Developing Student-Centered Inquiry

A standard light emitting diode (LED)

While inquiry always seems to be a hot topic, especially in science education, I had a nagging suspicion that I really wasn’t doing too much of it in my classroom.  I set a goal for myself to attempt to create inquiry driven instances for my students during the 2009-2010 school year.  This post represents a distillation of my observations and ideas that have grown from my experience developing these activities throughout the school year.

A bit of background and a personal belief:  what you will see below relates to specific spiraled content around course goals which are common to my department, and while they are scientific in nature, I firmly believe that the methodologies I employed in the curricular design could be applied to any course.

Just like everyone else involved in education, I had previously identified aspects of my course that needed revision.  For me, it was a unit that fell within the Modern Physics portion of the Conceptual Physics course that I was teaching which focused on atomic theory, quantum phenomena, properties of light and materials on the nano scale.  Based on prior student feedback, I knew that this was a tedious unit.  So, I decided to start here.

To start off, I tried to think of a real-world point of view which would encompass a majority of the topics that I wanted to address, rather than working through each topic traditionally.  It seemed logical that all of the topics could be spiraled effectively around a central theme.  I ended up selecting light emitting diodes as the basis of investigation.

Time for day 1 of the “experiment” in inquiry.  Students had 60 minutes to accomplish a few basic tasks, all framed around a central question: “How does an LED work?”.  They needed to first determine how to set up a circuit to light a LED and then record the minimum voltage needed to light the LED.  Students then were to brainstorm questions which integrated what they had discovered about the LEDs through their cursory exposure, and which could lead to further investigations, with the end goal being their ability to address the problem question “How does a LED work?”.

Here are their questions from Day 1:


By the end of the 85 minute class period, it was clear that the students were engaged, curious and fascinated by these little plastic lights which only worked in very specific ways, and which all had different colors.  I had them hooked!

In the days that followed, I developed lab activities precipitated by the questions generated during my students’ initial exposure to LEDs.  The general overview for their experience was:

Day 1: LED Lab, Part I & brainstorm (File: cplab08s(Part I) )

Day 2: LED lab, Part II (File: cplab08s(Part II) )

Day 3: POGIL: Semiconducting Materials (File: POGIL – Materials )

Day 4: LED lab, Part III (File: cplab08s(Part III) )

Day 5: POGIL: E/M Waves (File: POGIL – EM Spectrum )

Day 6: Wrap-up and overall analysis

Day 7: Quiz (Summative Assessment)

At the end of the experience (based upon student responses on lab work and the summative quiz) it was clear that students felt invested in their learning experience around LEDs.  End of semester feedback from students further confirmed that they enjoyed being in control of their learning experience.

So, if you’ve read this far, you’d probably like to know what new whiz-bang methodology I’ve developed as a result of this (and others which I will share later if there is interest) experimentation.  I make no claim to being an expert in curriculum design, but this works, so use it if you like.

Task, Test, Think, Thesis

A quick breakdown of the method:

TASK: Initially this is a general problem that you want your students to address through inquiry.  My TASK from the LED unit was to successfully address the question: “How does a LED work?”.

TEST:  This is not assessment, but rather a chance for students to examine notions that they may have regarding their quest to find answers to the problem presented in the TASK.  This could mean researching, experimenting, interviewing, etc.

THINK:  Once students have begun to explore possible answers to the TASK, they need to take the time to process the information they have gathered.  In my science classes, this takes the form of small group discussions and POGIL activities, which act as conduits to funnel the information students have gathered within the lab within the context of appropriate course content.

RE: This is perhaps the most important piece of the entire methodology.  If students are required to be critical thinkers, then they need to be multi-modal in their analysis of the TASK.  In the case of the LED units, students discovered that LEDs can also act as photovoltaic cells, which completely reshaped their mindset.

THESIS:  Ah, the end goal…can students coherently address the problem?  The THESIS is where students are assessed.

Using this methodology worked so well in my science classes that I ended up presenting on Developing Student-Centered Inquiry to my colleagues this spring.  The prezi can be found here.

I’d love to know how you “do” inquiry in your classroom.  Please share in the comments or email me directly.

