Making Inquiry Labs Work
Last year, I wrote a post about making labs work in the classroom. I’d like to follow that up with a more specific post on inquiry labs.
Inquiry labs come in many flavors: guided, scaffolded, structured, and open (or full). These exist along a continuum from very teacher directed to very student directed. More open is not necessarily better; even as a teacher who is very committed to inquiry-based learning, I very rarely provide true “open inquiry” type activities. Part of that is logistics, part of it is crowd management, part of it is curriculum restraints. But I have established some really successful strategies for smooth guided inquiry experiences.
1. Students should already be very comfortable using appropriate measurement protocols. If students are struggling to understand how to measure a dependent variable, or are trying to simultaneously learn new equipment and develop a procedure, they are going to be too frustrated to be productive. My first year of teaching, I made the mistake of trying to teach them a procedure while they were also designing their own investigations, and it was a bit of a mess. Some teachers do that and then decide inquiry is nonsense. But it just takes some careful scaffolding.
2. Being organized and intuitive with equipment goes a long way. In my room, all of the lab benches are numbered, and I have these lovely numbered bins. A couple of class days before data collection, groups are required to submit materials to me on an index card. This way I can vet their list and get an idea of what they are planning to do at a glance. Plus I can easily drop the cards in the bins and fill them with the requested supplies. I also keep a pile of extra/related equipment in a communal space for groups who forgot to ask for something essential or groups who realize that a particular piece of equipment would help. There’s a school of thought about penalizing students who turn in “incomplete” materials list, but I think that having to ask me specifically for a thing is accountability enough. In a real lab they’d be able to go to a stockroom anyway.
3. The question being investigated—whether posed by you or by them—needs to be excruciatingly clear. Repeat it ad nauseam. Write on the board. Use it as a warm-up and an exit ticket. Walk around and verbally quiz them about it. If they don’t know what they are investigating, they will quickly lose sight of the big picture and become frustrated. Or they’ll just end up playing with chemicals for 40 minutes and not actually get any science out of it.
4. Accountability is pretty huge. Most of my more open inquiry labs culminate in a high-point value lab report. There are lots of ways to build in accountability, but my students go into these student-designed investigations with a sense of urgency about the data. They need the data for the lab report. They need to know what they’re doing for the lab report. And they need to understand their data in terms of science content for the lab report.
5. Differentiation! One of my favorite things about these exercises is that differentiation becomes really easy to orchestrate. For the lab I did today, there were three potential independent variables to investigate and they ranged in conceptual difficulty. I could assign the more straightforward temperature question to groups who have been struggling with the biology, and the more complex substrate concentration problem to groups who have been excelling.
6. Time management. A student designed lab is going to take longer than a teacher designed lab even if the procedures are very similar. The students will need more time to orient themselves, more time to discuss with each other, time to trouble-shoot and re-think and re-test. If they feel pressed for time, they will get stressed out or frantic and they won’t be paying attention to the meaning of the lab.
7. Talking. You need to talk your students through this stuff. Circulate, ask questions, encourage, challenge, etc. Being a constant presence on the lab side goes a long way for creating a productive and focused lab environment, and it can help students feel supported. It can also help students feel that their lab work is worthwhile and valued. And you overhear really cool things sometimes, like kids making informal predictions about what the next trial will look like, or kids challenging each other on procedure, or kids comparing data and wondering about the trends they’re seeing. It’s fascinating.
Not every topic is appropriate for inquiry work, and not every population can engage in inquiry in the same way, but every student-directed lab I’ve taught has been a worthwhile experience.