Institute of Ecosystem Studies

2007 BES Annual Meeting Presentation and Poster Abstracts

How attention to "the scientific method" influences student participation in scientific inquiry
Xiaowei Tang
Co-Authors: Xiaowei Tang, Daniel Levin, Janet Coffey
Abstract: This paper takes a look at the interaction between attention to stepwise accounts of scientific method and students’ engagement in scientific inquiry. We argue that close attention to superficial markers associated with the scientific method (i.e. using specific terminology, naming specific sequence of steps) can undermine goals to engage students’ inquiry. The scientific method, as a series of distinct but related steps, dominates what goes on in the classroom in the name of inquiry despite reforms’ calls for more inquiry-rich instruction (NRC, 1996; AAAS, 1993; NRC, 2001). Formulaic accounts of the practice of science are at the center of many inquiry models (Edmund, 2005), and yet are criticized for not wholly reflecting how real science unfolds (Lederman, 1998; Wink, 2005). This emphasis on the stepwise process stands in contrast to literature that emphasizes inquiry as scientific thinking -- mechanistic reasoning, causal explanations, argumentation, using evidence to support claims, sense making, and so on (Kelly & Brown, 2000; Warren, 2001; O’Neill & Polman, 2004; Hammer, 2005; Russ, 2006; Lehrer & Schauble, 2001). Using discourse analysis (Gee, 1990; Lemke, 1990), we examine the influence teachers’ and students’ attention to the steps and process of the scientific method has on how and when students engage in scientific inquiry. We focus analysis on one 9th grade environmental science class where students were exploring earthworm habitats. We weave in data from teacher interviews and data from other classrooms as relevant to our argument. Efforts to teach students the steps of the well-designed investigation or scientific method and efforts to engage students in inquiry occurred as distinct classroom activities. Patterns suggest that a shift in activity --- moving from a whole class discussion about the steps of scientific investigation to a "brainstorming" activity where students considered what environments they would like to explore for the prevalence of earthworms, for example --- can facilitate students’ shift from a focus on steps and terminology to productive scientific reasoning. We see repeated examples of students engaging in genuine scientific inquiry using everyday language. As students brainstormed how they would investigate the best habitats for earthworms, for example, they employed a variety of inquiry tools, such as causal explanation, argumentation, use of supportive evidence and mechanistic reasoning. Yet, when these same students drifted to language associated with "the scientific method", such as the meanings of independent and dependent variables or the proper wording for a hypothesis, they often became confused over terms and rules. Attempts to pin down precise definitions or rules distracted them from sustaining productive inquiry. Teachers were often responsive to students’ confusion over scientific method terms, which often drew teachers’ attention away from the genuine inquiry students do.