Open-ended inquiry in practice:
Developing laboratory experiences
Paul Grobstein and Wil Franklin have been collaborating for a number of years on the development of laboratory experiences for college introductory biology courses and working with teachers to develop experiences for precollege education. Here we bring together materials reflecting those experiences. We encourage others to contribute their own experiences and thoughts using the on-line forum below.
A starting point
Science is a way of making sense of the world and the place of humans in it by making observations, generating candidate explanations of those observations, testing the explanations by further observations, and repeating over and over again. In this sense, it is firmly anchored in an unending empirical process that loops repeatedly between observations and interpretations. The loop itself in turn cycles between inductive and deductive steps. Regularities in patterns of observations suggest possible general principles (the inductive step) which in turn are used to generate predictions about observations as yet unmade (the deductive step). The process of generating and testing predictions yields both new ways of making sense of the world and one's place in it and new questions about both. In this important sense, science is not about finding "truth" but instead is a process of continuing inquiry driven equally by curiosity, skepticism, and imagination.
Implications for eduation in general
The underpinnings of science have implications not only for science education but for thinking about learning in general. They suggest that what is of primary importance is to encourage and help students to develop their skills and sophistication in inquiry as a ongoing process, rather than primarily to teach them either particular content or particular skills. This is particularly true in an age when content is widely accessible and particular skills quickly go out of date. The need is not to implant particular material or perspectives in students but rather to help them develop the capacities to evaluate information and to construct for themselves meaningful ways of organizing information.
This is not at all to say that content is irrelevant to the educational process. Content is the fuel for the engine of inquiry, and cannot therefore be ignored. But conveying content is not the primary point of the educational process and so content should be chosen to facilitate the development of inquiry skills rather than starting with content and then trying to present it in a way that also develops inquiry skills.
As for students creating meaning for themselves, it is not solely a function of individual inclination but involves an essential social dimension as well. Interactions with others are important contributors both to creating and to evaluating ways of organizing information. What is being challenged here is not the value of shared knowledge and ways of making sense of information but rather the notion that one should start with shared knowledge and ways of making sense of information. Instead one should allow these commonalities to emerge and evolve in ways that involve the ongoing development of individual understandings.
Open-ended inquiry depends fundamentally on a continuing engagement of individuals with a process whose outcome is not fully determined in advance. It is only through such an engagement that students will acquire enhanced abilities to acquire, evaluate, and find ways to make sense of information themselves.
Implications for open-ended inquiry exercises
- Start with materials that students are interested in, and about which they have both thoughts and questions.
- Prepare scaffolding and guideline appropriate for the sophistication of the students level. More scaffolding for younger students, less or none for older students.
- Encourage students to recognize and share their current understandings of these sorts of materials, and to notice differences in understandings.
- Encourage students to make new observations that are surprising to at least some of them.
- Encourage students to figure out why they are surprised (ie what understanding they had that wouldn't have let them to expect the observation they have made), and what new understandings (stories) would account for previous understandings as well as the new observations.
- Encourage students to make explicit to themselves and others their new understandings and the reasons for them, and to recognize and reflect on differences among them.
- Enourage students to conceive new observations that have the potential to again alter their understandings/stories.