Cultivating a Culture of Inquiry

January 25, 2001

Educational reform programs at the national and state levels have mandated changes to promote a deeper understanding of science concepts through an inquiry-based approach to science education. Yet once the mandates have been issued, what does the reform actually look like in the classroom?

Since 1998 we have been conducting a study that explores how middle school science teachers interpret and implement a shift to inquiry-based science. The study, “The Inquiry-based Classroom in Context,” examines science programs in six school districts which have been part of the State Systemic Initiative (SSI) in Massachusetts. Our goal was to listen to teachers’ voices, watch their practice, and explore the school and district context within which they are enacting their understanding of inquiry. We have found that one strong influence on teachers’ enactment of inquiry-based science is the degree of coherence provided by the district’s vision of this reform.

Our study involved 40 teachers from 6 schools in 6 districts. We worked with all the middle school science teachers in each school for a period of 4–6 weeks, observing in classrooms, examining student work, and interviewing teachers, principals, district personnel, and superintendents.

Despite seeing signs of inquiry in individual classrooms in the three schools studied during the first year, there was only one district, Allenville [pseudonym], that exemplified a culture of inquiry. In this article we examine the factors that contributed to this culture. The case provides an illustration of how a school system can work to create a coherent vision of inquiry-based science through its practices, support structures, and other reform agendas.

Setting the context

To interpret the results of our study, it is important to understand the context of teaching in Massachusetts. The insights that emerge, however, may well apply to districts trying to implement similar mandates and reforms across the country.

In Massachusetts, as in so many districts nationwide, inquiry-based science is a component of state standards and frameworks. In 1992 the National Science Foundation awarded a State Systemic Initiative grant to Massachusetts. The grant funded PALMS, the Partnerships Advancing the Learning of Mathematics and Science. This program espoused a definition of inquiry that emphasizes students’ ownership of their learning, their engagement with problems and open-ended inves tigations, and their learning to reason with real-world data. In 1996 the Massachusetts Department of Education published its first science curriculum frameworks, which mandate that “curriculum, instruction, and assessment are based on inquiry, problem-solving, discovery, analysis, and application of essential concepts.”

School districts then undertook to define how they would implement the frameworks in the districtÂ’s choice of content, materials, and professional development plans, for each grade level. Despite the specificity of these standards and accompanying recommendations, great latitude exists in how a teacher implements the standards in the classroom.

The PALMS vision, and the state frameworks, fit with the National Research CouncilÂ’s view of teaching and learning, as embodied in the NRC standards for learning and teaching published in 1996, and in Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (NRC 2000), which is the most comprehensive presentation to date of a vision of a standards- and inquiry-based classroom.

In 1998 state educational policy added a new complication for teachers and districts already struggling to reconcile new standards for pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment with the structure and economy of schools. In that year the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was introduced. This high-stakes test measures content at grades 4, 8, and 10. The eighth grade test covers material on earth science, life science, and physical science. Besides asking students to write clearly on scientific topics, students are expected to retain a wealth of facts that they have learned during the past several years.

The urgent call for rapid improvements in test scores began to affect classroom practice in significant ways. Investigations involving data collection and analysis were squeezed out to make room for more factual material, “fire drill” practices to keep facts current, and testing. Thus, a reform that was never quite clearly articulated to teachers in the first place is now under pressure from a high-stakes exam that seems primarily to mandate a particular scope and sequence of material.

The move towards an inquiry-based classroom is a difficult one; the focus is shifted away from merely “learning about” science to “doing it.” It often entails a change from a frontal teaching approach towards a more student-oriented classroom. Short- and long-term investigations are important contexts for learning, with time set aside for the collection, discussion and analysis of data. Students often work in pairs or teams. Such a classroom requires a teacher who is comfortable with this pedagogy and has the content base to guide student investigations that may go in unanticipated directions. In the six districts we studied, teachers spoke of how these challenges were exacerbated or ameliorated by school or system-wide structures, and by other competing or complementary reforms.

Allenville had established structures that supported teachers in changing the pedagogy, content, and assessment to meet the challenges of inquiry-based science reform. We observed that students were more likely to participate in hands-on activities, to revisit their work, to work in pairs or small groups, and to sharestrategies. Students were more likely to collect and discuss data. Teachers were less likely to give content lectures, to offer demonstrations, and to have students take notes either on the text or on their lecture.

