Building a Community of Inquiry
by Ric Campbell and Kass Hogan
Scientific knowledge building is a collaborative process. Scientists develop ideas by expressing and refining them with other scientists. In a classroom, students can also construct knowledge and skills within a community of peers. Tackling questions together, communicating ideas and results, and convincing others of the validity of conclusions leads to meaningful science learning. KASS HOGAN
What are the ecological consequences of turning a plot of woods and an adjacent field into a parking lot? This is the broad question that framed a fifteen day inquiry for a group of middle school students who were participating in a summer science experience designed, in part, to explore techniques for developing communities of inquiry in science classrooms.
On the first day of the session the students were presented with a challenge to develop an environmental impact statement for the proposed parking lot development. After several days of struggling with defining their problem and the best approach to solving it, the students decided to focus on doing a survey of the existing biological and physical resources. The teacher facilitated this process by suggesting some potential research topics that could lead the group to construct a portrait of the interdependent components of the woods and field habitats through sharing their data. Suggested study topics included a vegetation survey, an insect survey, a survey of small mammals, micro climate and soil testing, and an investigation of decomposers and their actions.
The teacher also led some sessions on general field techniques, such as transect and quadrant sampling. These techniques were especially helpful for groups that chose to do vegetation surveys. Other groups devised their own field methods, such as establishing bait/tracking stations as a way to survey small mammals, and sweep-netting an entire field to determine the diversity and abundance of insects.
Students had an intensive two-hour science class each day, which usually involved some indoor processing of samples and data, as well as outdoor field work. Throughout these sessions, the teacher was a science consultant for the students, and a facilitator of the collaborative inquiry process.
Thinking aloud together
During frequent science conversations students learned to express their ideas and expose them to scrutiny. They also got practice evaluating and building on others ideas. The inquiry group was a place to get thoughts out of their own heads where they may have been spinning unproductively. Through interaction new insights emerged, as group members shared the mental load of problem solving. Day by day, a community of inquiry was woven.
But getting used to talking productively about science took practice. At first, it was easier for students to have short sharing dialogues in pairs, such as the following conversation during the first week of the project:
Yvette: "Were doing the flower survey cause we like flowers, I guess. But it was like, when we got out there, all we ever saw was bushes and stuff."
By sharing their initial failures and subsequent successes, students were validating that its okay, even normal, when things dont work like they want them to during science investigations. They were developing an awareness of the process of authentic inquiry as scientists experience it. Comments about ecological interactions were also beginning to emerge.
On the seventh day students came together to share information about their group research projects. Each person was a member of a different research team. The goal of the mixed sharing groups was for each team member to get a different set of fresh perspectives and ideas. When the groups rejoin to plan their next steps each has input from every member of the class to work with.
David: "Theyre trying to trick us, man. Its like they know we put the bait out there to get their tracks. So they figure out a way to take it without leaving a trace. Nothing."
Writing to inquire
Writing, as well as dialogue, played a central role in building an inquiry community. For instance, several times students were asked to divide the two facing pages of an open notebook into three columns. For ten to fifteen minutes each student wrote quietly. In the first column, they listed observations from their field work. In the second column, next to each observation, they wrote questions about what theyd seen, conjectures about what the observations might mean, statements about things theyd like to find out, and any feelings or reflections that the observation triggered about nature and themselves as scientists.
Each student then passed his/her journal to another student. Another fifteen minutes or so was spent reading and reacting to each others entries. In the third column, the students began a written dialogue with their partner. They asked questions, and supported or offered alternatives to interpretations. When the journals were returned to their owners, everybody read the responses their own observations and ponderings had evoked. Finally, they were asked to take a few minutes to reflect on the writing experience, responding to prompts such as: How did it feel to do this? In what ways did it change your thinking? These reflections were shared with the whole group. Some insights emerged about what happens when we take the time to look at our own experiences in a reflective mode, and through the eyes of others.
Displaying and assessing growth
As the project deadline approached, students gathered portfolios that included their journals and final project reports. They then wrote self-evaluations, and their teacher wrote feedback letters to them. This assessment process centered around the set of goals for development that students had been given early on, targeting the following intellectual and inquiry habits that are fostered through science and writing:
Reflection: the practice of looking back at whats been done.
Thinking things through: pushing observations and initial conclusions a step further.
Sharing with others: hearing your own thoughts and experiences, and the reflections of others, in the context of social exchange.
Noticing: observing carefully and thoroughly, taking note of changes and possible interpretations.
Writing: to record, reflect, and communicate with others.
Asking questions: allowing inquiry to help develop understanding and initiate further investigations.
The experience of working collaboratively paid off when it came time for the students to pull their findings together for a final presentation. They presented their results and recommendations to a panel that included teachers, campus administrators, and local environmental experts. The audience also included peers from a second class that had performed a similar investigation. Davids group followed up its presentation of data with a skit about a tribe of raccoons, decked out in sunglasses, scheming about how to dupe the self-important scientists. They formed a raccoon (i.e., human) chain to lower their leader into the center of a sand box to swipe away bait, tracklessly. Yvettes group displayed beautifully crafted herbarium specimens. Luiss group showed overheads of colorfully rendered insects.
As students celebrated their accomplishments, not the least of which was thinking on their feet in response to tough questions from panelists, the sense of community was palpable. Looking on as adults, it struck us how powerfully young adolescents obsession with their peers can be used in a science context to help them ask questions that lead to further questions, and to open them up to following the lead of their collaborative thinking. .
When we look at natural
For the past three summers Kass and Ric have been the science and language arts coordinators for the Liberty Envionmental Science Academy, a collaboration among Bank Street College, Bard College, and the Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
- Ric Campbell is an earth science teacher at Chatham High School, a Coalition of Essential Schools site in Chatham, New York. He is also an associate with the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking.
- Kass Hogan is an educational research and development specialist at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. She is also the author of Eco-Inquiry.