When is Inquiry Problem Solving and

When is Problem Solving Inquiry?

Marcia Fetters, Caroline Beller, Paul Hickman

 

If a single word had to be chosen to describe the goals of science education during the 30-year period that began in the late 1950s, it would have to be inquiry (DeBoer, 1991, p.206). But what is inquiry?  Is there a common definition of this term that all involved in science education agree on?  How is the definition similar or different from problem solving (another phrase used commonly is science education literature)?  This paper invites the reader along in our exploration of how these phrases are used in the science education (including K-12 settings), science discipline and engineering communities.

 

Where Did This Question Come From?

The authors started this exploration during the PhysTEC 3rd annual meeting, held during the summer of 2002. PhysTEC (funded through NSF and FIPSE grants) is a program to improve the science preparation of future K-12 teachers. It aims to help physics and education faculty work together to provide an education for future teachers that emphasizes a student-centered, hands-on, inquiry-based approach to learning science (PhysTEC, 2002).  This is in close alignment with mandates given to the science education community in the National Science Education Standards. The National Science Teacher Association’s “Standards for Science Teacher Preparation” (1998) states the following standards for inquiry in a science education program.  Inquiry in relations to the standards includes:

¨     Questioning and formulating solvable problems.

¨     Reflecting on, and constructing, knowledge from data.

¨     Collaborating and exchanging information while seeking solutions.

¨     Developing concepts and relationships from empirical experience.

 

Accredited institutions are asked to provide documentation on how they are meeting these guidelines.  Institutions and programs are expected to provide indicators that define these standards for their institution, descriptions of learning experiences that support these standards and assessment data on how their teacher education candidates implement these standards.

Among the “National Science Education Standards” (National Research Council, 1996) are Professional Development Standards which state science teacher preparation should:

¨     Address teachers’ needs as learners and build on their current knowledge of science content, teaching and learning.

¨     Use inquiry, reflection, interpretation of research, modeling, and guided practice to build understanding and skill in science teaching. (p. 62)

 

At the third annual Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) meeting, three science educators were listening to a discussion of inquiry and problem solving. The audience consisted of physics educators, science educators, and several high school physics teachers. During the discussion everyone was nodding in agreement that inquiry and problem solving should be an integral part of the program. As the discussion continued it became clear, at least to three of the science educators, that the same language was being used but that there were different meanings and applications for these terms.  As a result of this observation, the science educators began collecting definitions of inquiry and problem solving from a range of audiences. Many were from undergraduate science students and education students and others were physics and science education faculty. Their definitions were as varied and vague as those of the experts.

 

From the Literature

The National Science Education Standards (1996) describe inquiry as a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations (p. 23). Chiapetta and Koballa (2002) describe inquiry as finding out about something. It centers around the desire to answer a question or to know more about a situation (p. 91). Sunal and Sunal (2003) define inquiry as the method by which students construct meaning as they learn science (p.13). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (2000) states, after researching inquiry-based science teaching, that “this research suffers from the lack of a shared, precise definition of Inquiry…” (p.124). If the experts have been and still are having difficulties defining inquiry, how can those of us in science and science education classrooms convey the importance of inquiry to our students.   Even when there appears to be agreement about what “inquiry” is the literature provides of with variations of inquiry based teaching. The National Research Council (2000) highlights these variations in a chart titled "Essential Features of Classroom Inquiry and Their Variations"

·       Essential Feature

Variations

·       Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions

Learner poses a question

Learner selects among questions, poses new questions

Learner sharpens or clarifies question provided by teacher, materials, or other source.

Learner engages in question provided by teacher, materials, or other source

·       Learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions

Learner determines what constitutes evidence and collects it

Learner directed to collect certain data

Learner given data and asked to analyze

Learner given data and told how to analyze

·       Learner formulate explanations from evidence

Learner formulates explanations after summarizing evidence

Learner guided in process of formulating explanations from evidence

Learner given possible ways to use evidence to formulate explanation

Learner provided with evidence

·       Learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge

Learner independently examines other resources and forms the links to explanations

Learner directed toward areas and sources of scientific knowledge

Learner given possible connections

 

·       Learner communicates and justifies explanations

Learner forms reasonable and logical argument to communicate explanations

Learner couched in development of communication

Learner provided broad guidelines to use, sharpen communication

Learner given steps and procedures for communication.

