Critical Thinking in Science: Inquiry labs

Two interesting conversations on the topic of critical thinking are happening today on #edchat.

In science, we call critical thinking “inquiry.”  In one context, this means moving away from the old way of cookbook labs and on to student-centered, authentic, investigative inquiry labs.

The Old Way: Cookbook Labs

There are some advantages to cookbook-style confirmation labs. Students (and teachers) find some comfort in having a procedure spelled out. This minimizes safety issues, and is significantly easier to manage, particularly in large classes. There is an expected result in most cases, so you can assess students (and they can assess themselves) based on how close they are to an accepted value.  The disadvantages outweigh these advantages, in my opinion. Students have limited experience in experimental design, and give little thought to individual steps (unless explicitly asked in post-lab questions). Given the procedure above, few students would ask why the mixture was heated twice for ten minutes, and not once for twenty minutes. Removing failure from the process of collecting data may saves time, but stunts process skills.

So what does the “New Way” look like?

The New Way: Inquiry Labs

In this scenario, students are presented with a proposal to solve a problem for a fictitious company. The problem is the same as in the previous procedure, but there is very little structure provided. The students will discuss, in small groups or as a whole class, how to accomplish the task. It is likely that they will ultimately end up with the same procedure as the cookbook lab, but they may not. And that’s okay!  Getting a wrong answer is not failure, and they can learn just as much (if not more) from failed procedure than from one successful trial.

Some challenges to inquiry labs:

  • The teacher has to let go of any preconceived solution to a problem. Our students are creative, and they will likely surprise us!
  • Teachers have to learn to shut up: ask the right questions, rather than provide answers.
  • Students have to accept that success might involve moving in the “wrong” direction at first.
  • Teachers have to be willing to allow students to move in the “wrong” direction (as long as safety is assured).

Some advantages are:

  • Students are engaged in the activity. They are able to talk science with their peers, challenge and support each other.
  • Students understand the reasons for specific steps in their procedure.
  • Students are able to continually evaluate progress toward the goal.
  • Students are DOING SCIENCE! You can’t beat that.

2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking in Science: Inquiry labs”

  1. I’m curious to know if you preceeded this activity with any structured lessons on percent composition or if students were left to look up the information they needed to solve this problem independently?

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