More Than the Scientific Method

By Marguerite Huber

May 17, 2018

A student looks at a model of a molecule.Do you remember the scientific method and the steps of formulating a question, stating a hypothesis, and conducting an experiment?

You may associate the scientific method with the term scientific inquiry. Yet the rigid, step-by-step procedural approach used in the scientific method does not reflect how scientists in the real world engage in inquiry.

Inquiring about the world around us is a natural human activity that can come in many forms—but it is far more than simply executing a series of steps in an experiment. According to the National Research Council (NRC)’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education (the framework), inquiry is a systematic and iterative process “that scientists employ as they investigate and build models and theories about the world.”

For at least 100 years, the definition of scientific inquiry has been evolving and the rapid pace of change has made it difficult for science educators to keep up.

When Kevin Anderson, current Science Education Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), completed his dissertation at the University of Wisconsin in 2012, he gathered data on how teachers varied in their definition of scientific inquiry in their classrooms. His professor liked the topic so much that Anderson planned to write an article on how the idea of scientific inquiry had evolved over time, but the article was never written.

Once Anderson joined DPI in 2014 and learned about its connection with the Midwest Comprehensive Center (MWCC), he realized that MWCC could offer DPI the technical support needed to capture and communicate to the field the evolution of notions of scientific inquiry.

After nearly a year of work, in August 2016, MWCC and DPI released “Whatever Happened to Scientific Inquiry? A Look at Evolving Notions of Inquiry Within the Science Education Community and National Standards” (referred to subsequently as the report). The report scanned research literature, websites, and national science standards and reports, and included interviews with national science experts, some of whom had served as coauthors or reviewers for the NRC ‘s framework and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

“MWCC was a critical partner in making this work come to fruition as we have worked toward a new vision in Wisconsin science education,” Anderson noted. “It is so great to have this resource that we created together, and it’s a tool we wouldn’t have had to provide to teachers without the partnership with MWCC.”

The report was necessary because scientific inquiry has been a point of confusion in the field and among Wisconsin educators. Anderson explained, “Science teachers have a huge range of ideas about what scientific inquiry and the scientific method mean. I thought the report would be a good way to get people thinking about science inquiry and align them with where science standards in Wisconsin were headed.”

Scientific Inquiry Within the Science Education Community and National Standards

“The point of the report was to see where we have come from and where we are now in working towards more clarity in defining scientific inquiry,” Anderson explained. As detailed in the report, by the early 20th century the scientific method and science as a series of prescribed steps and procedures had started to gain popularity and become associated with science education.

The report highlights how, over time, there have been many attempts to convey new notions of scientific inquiry. These attempts included the NRC’s National Science Education Standards in 1996, and its companion document, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards, in 2000.

Even after the release of these standards and the companion document, many educators were still unclear about the term scientific inquiry. Many in the science education community still believed that inquiry referred to a set of steps and procedures—akin to the scientific method. Then, in 2012, Achieve released the Next Generation Science Standards, which were based on the NRC framework.

According to this report, the new science standards reposition scientific inquiry within a three-dimensional learning framework, which includes disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices.

Even today, with the release of the NGSS, many educators still confuse the term inquiry and scientific and engineering practices with the scientific method. As a result, the report found that many leading science experts and educators are staying away from the term scientific inquiry for two main reasons. First, some argue that inquiry is not a term used by real working scientists, and second, it continues to be misunderstood and misinterpreted by educators in the field.

Overall, the report concluded that leaders in science education have tried repeatedly to convey an important shift in how educators should think about scientific inquiry and address it in their classrooms. Despite such efforts, these new notions of inquiry have not taken hold. Educators’ acceptance of the new three-dimensional approach to science education is both a Wisconsin and a national issue. It was DPI’s hope that this report would show educators where we have been, where we are, and where we are trying to go in science education.

Leveraging Change in Wisconsin

Beyond posting it on the DPI website, Anderson shared the report with science educators and leaders at national and regional meetings of science educators and discussed it at dozens of workshops and presentations on standards across the state of Wisconsin. Anderson has found that many teachers still associate inquiry with the scientific method, so he often uses the report as a reference tool to challenge this outdated thinking. The report has proved beneficial in providing evidence for these changing notions of inquiry as science educators in Wisconsin adjust to the new standards.

Finally, in 2017, the state adopted a new set of Wisconsin Standards for Science, based largely on the NGSS. The report continues to be used to build understanding and support implementation of the new standards across the state.

Leveraging Change Beyond Wisconsin

The report has not only influenced state policy and the approaches and beliefs of Wisconsin science educators, it has also been used to leverage change more broadly. For instance, after sharing the report with the Council of State Science Supervisors in 2016, Anderson was asked to write a blog post about it for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). The blog gained a lot of traction and the comments it received again confirmed that some did not want to give up the scientific method.

In February 2018, the NSTA went on to update its position statement, “Transitioning From Scientific Inquiry to Three-Dimensional Teaching and Learning,” as reflected in the NGSS. Once again, the report served as a valuable resource for this national work. Anderson shared the report with the NSTA position statement committee, who welcomed a resource that provided such a comprehensive history of evolving notions of scientific inquiry. The committee drew on the report to craft a new NSTA position statement reinforcing that inquiry is not synonymous with the scientific method.

Will science educators finally start to adopt inquiry in their teaching? Although it is difficult to trace specific effects of the report on the big picture, according to Anderson, science education leaders from around the country have expressed interest in the report.

“Embracing the Next Generation Science Standards with its new notions of inquiry will require fundamental shifts on the part of teachers. This is no small task,” Wendy Surr, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research concluded. “We hope that this report can serve as one tool that Wisconsin and other science leaders can use to help promote these changes in the field by increasing educators’ awareness of common misconceptions about inquiry—and helping to build a bridge toward new ways of thinking about and teaching science.”