Ask the Experts: Lori Smolleck on improving science education through inquiry-based teaching

Originally posted: October 13, 2011

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Lori Smolleck, assistant professor of education, discusses how to improve science education through inquiry-based teaching.

Q: In your own scholarly research, and in the classroom with Bucknell’s education students, you emphasize inquiry-based teaching as a way to encourage critical thinking — particularly in science education. What are some of the problems with science education and how can inquiry-based teaching address them?

A: There is a disconnect that exists between the way science is done and the way science is taught. The reality is that schools are driven by tests and test scores. For example, in Pennsylvania, standardized tests have focused on math, reading and the language arts. Because test scores are high stakes for schools and teachers, subject areas such as science, social studies, art and gym have become ‘less important.’ So many times I’ve gone out to observe student teachers, and science was left until the end of the day — if it was taught at all. In fact, science is taught about one-fifth the amount of time as reading and language arts. Just recently, though, the state created norms for science, and students will soon be assessed in science as well as math, reading and language arts.  Although I’m not an advocate for teaching to the test, if being accountable for science assessments brings science back into the classroom, it’s better than not having it at all.

Inquiry-based teaching can improve students’ knowledge of scientific processes and content, which could thereby increase student performance on state assessments. Teaching science as inquiry encourages students to ask their own questions and find their own answers based on evidence. This may take a bit longer, but the rewards associated with increased student motivation and interest, as well as the resulting depth of understanding and the acquisition of sophisticated knowledge of scientific content, are well worth the extra time. Thus, students who have been provided with opportunities to learn science through inquiry may be able to achieve more success on state assessments. Teaching and learning science as inquiry supports the way science is actually done, and it can bring the practice of science and the teaching of science closer together.  The students are empowered and realize they themselves can become scientists. This is especially important for girls given that science is a highly male-dominated field.

Q: This summer you worked with a student researcher to examine how gender stereotypes are perpetuated by pre-service teachers — that is, students who are working toward becoming teachers. What was the focus of your project, and what did you conclude?

A: Most of the research on science teaching suggests that there is a difference between the types and number of questions teachers ask boys versus girls in elementary schools. Specifically, boys tend to be asked higher-level questions more often, and girls receive more factual, recall-type questions that are less complex and require fewer cognitive skills and critical thinking. In our summer research study, Jaclyn Kirna, Class of 2012, and I analyzed 42 science lessons taught by eight different student teachers. In particular, we analyzed each question the pre-service teachers asked of their elementary students in relation to the six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a classification of hierarchal learning categories that are divided according to the cognitive skills students use in the classroom. As such, our goal was to determine if male and female students were provided with equal opportunities to use higher order thinking skills in science classrooms.

We found that, overall, girls and boys were asked very similar numbers of questions. Findings also revealed that when compared to boys, girls had more opportunities to answer questions at all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In addition girls were also asked a greater number of higher order thinking questions when compared to boys. This information is encouraging because these results are different from the existing research and therefore suggest that the gender gap in science is being addressed. However, when we analyzed data according to grade level, results indicated that girls were asked a greater number of questions in the earlier grades, but in the upper grades, the boys received more questions. When you consider the fact that scientific content becomes more sophisticated and complex as one progresses through the grade levels, it’s disheartening to think that girls are not provided with as many opportunities as the boys to answer questions associated with the more difficult content. Educators and professionals in the field of education must continue to investigate the potential explanations for the existence of gender gaps in elementary science education. It is critical that we consider how inquiry-based teaching approaches may improve the types and quantity of questions being asked to students of both genders.

Q: What do you recommend be done to avoid gender bias?

A: In our paper, we recommend that teacher preparation programs include coursework for pre-service teachers in areas such as gender studies and the use of teacher inquiry projects that require pre-service teachers to critically reflect on their own teaching practices and questioning skills. We also encourage professional development for in-service teachers as well. Additionally, we urge educators to think about inquiry as a way to encourage more critical thinking from both students and teachers alike. When teaching and learning science as inquiry, one must use evidence and be thoughtful about constructing explanations that provide strong arguments associated with the investigations being conducted. Teaching and learning science as inquiry will begin to provide students with equal opportunities for critical thinking. Inquiry-based teaching methods are creative and can be individualized by the students and their interests.

Q: What other areas of science education can be improved through inquiry-based teaching?

A: Another main area of my research is the self-efficacy of pre-service teachers. Albert Bandura, who developed the theory of self-efficacy, describes it as consisting of two variables: personal self-efficacy and outcome expectancy. Personal self-efficacy is “a judgment of one’s ability to organize and execute given types of performances, whereas an outcome expectation is a judgment of the likely consequence such performances will produce.” The causal relationship between beliefs and behavior can be applied to elementary science teaching and may begin to explain the disconnect that exists between the way science is taught and the way science is actually done. Furthermore, the influence of self-efficacy can be used to explain the low priority science instruction typically receives in elementary classrooms. Teachers with high self-efficacy are more likely to increase the amount of time they devote to science instruction and are also more likely to teach using reform-oriented methods. The presence of science in elementary schools, particularly inquiry-based science, must increase, and improving the self-efficacy beliefs of teachers is one potential avenue for action.

Inquiry also can be effective for helping children overcome their misconceptions of science. Children typically come into our classrooms holding very tenacious ideas about scientific phenomena or concepts, and these ideas are oftentimes naïve or inaccurate. As such, when students are not provided with the opportunity to replace these misconceptions through exploration, they simply memorize what the teacher tells them about the content as ‘true’, yet simultaneously maintain their misconceptions. Hence, accommodation is never achieved and therefore learning is unsuccessful. For teachers, it’s crucial to research and become familiar with the misconceptions students have and strive to implement experiences that assist students in reconstructing their faulty conceptions of science.

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