More --------------- Amount of Learner Self-Direction ---------------- Less

Less --------- Amount of Directions from Teacher or Material --------- More

Page 29 National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press

The same vagueness in the definitions for problem solving was observed. Ebenezer and Connor (1998) define problem solving as an important strategy for constructing and negotiating meaning while Sunal and Sunal (2003) say that “Problem solving is a thinking strategy that attempts to resolve a difficulty.” (p. 90).  Problem solving, according to Principles and Standards for School Mathematics published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000), means engaging in a task for which the solution method is not known in advance (p. 52). According to Helgeson (1989,1994), problem solving is often used synonymously with inquiry and science process skill reasoning.

Rarely do two definitions say the same thing.

 

Personal Definitions

Definitions collected from pre-service teachers, science educators and scientists revealed similar ambiguity in the definitions and interpretations.  How would you categorize the following statements, Inquiry or Problem-Solving?  Key of “correct” answers provided at the end of the paper.

Statement #1

The process of starting from your own observations to develop an understanding of a concept. The most open [kind of this…] _____ would start out with deciding what concept you wanted to explore. To ask a question: to figure out what observation you need to make to answer the question, to interpret your observations to create models that not only explain what you saw but predicted something else you might see.

Statement #2

_____ is the curiosity of the mind in action. The ability to question...

Statement #3

Addressing a situation, occasionally having to determine what the outcome needs to be, but usually with that defined, and determining how to achieve that outcome. This usually involves comparing the situation to previous experiences, identifying similarities and differences

Statement #4

To take a systematic approach to a task.

 

Analysis of the definitions collected reveals that individuals will often use the word to be explained in the definition, for example: "Problem solving is working to solve a problem."  In other cases, individuals would use inquiry or problem solving in the definition of the other phrase, for example:  "To solve a problem a student must use the skills of inquiry to explore all the variables of the problem."

 

Discussion, Implications and Questions

A review of the literature and initial analysis of collected definitions indicate that while a wide range of audiences use the terms inquiry and problem solving clear and precise definitions of the terms is elusive.  Multiple definitions are routinely used for both terms and often the terms are used interchangeably.  To explore this phenomena the authors presents the statements listed above, plus 8 additional statements to participants at an interactive panel discussion of the Association for the Education of Teachers of Science.  Participants were presented with the individual definitions gathered and asked to evaluate the statement as far as intent as one of the following:  Problem Solving, Inquiry, Neither, Both.  For one of the quotes, the author was a member of the audience (a methods text author).  The same set of statements and task was presented to members of the PhysTEC community during the 4th Annual PhysTEC Conference. Complete agreement on the intent of the author was not evidenced for any of the statements..  The following table summarizes the results:


 

Statement

*******

Author/ Intent

AETS Interpretation

*note some participants ripped dots in half

PhysTEC Interpretation

1.    The process of starting from your own observations to develop an understanding of a concept. The most open [kind of this…] _____  would start out with deciding what concept you wanted to explore. To ask a question: to figure out what observation you need to make to answer the question, to interpret your observations to create models that not only explain what you saw but predicted something else you might see.

********

Scientist/Inquiry

PS = 0

Inquiry = 20

Both = 4

Neither = 0

PS = 5

Inquiry = 16

Both = 7

Neither = 1

2.    _____  is the curiosity of the mind in action. The ability to question...

********

Middle School Pre-service Teacher/ Inquiry

PS = 0

Inquiry = 13.5

Both = 2

Neither = 7

PS = 1 overlapped with a 1 Inquiry (Venn diagram like?)

Inquiry = 14 (includes the one overlapped with PS)

Both = 5

Neither = 10

3.    Addressing a situation, occasionally having to determine what the outcome needs to be, but usually with that defined, and determining how to achieve that outcome. This usually involves comparing the situation to previous experiences, identifying similarities and differences.

********

Scientist/Problem Solving

PS = 13

Inquiry = 0

Both = 9

Neither = 0

PS = 13

Inquiry = 0

Both = 6

Neither = 7

4.    Using whatever tools one knows how to use in order to implement a solution to a given hypothesis.

********

Middle School Pre-service Teacher/ Problem Solving

PS = 15

Inquiry = 0

Both = 5

Neither = 3

PS = 20

Inquiry = 0

Both = 6

Neither = 3


 

Statement

*******

Author/ Intent

AETS Interpretation

*note some participants ripped dots in half

PhysTEC Interpretation

5.    When you look into something. You take time out to examine something or learn about it.

********

Elementary Pre-service Teacher/ Inquiry

PS = 2

Inquiry = 11

Both = 7

Neither = 4

PS = 0

Inquiry = 12

Both = 8

Neither = 7

6.    Exploring some event or idea and trying to understand it.

********

Physics Major/ Inquiry

PS = 1

Inquiry = 22.5

Both = 1

Neither = 3

PS = 0

Inquiry = 22

Both = 4

Neither = 2

7.    _________ as a teaching strategy embodies most of the techniques and learning skills science educators consider important when learning science by investigative methods.

