Inquiry Skills

Published 21 Dec 2016

The nature of scientific enquiry skills and their role in the children’s learning in science

Jean Piaget is the noted researcher that has advocated cognitive constructivism. Constructivism is a popular method of instruction that educators use in helping children increase knowledge and learning. The learning process is very effective for children because it is through Piaget’s studies in child psychology that he discovered the constructivist concept in learning.

Constructivism is simply defined as a method of instruction where students change their beliefs, upgrade their knowledge or incorporate new ideas and principles through their own cognitive processes (Zahorik, 1997; Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Doolittle, 1997).

In the constructivism, teachers are not the source of knowledge. Teachers are mere facilitators and guides. Their role is to facilitate students develop and broaden their insights and perceptions by getting students go through experiences and discoveries incorporated in the exercises. Exercises and experiences help the child gain sense of the many processes around him. From these sense, the child is able to gain beliefs and ideas. Once the child begins to have beliefs and ideas, he then begins to interact with his environment. As the child continue his interactions, his experiences add up and his beliefs may change or deepen or widen thus learning becomes a continuous cycle of discovery or inquiry.

The constructivist concept of learning is very apt to teaching children the foundations to scientific inquiry. The scientific method is very much supported by the constructivist’s point of view. With scientific inquiry, the child gains knowledge and understanding of the world where he is part of. For example, in understanding the concept of ‘air’, a child needs first to understand the concept of the senses that he has such as smell and touch. Knowing his sense of touch, he will be able to feel the wind. Knowledge of his sense of smell, he can use this in understanding what’s happening when the room is sprayed with perfume. To further his knowledge on the subject matter, he also needs to learn how to further his inquiry skills so that he can explore the experience that the teacher has prepared.

Using the constructivist processes, science is learned by the child using inquiry skills developed. The seven skills are raising questions, developing a hypothesis, predicting, gathering evidence, making observations, interpreting and making conclusions, communicating and reflecting. (Harlen, W. 2000)

Raising questions is an important part of the learning process. Raising questions is not only part of the scientific process but it is what sets man apart from other animals. A rat by rote learning will learn how to push the lever that brings him his food. If one day, the master of the rat forgets to replenish the food in the bin, the rat will not ask why food did not come out when he pushed the lever. A child emptying a box of cornflakes will one day peek into the box of cornflakes when it becomes empty. Sometimes, he will cry and at times he will throw away the box and then cry. The mere asking of the question why is important to all field of science. It’s important therefore for the teacher to prepare different variables and problem situations so that the child can increase his experience and develop his inquiry skills.

The National Curriculum supports inquisitive thinking by suggesting to teachers to continue to ask the children questions such as How? Why? And What will happen if…? And observe how the children might decide to find answers. First hand experience is a simple information source to answer questions. The National Curriculum also believes that learning like the constructivists advocate is done through building blocks called stages.

“During key stage 1 pupils observe, explore and ask questions about living things, materials and phenomena. They begin to work together to collect evidence to help them answer questions and to link this to simple scientific ideas. They evaluate evidence and consider whether tests or comparisons are fair. They use reference materials to find out more about scientific ideas. They share their ideas and communicate them using scientific language, drawings, charts and tables.” (NC, 1999)

The next six scientific skills will then transpire until the process of inquiry becomes complex, simultaneous and evolving. All these skills abide by the guidelines set by the National Curriculum that state that “teaching should ensure that scientific enquiry is taught through contexts the following sections; life processes and living things, materials and their properties, and physical processes.” (NC, 1999).

Since the constructivist concept needs the teacher as facilitator and the environment where experience is acquired, science teaching through the constructivist curriculum supports the learning of ideas through gathering evidence with investigative skills. Planning, obtaining and presenting evidence, considering evidence and evaluating evidence are actually part of the seven skills of scientific inquiry.And these processes can be very well being founded when looking into the environments of living things, material processes and physical properties.

Children’s learning of science doesn’t start only in school. Children learn basic skills and knowledge in science even at home. A simple going to the zoo brings much impact to the child’s learning of living things and its persities. When children reads his first picture books and he sees animals drawn there, he will be able to develop inquisitive skills of asking why a giraffe has long necks while lions do not.

The child based on the amount of knowledge he has will help him predict and hypothesize why a giraffe has long necks while his pet cat has short ones. If the child finally gets to see how giraffes eat, then he may conclude that the giraffe needs to eat leaves from tall trees that’s why he needs a longer neck. From an inquiry, and observation skills, realizations will be gathered. If the child’s realization, well assisted by the instructor fully equipped with constructivist concepts, furthers, the child may realize that giraffes eat. They may further their observations, questions and insights towards the importance of trees to giraffes. Bottomline, there is a process to take in understanding the world. And that is the scientific process.

“They learn skills necessary to this area of learning by using a range of tools, for example, computers, magnifiers, gardening tools, scissors, hole punches and screwdrivers. They learn effectively by doing things, for example by using pulleys to raise heavy objects or observing the effect of increasing the incline of a slope on how fast a vehicle travels.” (QCA, 2000: 83)

Without these scientific skills the child will be left behind in the evolution of the species. Science is referred to as Knowledge and understanding of the world. According to the Foundation Stage Profile, children should show curiosity and interest by exploring their surroundings. Playing with sand, water or dough helps him feel materials around his world. When a child handles or takes his toy apart, he is able to practice how to nurture his curiosity. The child while exploring the objects of his home like the telephone that rings is introduced to technology and its values. As the child goes through his daily routine, he realizes the fact of time. When he goes to the supermarket, the day care or a relative’s place, the child will learn basic concepts of ‘place’ which is foundation for the concept of geography.

While the child goes through these materials, people and places, the child learns skills that become his tools that will help him develop his scientific inquiry. When the child collects fallen leaves and groups together the leaves by size, he learns the skill of differentiation. When the child sees himself in the mirror, he is able to practice the skill of recognition.

The seven scientific inquiry skills are important to scientific literacy that the child needs to be able to understand life. He needs to understand the many processes of life because for one, he is very much a part of it and for another; he is steward of the life on this planet. Educational institutions work on this premise and continually strive to better and master it especially at younger levels.

“It is essential that instruction focus on student understanding and demonstration of important relationships, processes, mechanisms, and applications of concepts. Students, in attaining scientific literacy, will be able to demonstrate these explanations, in their own words, exhibiting creative problem solving, reasoning, and informed decision making.” (NYS Ed. Dept. 2000)

Constructivism and the scientific method go hand in hand in teaching children science. Both concepts are essential and effective methods in helping the child understanding the world around him. Besides the cognitive impact of both processes, there is an affective dimension that the child gains through the constructivist paradigm. Once the child learns what science is through the scientific method instead of simply memorizing all those concept and ideas, the technology of learning science will stay with him. The beauty of constructivism is in its foundation as builder of understanding knowledge through skills of inquiry. If the children are able to acquire these abilities while they are children, they will proceed in being adults with inquisitive minds observing the world and gathering insights from it instead of being part of the process where living things get destroyed.


  • NYS Ed. Dept. 2000. Physical Setting/Earth Science Core Curriculum
  • Zahorik, J. 1997. Encouraging and Challenging Students Understandings. Educational Leadership: How Children Learn. Vol. 54, No. 6, March 1997 (ASCD Online)
  • QCA, 2000. Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage. QCA
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