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

Meeting Notes
21 March 2007



Darla Attardi (BMC staff), Jill Bean (Lansdowne Friends, 1-2 teacher), Sarah Freilich (HC student), Jill Garland (HC alum, Philadelphia School teacher), Al Gaspar (Lansdowne Friends, science coordinator), Paul Grobstein (BMC faculty), Georgia Harris (BMC student), Deb Hazen (Lansdowne Friends, 5-6 teacher), Glenn Heck (Delaware Valley Friends, teacher), Amy McCann (Friends Select, kindergarten teacher), Xuan-Shi Lim (BMC alum), Chris Massey (UPenn faculty, Lansdowne Friends school committee), Susan Stone (Lansdowne Friends, head of school)

Comments on lesson plans

Plastics in Daily Life

In order to integrate true inquiry into this lesson, we would like the students to generate their own questions instead of being asked to answer the questions given about descriptions and strength. The students should also determine how best to go about answering their questions (using sensory information, for example). Through sorting the plastics, we'd like the students to learn the difference between observation and intepretation. For example, they could be asked to write down pure observations first and then, seperately, to list possible interpretations.

The Fizz Factor

We would use this to teach systems and procedures able to be transferred to new inquiries. We wouldn't see this lesson as inquring because is not open-ended, student-generated, or context-embedded. No big questions or idea is framed.

Simple Machines = Simple Learning and Simple Fun

We feel this is an interesting, potentially productive experience in design, but lacks the essential ingredients of an inquiry experience as we understand it. Rather than starting with a question, it begins with an introduction to an arbitrary set of tools and concepts and provides no major incentive to drive an observations-reflection cycle. "Simple machines" may, in addition, not be the most useful category for an inquiry approach to physical principles.


Sarah Freilich

I thought that the meeting last week was very interesting. A few main points that seemed to come out from our discussion of other lesson plans were:

  1. What are the properties of a good question that we believe would drive inquiry?
  2. There are only a small number of questions that drive what we actually believe to be inquiry learning.
  3. Questions must have context and draw the student in, therefore how also do we teach children to want to learn from other's questions?
I think this list and our discussion on Wednesday demonstrates the difficulty that we had with other people's lesson plans. As teachers we know what we want our students to learn, and we know our students, therefore the process of designing an exact curriculum is unique to a certain type of school. In this way I think it is important that we move towards designing the curriculum starting with defining what a good inquiry question is, and then what we would like our students to learn. We demonstrated through the critiques of other lessons what we think are important to inquiry lessons, often by missing peices. Although whatever is written as a lesson plan may not exactly convey the inquiry that is happening in the classroom or the exact way the lesson should be carried out, a rough sketch to begin with, will demonstrate what we think are questions that lead to inquiry and ways of carrying that out. These can then be molded to each unique classroom and the principles from these lessons can then be adapted to other learning situations.

Then there were some ideas about what children need to understand about inquiry and learning, which included:

  1. The difference between designing and observation/reflection learning
  2. The process of creation and the processes of discovery
  3. The need to make sure students understand the difference between normal inquiry and revolutionary inquiry.
  4. The cultivation of throwing things on end; using opposite sense to learn and build stories.
I think this list demonstrates a need for teaching HOW to learn. It seems to make the point that when teaching children to learn, we would like to explicitly explain what inquiry learning is rather than throwing them into the learning process. I believe that this will be helpful to students (maybe not at the youngest ages) because although we are not telling them exactly what to learn explicitly we are explaining how to learn and demonstrating thinking techniques. Learning how to think and ask questions is often forgotten in a culture of test taking and therefore when students get to the higher levels it is just expected of them to know how to manipulate information to ask questions and discover/learn. By making this process more specific I think students will learn how to gather information and make stories from it more easily

Paul Grobstein

My feeling was that the exercise of looking at existing lesson plans was remarkably useful/productive, and that it would probably pay for us to continue doing so on a regular basis. The point, of course, is not that a given lesson plan isn't "perfect" (none should be expected to be), but rather that critiques of lesson plans for which no one is personally responsible can very much help us in clarifying our own ideas of what we aspire to and hence in giving us benchmarks for our own lesson planning.

Along these lines, I was struck by the commonalities in the separately developed comments on the three lesson plans we looked at. A clear consensus position (it seemed to me) was that the effective encouragement of inquiry sophistication requires hands-on activity (provided in each of the lesson plans) but also something more. It depends as well on some open-ended larger question that connects to and is approachable from the existing interests of students (as opposed to giving students simply an immediate problem or a to them arbitrary set of concepts), so there is an incentive to both explore (make new sets of observations) and reflect on the products of exploration in such a way as to self-generate both new questions and new observations.

