The Inquiring Mind
by Jo-Anne Lake
"Did you know that squid give off black dye as a protection against enemies?" This sense of wonderment was realized most recently by my daughter while on a teaching assignment in Singapore. She writes: "The squid had been caught fresh from the ocean the previous night. The ocean and the deck became covered with this dye as the evening wore on."
Wonderment stimulates questions that unlock the door to understanding science and the world around us. I have observed this sense of wonder and curiosity about the world through the eyes of the children in my classes.
Wonderment can captivate and challenge our senses. Watching my one year old grandsons endless curiosity as he looks, tastes, feels, smells and listens, I hear his song. What is this? What does it taste like? What does it do? How does it feel? The construction of a world view is never complete. It continues throughout an individuals lifetime. Questions evolve from observing what is happening in the world around us.
An important outcome of science activities is student generated questions. Students in my class ask: Can birds tell each other apart by their call? When a woodpecker pecks at a tree does it hurt his head? Is a caterpillar an insect? Can bees see flowers or are they like ants and sense where they are? How come a spinning top stays in the same spot when it spins?
Their questions are endless. As teachers we need to acknowledge their innate ability to formulate questions as we establish an inquiry climate. Children are already familiar with the inquiry process through their experiences with play. They rise to the occasion when provided opportunities to continue their natural inclination towards inquiry learning. They can then incorporate higher level thinking skills into the learning process.
Using inquiry methods
The teachers role is to learn how to use inquiry methods to develop logical thinking skills. A successful method is the "group work method." Here the students sit around tables in groups of four to eight and work together on their questions. In contrast to the teacher dominating the discussion, in this environment every student is encouraged to take part. The students ask and seek understanding to the questions they see as interesting and important.
For example, to discuss, "What is a mammal?" a teacher might provide the children with three sets of pictures: one of mammals, one of animals that are not mammals and one of animals that have some characteristics of mammals. Through observation and discussion the students can describe the characteristics of a mammal. This conceptual understanding arrived at through assessment of concrete materials and dialogue will help the children to meet the challenges of the future.
Value childrens views
As teachers we need also to value the nature and detail of childrens views of their world and begin to understand their inventive meanings for words and ideas used in science. In a grade one class the students observed what happened to the popcorn kernels when immersed in baking soda and vinegar. One student replied, "When the bubbles form on the top of the container the popcorn kernels on the bottom rise to the top and fix themselves to the bubbles. Its like a magnet!"
Children form their own ideas about natural phenomena before engaging in science experiences in the classroom. Relying on their imagination, prior experiences, and new information and events, children construct meaning. Through the interaction of their observations, children can articulate their conceptual understandings in a personal way. Often childrens ideas are very different from those perceived in the scientific community. Inquiry teaching and the capacity to appreciate students understandings of classroom activities related to science go hand in hand.
As teachers, our role is to observe, seek, and listen to information about the way in which students understand particular scientific ideas and use these observations to modify and extend their thoughts to make learning more meaningful. We also need to inspire an interest in science and help students grow toward a better understanding of these newly acquired concepts.
Science and childrens literature
Using childrens literature with a science focus allows children to bring their own background of experiences to the text and extend their understanding of concepts and skills in an activity-based program. This language-based approach to science instruction helps teachers link their language arts skills and science learning. Science books provide children with a chance to stretch their imaginations and explore many areas of science.
Using this literature-based approach to science a teacher of junior division students writes, " I shared The Secret Garden with my class this year and for our special hideaway spot we all adopted a tree. The children watched that tree go through all its seasonal changes observing the many different homes it provided for living things.
Linking science focused childrens literature with hands-on investigation is an excellent method to build an inquiry environment. Science-focused literature provides numerous learning opportunities, including: introducing science concepts, encouraging subject integration, providing teachers with current information, helping children make associations and draw relationships, encouraging activity-based science experiments, providing multi-sensory experiences, providing motivation to learn, promoting understanding and providing a catalyst to link skills. Childrens literature provides unlimited opportunities for science to be happening in the classroom.
Start small, think big
This statement is not new, however it is quite often ignored. In building an inquiry environment small changes are better than no change at all. Try beginning by setting up a small space in your classroom for discovery.
In my classroom it is called a discovery corner. Each week the students are invited to take turns bringing in an unusual object for observation. A box sits on the table with an invitation for the students to write down any questions they have about the object throughout the week. At the end of the week students get into pairs and select a question to search. They use related literature and hands-on resources to do their investigations. They generate personal meanings by exploring, testing and building. Their observations raise questions which lead to further observation, experience and questioning. The advantage of the discovery method is that it allows students to learn as much as their skill and interest permits.
This idea was initiated by the primary division teachers in my school. Science experiences were almost non-existent in their classrooms. Teachers felt insecure about their knowledge and application of the science concepts however they felt it was important to expose their children to the world of science. They set aside Tuesdays to focus on science. Each teacher used a different strategy to encourage children to have fun in learning science. Teachers demonstrated simple experiments and invited student generated questions. Children learned to ask questions and search for answers through the use of literature and hands-on instruments. No longer is science confined to Tuesdays at our school. Science is happening daily!
There are many fresh ideas for early beginnings in developing the inquiring mind. Whatever method you choose is a start in the right direction. When students say, "I love science because it makes me think," you will know you are on the right track! .
- Jo-Anne Lake has explored approaches to helping children learn in imaginative ways for some 30 years as a teacher, consultant, and vice principal in Canada. Jo-Anne is the author of Imagine: A literature-based approach to science, and of Lifelong Learning Skills: How to teach today's children for tomorrows skills. Her most recent book is Literature & Science Breakthroughs.