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Exploring Science as Open-Ended Transactional Inquiry:
A Working Group on Elementary Science Education

Meeting Notes
13 December 2006



Peter Brodfuehrer (BMC faculty), Alison Cook-Sather (BMC faculty), Sarah Freilich (HC, student), Paul Grobstein (BMC faculty), Glenn Heck (Delaware Valley Friends, teacher), Alice Lesnick (BMC faculty), Maeve O'Hara (BMC student), Amanda Root (BMC student), Susan Stone (Lansdowne Friends School, principal)


  • Freilich
  • Grobstein
  • Lesnick
  • Continuing on-line forum discussion

    Sarah Freilich

    One of the things that I noticed at the meeting was that we seemed to get lost in words as we tried to discuss our ideas of inquiry and what exactly it is. I felt as though some of our thoughts lost their conviction because words were stopping us up. Since so many of the words we use can have different meanings and connotations specific to each individual, sometimes the thoughts were not clearly being shared. Unfortunately I believe that discussion sometimes loses the backbone meaning that we are trying to focus on, yet these words with which we explain our thoughts, allow each person build their own ideas from what is being said and sparks new thoughts that are important to the discussion.

    Another part of the conversation that I was interested in was this idea that our skill as an inquirer could depend on content. To go farther in a certain understanding and choose to go farther I believe we must rely on some subject knowledge, yet I believe that knowledge of inquiry must also be present. From personal experience I have found it hard to go beyond in my inquiry due to a lack of use of that skill. When students are learning in a static environment in which they learn that they will be successful by just doing what is told and "learning" enough to pass, the skill of inquiry is not sharpened. Therefore when asked to use it in order to learn and go farther the brain may not be molded in a way which easily allows the student to "go farther." I believe the knowledge to ask questions and learning to ask questions for pure interest and understanding must be incorporated into learning early so that inquiry learning is easier and more ingrained within the school system.

    Another thought that came up in our discussion was that of culturally responsive education. As we think about inquiry and its use we need to remember that not all students are coming from the same background and therefore the way the knowledge is being taught must connect to the student in a way that they know how to ask questions about it. Also assumptions about their knowledge and way of thinking must not be made, but rather molding must be done to teach the student the importance of learning and how to go about questioning and owning the knowledge.

    Paul Grobstein

    The two topics we talked through (with the third on the agenda deferred to a later session) seemed to me to raise some important issues, both by contrast and by overlap.

    Clearly "inquiry" is something that everyone does, at all ages and in a variety of different contexts. The example of trying (however successfully) to become a better golfer (or a better teacher or a better ...) seemed to me an important case in point. So does the situation of choosing to click on the random choice button on Serendip. And that of a new born baby trying to discover how to successfully make its way in the world. The point here, I think, is that simply by acting in ways that have consequences for oneself (which can include listening to others or reading), one is "inquiring". "Inquiry" in the broadest sense is inherent in being alive, not something that needs to be taught but something that is inherent (to varying degrees?) in all humans (indeed probably to varying degrees in all living organisms). Moreover, it is not something that one needs to be conscious of, nor something that depends on a particular method (other than acting and being affected by the consequences of one's actions). Inquiry occurs whenever there is action in the context of "rules" and an "objective", where the former means no more (and no less) than some degree of order in the relation between action and consequence and the latter no more (and no less) than some internal evaluation (not necessarily conscious) of what is more and less satisfying.

    In the educational context, what seems to me important about this is both that "inquiry" doesn't need to be taught, only nurtured, and that it is going on all the time, whether teachers and students are aware of it or not. What's also important is that inquiry, whether conscious or unconscious, depends on not only "rules" and "objectives" (content? and motivation?) but also on observation (be it of text or something else) and interpretation (inference?). And that the two have a more subtle relation to each other than is often appreciated. Interpretations (stories?) do not in general follow directly from observations; any given set of observations is subject to multiple useful interpretations. Moreover, observations are themselves influenced by interpretations. For these reasons, the products of "inquiry" are not well characterized in terms of "getting it right" or "getting it wrong". "Inquiry" is instead a continuous and looping process of acting, observing, interpreting, and revising that itself influences not only understanding but also objectives.

    My sense was that there was substantial useful overlap between our discussion of inquiry in general and our subsequent discussion of what science/inquiry should focus on. The latter takes for granted that "science" is "story" (ie interpretation of observations, not "truth") and that it is accessible to and can be participated in by everyone since it is grounded in innate inquiry capabilities common to all humans (cf Science as Story Telling and Story Revision). Key issues in the case of "science/inquiry" include the need to make explicit/conscious the distinction between observations and interpretations (a "reflective" element), the subtleties of the relation between the two, and questions of how doing so can be aligned with the developing competences and needs of children at different ages.

    Running through both discussions were a set of issues having to do with the relation between science and science education and culture and education more generally. Is there a rationale for distinguishing "science/inquiry" from "inquiry"? Might increased attention to the former provide a basis for more emphasis on inquiry generally leading, in turn, to increased "empowerment" of students, particularly if what is appropriately emphasized is the "transactional" and "social" character of "science/inquiry"? To make knowledge "more democratic" is beginning to sound "revolutionary", and would require changes in the expectations of not only students but also parents and others involved in education. Teachers, in particular, would need to be willing, able, and happy to work with students whatever their background knowledge and inclinations, and to encourage in them new understandings, of whatever kind and in whatever way they were able to demonstrate them. Its an ambitious goal, but perhaps one exciting enough to warrant the patient working through of the details and problems of how to get there?

    Alice Lesnick

    When we met with Sarah met to plan the session, Sarah talked about inquiry as openness; not prescribed; a capacity to keep thoughts and prospects in motion, move around - not have to go one way. She talked about her own interest in studying biology as personal and relational. As a teacher, she wondered about how to design assignments to foster inquiry and "how to find avenues to inquiry in already built stuff." For me, this connects with a paradox, formulated so well by Adrienne Rich: "We must use what we have to invent what we desire." We are always confronted with "already built stuff" even as we attempt to build new. Inquiry, like play, creates generative spaces between the found world and the dreamt world.

    Over the course of the Lansdowne Project, I've gotten to hear Paul talk about his theory of transactional inquiry as a deliberate, creative, and social process of making observations and interpretations and tracking their relation and difference, as well as the power of interpretation to channel and condition future observation. I see many occasions to turn to this framework and find both practical and conceptual uses for it. This time while I listened, what struck me was the discussion we had along the way of whether inquiry must be deliberate and conscious to be inquiry. I wondered whether it's a feature of the brain to elide observation and interpretation, to blur the difference between them, to take interpretation for observation. Such a tendency is, it seems to me, part of the warrant for Paul's theory of inquiry. Maybe we need to teach young people to be inquirers of a certain kind because the brain doesnŐt take care of this "naturally" for us, and may in fact intensify it.

    "Human nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on this earth to rise above" (The African Queen). Solving many dangerous problems, such as global warming or bureaucracy, seems linked to changing ourselves, to amplifying some of our ways and muting others. We often run into trouble with the way we are wired - we are conscious enough to see the troubles but have a devil of a time resolving them. The tendency of the brain to move seamlessly between observation and interpretation seems like just such a problem, linked as it must be to our ability to jump to conclusions, form stereotypes, mistake novel experience for pre-packaged. Education pitched to help people learn to tell the difference, and relationship, between their observations and the interpretations they make of them is a possible solution. In this way, the brain itself seems to present a challenge to education; it seems that education is well positioned when it is responsive to such a challenge.

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