Inquiry, Step 1

This year in physics 11 I wanted to really instill the idea of inquiry, and the asking of questions.  Coupled with this I hoped to re-emphasize labs during the course and try to do as many as possible.  As with most things I seem to do, I had some success and some not-so-much success.  I’m going to break this topic down into three different posts, beginning with how I tried to set things up, how we ended, and what I look forward to do next year.

The Beginning

My general idea was to focus on two aspects of inquiry.  First, I wanted to get the students to ask their own questions.  Second, my overriding plan was to avoid cookie-cutter, follow the recipe, labs entirely.  This process started on our very first day when I asked the students to estimate the mass of the air inside our classroom and then to try and measure it somehow.  The students didn’t really ask the question, but they picked up on the spirit of investigation and it was a nice entry point for inquiry in a science class.

The second lab we did incorporated recording timers.  I briefly showed the timers to the students and then prompted them to ask me questions about it.  They were hesitant at first and then the questions started flying.  Eventually they ask, “how fast does it work” or “how fast does it make dots”, and we’re off to the races.  From here I show them the carbon paper and ticker tape, and get them to find the frequency of the timers.  Again, it’s a pretty good entry for inquiry because the timers present some obvious questions and the solution is generally quite apparent.  It also allows me to challenge the students by getting them to vary the speed at which they pull the tape through the timer, and gets them to really question their preconceptions.  I found that this activity scaffolds really well into inquiry labs.

The Middle

As the year progressed, our labs had their ups and downs.  On the positive side, lots of kids really pushed themselves to follow the purpose of a lab and examine the phenomena that they observed.  I really kept things open-ended, which was an interesting experience in itself.  There were several times where students could clearly explain the goal of what they were trying to do, yet do something or measure something that was quite unrelated to the goal.  It was funny, and I hope educational upon reflection (more on reflection coming in post #3).


In terms of grading, I opted to collect two lab reports this year.  The first lab handed in I only gave feedback (no mark), the second was also graded.  This scheme will definitely be changing next year, but I can’t say I’m unhappy with it this year.  Frankly speaking, I find it hard to justify the hours spent marking a lab report when it is summarily put away with barely a glance by the students.  The feedback from the first report was descriptive and did not contain a mark, which surprised the kids.  It sure made them read over their reports though, trying to find their grade!

The Challenge

The part that our classes had the most difficulty with this year was interpreting the results.  In terms of a modeling cycle, this would be where they would take their data and create a useful graph or mathematical description of what they observed and analyzed.  Group discussions were extremely painful, as I was continually looked at with blank expressions.  I definitely need to work on this aspect.  Related to this is that the classes were often rushed.  Whereas all our labs were done in 1 period, often 1.5 or 2 would have been better. I’m not sure how to improve this, given that our labs definitely put my classes at a slower pace than other classes in our school. I don’t really care about that per se, but  ultimately we all try to complete the required learning outcomes for the year by June.  There are compromises in this approach.


I think one very positive part of the inquiry we did this year was the focus on Claims / Evidence / Reasons (CER).  This is where I put some explicit goals around the process of inquiry and framed how we learn about things through experimentation.  One of the best examples I feel was done recently in our unit on Optics.  We spent one class just playing around with convex and concave lenses.  I asked the students to look through them, look at close objects, look at distant objects, try to project an image, etc.  At the end of the class, we did a group discussion and talked about what Claims we could make.  Some students offered up observations (Evidence) but eventually we got to some claims such as:

  • concave lenses can’t project an image
  • convex lenses project images that are upside down
  • all projected images are upside down
  • size of image depends on how far away the lens is

The following day we went into the computer lab to play with an optics/lens simulation.  The goal here was to explore lenses in more detail, and to come up with some Reasons for the claims made from the previous day.  We haven’t yet formalized these reasons, but in general it will come down to the ray drawings.  Not only did the students unfold understandings about lenses through the framework of CER, but we also completed a nice 5e modeling cycle of engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate.  Well, we still need to tighten up the elaborate and evaluate but we’re well on our way.

This process of inquiry and CER accomplishes a lot - at least a lot more than memorizing three rules of ray drawings, which is what I did in other years.

Buy In

For all of the above to be successful, student buy-in is essential. The students have to want to ask questions and get the answers.  There are a handful in my classes that don’t.  Some of them don’t want to learn anything and some others only want to answer textbook questions.  C’est la vie.  These students were the minority this year, which is great.  By constantly improving classroom management and culture, this shift to engaging inquiry can be even better next year.