********

Science Educator/ Problem Solving

PS = 5

Inquiry = 13

Both = 3

Neither = 3

PS = 1

Inquiry = 6

Both = 13

Neither = 9

8.    To take a systematic approach to a task.

********

Elementary Pre-service Teacher/ Problem Solving

 

PS = 15

Inquiry = 0

Both = 4.5

Neither = 5

PS = 5

Inquiry = 2

Both = 13

Neither = 9

9.    Trying to fix something, or some situation.

********

Biology Major/Problem Solving

PS = 17

Inquiry = 0

Both = 4

Neither = 6

*2 indicates 1/2 B&E

PS = 13

Inquiry = 1

Both = 5

Neither = 11

10. Doing hands on things.  Getting messy in science

********

Geology Major/Inquiry

PS = 0

Inquiry = 4

Both = 1.5

Neither = 20.5

PS = 0

Inquiry = 3

Both = 4

Neither = 20


 

Statement

*******

Author/ Intent

AETS Interpretation

*note some participants ripped dots in half

PhysTEC Interpretation

11. In school science, _________  refers to how students attempt to develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas.  Through activities, students learn how scientists go about studying the world, communicate with one another, and, through consensus, propose explanations for how the world works.

********

Science Educator/Inquiry

PS = 0

Inquiry = 19.5

Both = 4

Neither = 2.5

PS = 0

Inquiry = 19

Both = 6

Neither = 3

12. _____ is taking systematic approach to exploring something.

********

Geology major/Problem Solving

PS = 12

Inquiry = 2.5

Both = 7

Neither = 1

PS = 0

Inquiry = 0

Both = 16

Neither = 8

 

After reviewing personal and cited definitions for inquiry and problem solving, several questions emerged. As in our case, a grant from the National Science Foundation called for collaboration between the colleges of Arts and Science and Education.

·      Does the difference in how people use these terms create a real barrier to collaboration or does it provide a platform for conversation that facilitates the collaboration?

·      If the difference is real and significant what effect does it have on programs and reform efforts that call for collaboration across audiences?

·      How can and when should discussion about the difference occur to maximize the potential of reform efforts? How do you do this without jeopardizing the partnerships?

In addition to these questions there appear to be some implications for science education. Given the shared language, what do we do about the differences between disciplines in how terminology is used as part of pedagogy and content for Arts and sciences and Education, pre-service/undergraduates and faculty, and teachers and K-12 students. Other possible implications include reform efforts and how language is used in relation to state and/or national testing.

 

There are several questions to be posed at this point.

1.    Is there a difference between disciplines (i.e. biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, mathematics, and education concerning the definitions of inquiry and problem solving?

2.    What other words or phrases that have shared meanings should be explored?

3.    What is the role of past experiences of the participants in determining their definitions?

3.  Would anyone like to join us in gathering additional definitions?

 

References

 

Chiapetta, E. L., & Koballa, T. R. (2002). Science instruction in the middle and secondary schools (5 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

DeBoer, G. (1991). A history of ideas in science education:  Implications for practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ebenezer, J. and Connor, S.  (1998). Learning to Teach Science. U. S. A.: Prentice Hall

Helgeson, S. L. (1989). Problem solving in middle school science. In D. Gabel (Ed.), What research says to the science teacher:  Problem solving (Vol. 5, pp. 13-34). Washington D.C.: National Science Teachers Association.

            Helgeson, S. L. (1994). Research on problem solving in middle school. In D. L. Gabel (Ed.), Handbook of research on science teaching and learning (pp. 248-268). Upper Sanddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000), Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

PhysTEC. (2002). PhysTEC Description. American Physical Society, in partnership with the American Institute of Physics and the American Association of Physics Teachers. Retrieved 1/7/03, 2003, from the World Wide Web: http://www.phystec.org/

Sunal, D. W. and Sunal, C. S. (2003). Science in the Elementary and Middle School. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall

 

***********

Key

Statement #1 – Inquiry (Scientist)

Statement #2 – Inquiry (pre-service teacher: middle grades)

Statement #3 – Problem solving (scientist)

Statement #4 – Problem solving (pre-service teacher)

 

 

Powerpoint for this presentation can be viewed and downloaded at: http://homepages.wmich.edu/~mfetters/grants.html