Inquiry-based approach to natural science

We know that learning processes that encourage activity and reflection are likely to facilitate learning. But how can we create such processes when working with science in kindergarten and primary school?

Curiosity is a necessary trait for kindergarten staff when conducting everyday conversations with children, and you need the capacity to engage in children's ideas, to listen to them and learn together with them. Although you might have a lesson plan for the day, you cannot always stick to it or insist on completing planned tasks. However, you can plan for being aware and open to children’s initiatives. Inquiry-based teaching is a way of teaching that makes the child active in his/her own learning. In an inquiry concerning science, there are three central phases: (1) Engagement through experiences, (2) Exploration and (3) Explanation through reflections (Fischer, Leicht Madsen & Solli, 2002).

1. Engagement through experiences

The inquiry process is driven by curiosity and engagement. The initiative can come from the teacher or, even better, from the children themselves. It can come through a question, an utterance, a glance, a gesture or sensory exploration. It is important to engage the children in the inquiry, to give them ownership of the question at hand. If the children feel that the experience is relevant to them, they will be more likely to learn from the inquiry. Also, the engagement can build on the children’s prior experiences so they can build their own knowledge in their zone of proximal development. 

It is of great importance for the teacher to be a good listener and to respond to the children’s initiatives in an adequate manner. Opportunities to get the children engaged in an inquiry often get lost because we as teachers ask too many questions, give ready-made answers, unfocused responses, move forward too fast or forget to let the children wonder and shape their own questions and experiences.  

The teacher’s role in the engagement phase is to facilitate situations that can lead to an inquiry and remain situationally sensitive, to recognise situations in the school or kindergarten that can be used to “unlock” an inquiry 

2. Exploration

The exploration phase is the part of the inquiry where “evidence” or “data” are collected. In this phase, children explore to add experience to their previous knowledge. The exploration phase in a natural environment will consist of observation and interaction with the surroundings. 

Support and structure from teachers in this phase will help the children in their reflections and facilitate their learning as zone of proximal development/scaffolding. How the dialogue develops is important for the outcome of the inquiry. 

In this phase, it is also useful to use equipment or read books/seek other sources to stimulate children’s exploration. 

3. Explanation through reflection

In their inquiry, the children will try to interpret their new experiences and make them fit their previous knowledge and then develop new understanding of the focal issues. Their reflections may lead to new questions, which can further lead to more explorations. In this phase, the scaffolding teachers provide can encourage the children towards further inquiry. 

After an inquiry, the teacher can help the children to recapitulate their experiences and link them to their previous knowledge. By asking questions, for example, the children themselves can put the bits of knowledge/experience together to enlarge their understanding of the world. 

As the children observe and interact with the object of interest, new questions will appear together with the children’s reflections about their new experiences. They will be in different phases of the inquiry, and they will move between the three phases. Broström (2015) described productive questions as a science practice. This practice appears when the teacher succeeds in balancing children’s initiatives and expressions with adult action. This implies that the teacher voices children’s initiatives. 

An inquiry can have different levels of teacher control, from an open approach where the children have the leading part to a more closed inquiry where the teacher takes the lead. Young children experience through the senses and through play. This can provide opportunities for inquiry-based learning.