Monday, January 17, 2011

Jargon alert: "The Scientific Process of Inquiry"

I read this on the website of a local teacher who teaches *all* the science grades 6-9 at their school:
"This year we will use the process of scientific inquiry to..."
I'm sorry... the what!? The process of scientific inquiry? "The," as in, "there can be only one?" Or that there is one at all that scientists might use?

Now, I know that that particular term is nothing new to the teacher whose website I am reading. But to be honest, when I read these words, I get the sense that it's just meaningless jargon meant placate people. And here's why: ask 100 science teachers what inquiry is, and you'll get 100 different definitions. Ask the most informed of science education leaders in the country what the scientific process is, and they'll likely tell you it's a mirage about what scientists do; and that real science does not follow a single process, but is often times the scientist doing whatever s/he can however s/he can to try and answer a question. (Read more here: [link]. The article is on the bottom of page 1.)

So since educators have no agreement on inquiry and experts disregard a "process" of science, what the heck could be meant by the process of scientific inquiry?

Skeptically assuming is at least well-intentioned jargon, I look at the assignment lists for the year... day after day after day in ever subject and of every grade level I see "read pages..." and "answer questions..." and "review pages..."

Whatever the original authors of the term process of scientific inquiry meant, it is clear that the phrase has been hijacked by textbook publishers and teachers to make people think that by reading a textbook there is any real science learning happening at all.

But there is a lesson to all of us in this phrase. If we advertise that we teach "the scientific method" or that we teacher "inquiry science" in our classrooms is meaningless information for people. At best it impresses the socks off our audience through its meaninglessness. At worst it masks an instructor's misunderstanding of how science is done and how it is learnt.

Dare I say it? I dare. But at least I will qualify it with the phrase, "I believe."

I believe that science inquiry instruction is teaching in any fashion and with any tools or techniques necessary so that students are constructing their scientific understanding of a phenomenon based upon evidence all the while evaluating their original preconceptions of how or why the phenomenon happened against the evidence.

It is not about the particular journey, but about the critical thinking that brings someone to their understanding.

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