Inquiry in the National Science Education Standards

When educators see or hear the word “inquiry,” many think of a particular way of teaching and learning science. Although this is one important application for the word, inquiry in the Standards is far more fundamental. It encompasses not only an ability to engage in inquiry but an understanding of inquiry and of how inquiry results in scientific knowledge.

Because of the importance of inquiry, the content standards describing what all students need to know and be able to do include standards on science as inquiry. These inquiry standards specify the abilities students need in order to inquire and the knowledge that will help them understand inquiry as the way that knowledge is produced. In this way, the Standards seek to build student understanding of how we know what we know and what evidence supports what we know.

The abilities and understanding of inquiry are neither developed nor used in a vacuum. Inquiry is intimately connected to scientific questions — students must inquire using what they already know and the inquiry process must add to their knowledge. The geologist investigating the cause of the dead cedar forests along the Pacific Coast used his scientific knowledge and inquiry abilities to develop an explanation for the phenomenon. Mrs. Graham’s fifth grade students used their observations and the information they gathered about plants to recognize the factors affecting the growth of trees in their schoolyard and to solve the “three-tree problem.” For both scientist and students, inquiry and subject matter were integral to the activity. Their scientific knowledge deepened as they developed new understandings through observing and manipulating conditions in the natural world.

What is inquiry in education? The Standards note:

Inquiry is a multifaceted activity that involves making observations;

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