Inherent in this, it seems to me, is that the lesson plan (and the teacher) have in mind a possible "arc" that leads from a shared starting point to productive new questions and understandings, not only immediately but in the future. The "arc" should be open-ended, ie it should be possible to explore the issues at hand with open-ended increasing sophistication, and should be flexible, ie if students come up with unanticipated new ideas it should be possible to follow them. The "arc" though is there to assure that explorations will not dead-end, and to make sure there really is at least one productive trajectory from the starting point.

This in turn seems to me to bear on the pivotal question that arose in our discussions: "what makes a good inquiry question?" I'd like to see us spend more time on this question in upcoming sessions (cf The Importance of Questions). I think its a much better starting point not only for lesson plan development but also for broader o.-e.t.i. curriculum development than is the kinds of descriptions that we looked at earlier that are, whatever, they say, based more on content mastery. Along these lines, it interested me that many of these involve "categories" (plastics, simple machines) that may (or may not) make sense to "adults" but often don't, in fact, to students.

I was also greatly intrigued by the notion of an important thread linking "normal" and "revolutionary" science/inquiry: the idea that what is common to both is "disconfirming", "thinking about a theory rather than thinking with a theory." It seems to me important to incorporate "profound skepticism" as a pervasive ingredient of an o.-.e.t.i curriculum, and relevant then that this runs counter to a "confirmation bias" that humans are "naturally"? inclined to. Perhaps another way to characterize such a curriculum is that is aims at cultivating the loss of a confirmation bias?

Along these lines, it is important to avoid "the cynicism of only a theory", to help students (and others) distinguish between "multiplicity of opinions" and "multiplicity of acceptable scientific stories". And this, in turn, returns us to our earlier discussion of the inevitability of category use. Brains will always construct/use categories; they can though do so without the additional presumption that categories are "real" or "fixed". Perhaps an additional way to conceive the curriculum we're trying to construct is that it helps people come to expect that categories will be continuously changing over time.

Would students having gone through such a curriculum misunderstand "the actual venality" of science as it is sometimes practiced? Maybe, so perhaps we would need to include in our curriculum some history of science, to give a context for science as inquiry? Would students be able to deal with standardized testing? I think so, but here too we might want to provide students some social context for the kind of education they are getting.

Alice Lesnick

For me, too, the session was rich. I appreciate the interdisciplinary, cross-contextual composition of our group. It is rare to converse open-endedly yet purposefully with people willing to share across roles and engagements yet around common concerns. Thanks, everyone, for that.

This connects with Paul's conception of interdisciplinary "listening" as a revolutionary way to leap from one story/mountaintop to another (and thus obviate the norm of having to hike down and up again). I find this a compelling way of thinking about interdisciplinarity and wonder whether given our polyglot composition we might deliberately try to enact it somehow.

I'm also continuing to think about Paul's statement that science is as much a matter of creation as discovery. I would like to spend more time on this idea in subsequent sessions and also think together about how to teach explicitly, as Sarah calls for, from it.

It seems that flickering over our conversations is a question about how much is subject to change, and how quickly, and how much impermanence we, our brains, kids, and schools (among other things) can handle. O.-I.T.I. challenges familiar beliefs about permanence and stability, which we maintain despite abundant contrary evidence. We need, it seems, a new psychology to accompany postmodern, and Eastern, understandings of the impermanence of everything. Such a psychology is available to us through lived experience, but persistent ideas seem to obscure it.

I wonder whether this connects in some way to our thinking about what makes a good question for scientific inquiry. In qualitative educational research, we often begin with "What happens when . . ." as a way to orient our ethnographic inquiries to description first and to hold off unearned abstraction or too-global explanation. We also work to document and make sense of the meanings that participants on whatever scene is under study construct about their experiences (mindful that there are limits to the viability of such a project). I wonder whether inquiry in the physical sciences is somehow different from this, or whether the main priority, whether working in the natural or social sciences, is to pose questions that somehow stand alongside, rather than always over or outside of, what is being studied and that sincerely open the asker to be vulnerable to new forms of life and thought (and to the impermanence of earlier ones).

Finally, to the value of challenging confirmation bias, which I endorse heartily, I also want to add a word for the value of radical belief. Maybe taken far these two meet?

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