of values for results,
using headed columns and knowing that we must include units all makes for good science practice.
Making sense of results by creating a chart and looking for a pattern or a story which the results
might tell is a higher level skill. Creating a chart requires practice. It involves axes which define a two
dimensional space onto which we can draw bars or put crosses. Again, these skills need to be
illustrated, or modelled by the teacher and taken gradually allowing learners to join in and make
their own charts under supervision.

Graphs and charts can tell stories and by listening to children’s voices you will develop a sense of
how this skill is developing. ‘There is a pattern, it keeps getting longer and longer.’ Or ‘ if we use a
bigger jar, the candle stays alight for longer.’ Such graph and chart stories will start to describe
relationships. We call these relationships between variables: ‘the more we change this…the more
that happens..’

A science investigation requires planning. A sequence of tasks, together with a decision on
equipment, measurements and expected outcomes all form part of the process. I would include
making a hypothesis and evaluating the final process within this broader planning skill set. Once
again, learners need to be supported by teachers in making and sharing simple plans at first.
Planning in a small group to share ideas is an intermediate stage before we can expect a learner to
go through the whole planning process on their own. That’s unlikely to happen before secondary
school.Let’s remember that scientists operate as part of an international community. They attend
conferences, share their findings and look for corroboration from colleagues doing similar work.
Being able to present your science to an audience, both in writing and verbally is a skill not to be
missed. Presentations can be a chance to celebrate achievement as well as to informally assess

To simplify these many enquiry stages it might help to use a three phase structure such as Plan, Do,

The teacher and the apprentice scientist: scaffolding and modelling
I have already alluded to the idea that enquiry skills need to be taught, learned and practised, just
like any skill set such as riding a bicycle, learning to swim of to tie one’s shoelaces. Practice, together
with support from a mentor are critical to this journey to competence. Measuring the length of a sea
shell, for example, requires an understanding that one edge of the shell should line up with the zero
mark on the ruler. The far end will line up with a mark which represents a length. A teacher needs to
explain and demonstrate using a ruler in this way. We can record a measurement, for example :
‘shell length = 12 mm’ or ‘my shell is two centimetres long’. Again a teacher must show how to make
the measurement and record it. So by modelling how to use the instrument and how to record a
result, learners can see what is expected and then copy this example. Such an approach is a form of
scaffolding. What might follow would be a whole set of measurements of other shells to allow for
plenty of practice using the ruler and different units. The same scaffolding approach would be helpful when showing how to create a table of results. In the early stages a pre-drawn table might be given to learners, perhaps with an example included for a first result.

Teachers can also model a thinking process. For example when introducing the idea of a hypothesis
or a prediction a teacher might verbalise their own thinking to the class such as ‘Perhaps if we
change this…then perhaps that might happen’. ‘What do you think?.’. With such an approach the
teacher illustrates the kind of thinking they expect and then hands the mantle over to the learner to
either imitate or develop their own thoughts within the shape of the teacher’s suggestion. This
approach is used throughout the world of learning and is sometimes called a ‘cognitive apprentice’
model. The teacher acting as the ‘master craftsman’ and the learners as apprentices, aspiring to imitate the skills of the master as the master gradually relinquishes their role by taking a step back
and allowing the learners to try for themselves.

The strategies of scaffolding and modelling are transient in their use. Transient by intention. The
idea is for learners to see what is required and then try for themselves. As the teacher support role
fades so the learners can make their own progress in a less supported way, free to be scientific
themselves. However our teacher minds also need to be aware of the longer term nature of these
enquiry skills. There is a sense of progression which lasts throughout primary schooling. The school
curriculum is designed so that we revisit ideas in a cyclic way, each time building new learning on
previous ideas. We might learn about the names of visible parts of our body, arms, legs, eyes, ears in
the early years of schooling. Later we’ll add those less visible organs such as heart and lungs and
later still we’ll link the function of these organs to exercise, oxygen flow etc. And so it is with enquiry
skills. Progression, the gradually increase in complexity of ideas, applies to enquiry skills.

The images above illustrate what I mean by progression. Young learners often use a pictorial
representation of their exploration in science. The pictogram on the left is typical of a set of results
drawn as a picture of, perhaps books or boxes, collected on different days of the week.
Progression beyond the pictogram leads to a second axis against which the height of a bar can be
measured. Bar charts such as this are used whenever the ‘x-axis’ variable, the independent variable,
is described by a word, in this case a day of the week. Finally where both variables are represented
by numbers we might use a graph. The skills of creating axis for a graph are many and it is often the
case that a teacher might scaffold such a task by creating the axes in advance leaving the learners to
add the points and interpret the shape of the line.

My message to teachers is to be aware of just how far your learners have come along their enquiry
journey with regard to each skill area. Have they progressed to bar charts yet? If not then perhaps it
is your task to introduce them. How much work has been done regarding the idea of making a
hypothesis? This can help you to target your teaching at the right place, building on previous work
and establishing progress with a skill area.

Enquiry, exploration and investigation
Finally I’ll close this short piece with a word of caution. The ‘science investigation’ together with the
hypothesis, planning, use of measuring equipment, tables of results and final evaluation of results is
a complex process. No all enquiry needs to look as full and formal as this. Young children visiting a
park or a beach might go exploring just to ‘see what they can find’. Gathering objects, shells or
leaves, to bring back to draw, to describe, to make creative collages with are all part of enquiry for
younger learners. Making sense of a collection of pebbles by grouping them by shape or colour is to
start to make sense of the natural world. To collect, sort and group involves observations and
decision making. So for younger learners let’s build their awareness of the science world gradually.
There will be time for formal charts and measurements at a later stage. For beginner scientists the
sense of wonder and exploration can be just as motivational, just as valuable.

Bob Kibble
Consultant, Author and Trainer
May 2021

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