Scientific inquiry

Scientific inquiry involves students progressively developing key scientific ideas through learning how to investigate. Students build their knowledge and understanding of the world around them through the process of inquiry. Although sometimes described as discovery based learning, this doesn’t need to be the case.

Students use skills employed by scientists such as raising questions, collecting data, reasoning and reviewing evidence in the light of what is already known, drawing conclusions and discussing results (based on IAP 2011).  The graphic on the right, stolen from Wynne Harlen, shows how inquiry can lead to development of understanding. Scientific inquiry

Elements of an inquiry approach

Much of the difficulty in determining whether inquiry works is that we don’t have a shared understanding of what inquiry is (Minner et al., 2010).

The definition provided by the National Research Council lists the five features of inquiry as when the:

  1. Learner Engages in Scientifically Oriented Questions – spark curiosity
  2. Learner Gives Priority to Evidence in Responding to Questions
  3. Learner Formulates Explanations from Evidence
  4. Learner Connects Explanations to Scientific Knowledge
  5. Learner Communicates and Justifies Explanations

Other investigate approaches

The AKSIS Project (ASE-King’s College London Science Investigations in Schools) describes five additional investigative approaches to the fair testing model described above: fair testing, classifying/identifying, pattern seeking, exploring, investigating models and making things (Watson et al., 1999).

Ofsted: the importance of students working like scientists

Best teaching:

  • “was driven by determined subject leadership that put scientific enquiry at the heart of science teaching and coupled it with substantial expertise in how pupils learn science.”
  • “set out to sustain pupils’ natural curiosity, so that they were eager to learn the subject content as well as develop the necessary investigative skills.”
  • “was informed by accurate and timely assessment of how well pupils were developing their understanding of science concepts, and their skills in analysis and interpretation so that teaching could respond to and extend pupils’ learning.”

Taken from the 2013 Ofsted report into effective science provision in primary and secondary schools.

Benefits of an inquiry approach from my experience

  1. Motivating for the leaner as they have greater autonomy and can be creative
  2. Provides opportunities for students to apply their knowledge
  3. Effective form of differentiation as learners can move at their own pace

Potential problems of an inquiry approach from my experience 

  1. Students can obtain results that are difficult to explain using relevant scientific knowledge
  2. It can be slow, with students spending a lot of time on relatively low level skills
  3. Some students can become frustrated by the lack of direction causing behaviour to slide

My top tips for good inquiry

  1. Chose a question to investigate that will produce a result that can be explained using age-appropriate scientific knowledge. For example, students can spend time investigating why different coloured sweets take different amounts of time to react with HCl. However, unless there is an appropriate conclusion to be drawn then the impact of the inquiry is limited.
  2. Use equipment that is simple and safe to use so that students have autonomy, control and are able to make mistakes – this is more motivating.
  3. Make the inquiry authentic and put it in a context that students can understand and care about
  4. Place emphasis on reflecting and evaluating on results
Further reading
  • Brown, CR., Moor J., Silkstone, B.E., and Botton, C. (1996) The construct validity and context dependency of teacher assessment of practical skills in some pre-university level science examinations, Assessment in Education, 3 (3) 377-391.
  • Harlen,W. Learning science through inquiry. From education Scotland.
  • Minner, D.D., Levy, A.J., & Century, J. (2010). Inquiry-based science instruction – what is it and does it matter? Results from a research synthesis years 1984-2002.Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47 (4), 474-496
  • Watson, R., Goldsworthy, A. and Wood-Robinson, V., 1999. What is not fair with investigations?School Science Review, 80(292), pp.101-106.
  • PARRISE Project on Inquiry


  1. Demonstrations in science
  2. Whole class practical
  3. Inquiry