Note:  If you are a science teacher, please feel free to use and share these lab activities with your colleagues.

UPDATE: Well, what started as a series of exercises has transformed into a full blown Curriki unit!  I have taken my original lab activities, POGIL group discussions, and related assessments and compiled them into a cross-curricular unit titled, “The Science of Light Emitting Diodes”, to be included as part of the Curriki Summer of Content Program.  Please do check out the Instructor-centered materials and let me know your feedback!  I have written detailed instructions for teachers as well as included “how-tos”  for students who may not have done a POGIL group activity before.

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4 responses to “Developing Student-Centered Inquiry

  1. Standard social studies inquiry involves three steps:
    1-Pose question
    2-Research Question
    3-Share conclusion and evidence supporting it

    With that as a start…

    Each of my units tend to follow a similar pattern…
    1-We start off talking about a current situation
    2-Connect it to a historical problem
    3-Research the historical situation
    4-Determine what we can learn from the historical situation and apply to current situation
    5-Present conclusion that will determine future of current situation

    So an oversimplified example of a unit might be:
    1-What are the greatest problems facing teenagers
    2-Examine the Progressive Era and how/why/what people did to change problems in 19th C society–what worked, what didn’t, etc
    3-Research people, methods that you think were most effective
    4-Propose a plan to solve current problem
    5-Send proposal to whoever would have ability to make that changes happen (from Obama to CEO) Written with multi-media

    Kind of a brief explanation…but something along those lines occurs each unit 😉

  2. Hi Phil, I meant to respond a few days ago–better late than never.

    Back in my English teaching days, much of what I did bore a resemblance to inquiry-based learning, with a classroom based largely around discussion. The epitome of this approach is the Harkness discussion. As a side note, when I was teaching in Rhode Island, the Harkness had been so successful in English and history classrooms that several science teachers were working to adapt the Harkness for their own use. I generally used Harknesses (or Harkni, if you prefer) at the end of a work of literature or at the end of a section of a larger work or at the end of a unit. I know they are sometimes used more or less constantly, but that wasn’t my experience. In a nutshell, it looked like this:

    1) At least one day before the Harkness, students generated questions. Sometimes I let these questions stand as they were, but generally there were too many questions for the group to address effectively, so I worked to select, edit, and combine questions to narrow things down a bit. If the class needed it and time permitted, it was useful to do this winnowing process with the students as an exercise in generating discussion questions–i.e questions that are open enough to generate discussion (as opposed to yes/no) and yet that are answerable beyond mere opinion.
    2) In any case, it is important that the students have the questions at least the day before so that they can prepare for the discussion. Students were required to prepare written notes addressing some or all of the questions, including relevant quotations. After the discussion, these notes were collected for a grade.
    3) On the day of the discussion, the students are completely responsible for the discussion, both its content and its smooth operation. The class receives a collective grade for the quality of the discussion.
    4) For me, giving feedback that was timely and pertinent was essential. During the discussion, I took notes AND recorded the discussion, so that I could give detailed notes about what went well and what would have made the discussion better. These notes were of two kinds: first, a note to the class as a whole, and then a separate note to each student, addressing both their role in the discussion and their preparation as shown through their prepared notes.

    I realize it’s not quite the same as what you’re doing, but I hope the relationship is evident: it’s important for students to generate the questions that will be at the heart of the discussion and it’s important that the students have ownership of the discussion.

    Since the Harkness, for me, has been a culminating activity, it is typically followed in just a few days by an essay–typically the Harkness discussion will inform the essays, but now they’re on their own.

  3. Paul–

    I know you were simplifying your approach down to its basics, but I was wondering whether it has any sort of looping like Phil’s chart did? If not, I think your process could benefit from some built-in criticism. For instance, after step 4, there could be some kind of feedback/discussion among students in order to push them deeper, questioning exactly how applicable specific aspects of their historical examples may be to the problem under discussion or finding practical problems with their proposed solutions that need to be addressed to deepen and strengthen their conclusions.

    There’s just something in me, I guess, that wants to keep students a little uncomfortable with their assumptions going in and their first thoughts on a matter so that they can learn to be not only critical thinkers but self-critical thinkers.

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