Research Summary

Inquiry-based science education: towards a pedagogical framework for primary school teachers

A Framework for Guiding Primary School Students through Inquiry-Based Science

International Journal of Science Education

Inquiry-based science education (IBSE) can stimulate students’ interests and active learning, and researchers find that it can also positively affect learning outcomes. In IBSE, the teacher’s role becomes that of a facilitator, supporter, and supervisor as her/his students take on interest- and self-guided inquiry to answer their own research questions. In primary-school classrooms, however, many teachers struggle to guide their students through the inquiry process, leading to a reliance on a top-down approach to inquiry rather than a bottom-up, open-inquiry process.

This study’s authors aimed to understand how primary-school teachers support their students through IBSE. Through analysis of in-class observations and video recordings, the authors developed a framework of successful pedagogical practices for guiding students through open inquiry. From a literature review, the authors identified four domains of scientific knowledge important for open IBSE: conceptual, epistemic, social, and procedural knowledge. They also outlined seven phases that comprise an inquiry cycle: introduction, exploration, designing the investigation, conducting the investigation, conclusion, presentation/communication, and deepening/broadening.

To develop a pedagogical framework that incorporates the four knowledge domains and seven inquiry phases, the authors observed in-class strategies and analyzed video clips of primary-school teachers who received training from a Science Education Hub in the Netherlands. The Science Education Hub at Radboud University has many IBSE projects for primary-school students (ages 10 to 12 years old), developed by teams of scientists, teacher trainers, and pre-service teachers.

The authors analyzed the video clips from seven of these IBSE projects in different primary schools. Each video clip was about eight hours long and showed five to nine inquiry-based lessons. During group work time in the video clips, an interviewer also spoke with the students about the design and conduct of their investigations. The authors qualitatively analyzed the videos to identify the domains addressed by teachers, the students’ responses, and the success of the teachers’ interventions. The authors compared video clips to identify patterns of successful (or unsuccessful) pedagogical interventions. To support the qualitative analysis, the authors compiled a quantitative overview of each of the seven phases of inquiry and the knowledge domains addressed by teachers and students.

Based on their analyses, the authors presented a pedagogical framework that describes the main goals of each phase of inquiry and the specific knowledge domains that teachers should address during each phase to support learning.

• The “introduction” phase serves mainly to spark student interest and increase their understanding of open inquiry.
• The purpose of the “exploration” phase is to connect students’ prior knowledge to the topic under investigation.
• The “designing the investigation” phase focuses on developing specific research questions, creating a research plan, and collecting materials and instruments.
• The purpose of the “conducting the investigation” phase is precise and structured data collection.
• During the “conclusion” phase, the focus is on connecting data to research questions and differentiating results from personal opinions.
• The goal of the “presentation/communication” phase is for the students to present their results to others.
• The purpose of the last phase, “deepening/ broadening,” is to reflect on the inquiry process and broaden understanding of the research topic. During this last phase, teachers should elaborate on all four of the knowledge domains.

The authors found that, when teachers paid attention to the domains, the students were able to move between and within the inquiry phases. The authors also found that specific types of teacher interventions enabled students to proceed more easily through the phases; these included, for example, scaffolding students’ procedural understanding, questioning, connecting concepts, linking prior knowledge, providing hands-on science activities, connecting to everyday concepts, and facilitating collaboration and communication.

The Bottom Line

Open inquiry-based science education can be an effective way to teach primary-school students about different scientific topics and the principles of scientific study. When designing such an approach, using a structure based on the seven systems of inquiry and domains of scientific knowledge is often rewarding. Each of these topics must be connected together so that teachers support students at each level while also connecting each part into a cohesive whole relating to the scientific process.