"Inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences is the central strategy for teaching science. Teachers focus inquiry predominantly on real phenomena, in classrooms, outdoors, or in laboratory settings, where students are given investigations or guided toward fashioning investigations that are demanding but within their capabilities." National Science Education Standards, Teaching Standard A

The Importance of Inquiry

Vital Signs offers Maine middle school teachers a model and means for incorporating proven inquiry-based instructional methods in their everyday teaching practice. Learning experiences focus on a current, relevant issue of direct meaning and importance to students and local communities. A series of essential questions guides students through standards-aligned introductory activities, skill stations, field investigations, peer review processes, analyses, community discussions, and action projects.

Classrooms of all disciplines that challenge students to practice authentic inquiry are effective in encouraging the development of essential 21st century knowledge, skills, and competencies. Inherent in inquiry are the higher-order thinking and processing skills that today’s careers and citizenship demand. While making observations, forming hypotheses, gathering evidence, and analyzing and communicating findings, students must think critically, evaluate information, negotiate, pool their knowledge with peers to find answers to increasingly complex environmental questions, and take action to benefit their local watershed community.

A Progression of Inquiry

Depending on student needs, prior experiences, and classroom learning goals, Vital Signs may play out in classrooms at any one of three successive levels of inquiry: Structured, Guided, or Open. Each level offers students increasing ownership and control of the inquiry process. Teachers ultimately become facilitators, learning and participating alongside their students.

    Structured Inquiry

    Teachers provide students the structure and scaffolding they need to be successful at all stages of the inquiry process. Peer learning offers additional support as students develop new skills, build on prior experience, construct new meaning, internalize the inquiry process, and extend their learning beyond the classroom. Teachers direct and guide learning and are responsive to student needs and interests throughout the learning experience.

    Guided Inquiry

    Teachers and students share responsibility for various components of their investigation and action projects. Teachers present students with their research question and investigation methods. Students then assume significant ownership of the inquiry process, using team work and peer review to scaffold their learning experience. Teachers prompt and guide the genesis of action projects, and then let students drive the process of designing, creating, publishing, and doing.

    Open Inquiry

    Students direct their own inquiry process and are primarily responsible for developing and carrying out their action project. Autonomy, active participation, collaboration, and peer interaction define the learning experience. Teachers guide, facilitate, moderate, differentiate, and prompt only as necessary, often assuming a role as co-learner. The direction and pace of learning varies in response to student needs and interests.

While entirely possible to move students from Structured to Open inquiry learning in one school year, it is more realistic for this independence to develop over a number of years of successive investigations. Given the opportunity, students who tackle a new Vital Signs investigation during each of their middle school years will be better able to set their own pace, direct their own investigations, initiate peer learning, follow personal interests, and develop and carry out their own action projects lightly guided and supported by teachers.