In what follows, we describe 10 features of Allenville’s practice that contribute to a culture of inquiry. It is not our intent to suggest that all of the following must be present to develop such a culture, or that this school had the perfect “recipe” for inquiry in the classroom. Even in Allenville, teachers struggled to varying degrees with implementing the reform. Yet despite the challenges, the discourse in Allenville was about how and to what extent to implement inquiry rather than on whether to implement it. The district had built a coherent foundation which included pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment, and was now positioned to speak about places where they could improve and balance their program, building on that foundation.


District practices that enable a culture of inquiry

1. District leadership has a clear, expressed, vision

We have found that “inquiry-based science” is often poorly defined, resulting in a lack of clarity of what a good science classroom should look like. In fact, in some schools the words “inquiry-based science” have been used to foster separate agendas such as incor porating technology or changing the scope and sequence of the curriculum. In contrast, Allenville had a clearly articulated, shared vision of what inquiry-based science means. Even the few teachers who were resistant to an inquiry-based science approach knew the prevailing viewpoint.

In Allenville, from the superintendent through the building leadership, to the individual teachers, there was no ambiguity about the districtÂ’s goals for the science classroom. The superintendent had made the implementation of inquiry-based science a consistent goal. He maintained a strong focus on student-centered, question-centered pedagogy. It was expected that this pedagogical stance would permeate the curriculum as well as assessment practices. The superintendent articulated his vision:

ItÂ’s a classroom where kids are doing real science, and that is, theyÂ’re investigating in a hands-on way. TheyÂ’re working collaboratively with other students. ItÂ’s interdisciplinary in that theyÂ’re using their math, theyÂ’re using their writing skills, theyÂ’re using reflection. The teacher is not up there lecturing, but the teacher has presented things for kids to investigate, and things that have a connection to their lives now, and future lives. And kids see a reason for doing it. TheyÂ’re interested in doing it. And we have plenty of supplies. And the teachers know the process, so theyÂ’re not interfering with kids and giving kids answers too soon or ever...Kids are investigating and trying to solve a problem that either they have posed, or teachers pose for them. And, theyÂ’re using the scientific method to come to some kind of theory that they can then prove through inquiry.

Because of this long-standing, consistent vision at the district level, hiring practices over the last several years have favored teachers who share this vision to some degree. In describing hiring practices the superintendent said:

The priorities for me, and I think for a lot of the other people who do the hiring and recommending, is pedagogy first with some content strength, at least in one area.

Once hired, teachers can attend workshops that provide opportunities to address pedagogical as well as content concerns related to inquiry-based science. Beyond the implications for hiring and professional development, the commitment to inquiry in this district even affected design plans for a new school building. Further, this view of science pedagogy was seen as being supported by, and supportive of, consonant practices in other disciplines. Such a foundation enhances the climate for an integrated, inquiry approach across the curriculum.

2. Persistence of pedagogical vision in the face of high-stakes tests

A vision for inquiry can be derailed by competing pressures and concerns. Not infrequently, parents and school committee members question whether a shift away from the lecture, teacher-centered classroom will result in less content being covered. State testing that anticipates broad coverage of material has intensified these concerns.

In some districts the introduction of the state exam has had the effect of putting “inquiry on hold.” Teachers dissect the last year’s test, hoping to anticipate the topic areas to be emphasized in the coming year’s exam. In these schools, teachers add bits of curriculum and drop favorite units to prepare students for subject matter that may be tested by the MCAS.

By contrast, Allenville has maintained its vision, despite the pressures of the high-stakes exam. In this pressured environment of “accountability,” the superintendent’s views reflect Allenville’s tenacity in holding to their vision.

With the MCAS, there’s the content pressure…and I think a lot of people figure, ‘If I cover all this stuff…the kids are going to do better on this test. ‘ And I think, maybe the answer is not to have a whole widespread coverage of content, but to do some things well. To look in the frameworks for the important area and do those well. And then enough of the other stuff will probably come into it, because if a kid is really focused and interested in something, he’s going to get into some of these areas, because he’s going to need that information. And things connect.

[In Allenville] often our open-ended questions are much higher than the state average, and yet some of our content stuff in math and science, spelling, is lower by comparison. And the school committee says well, how can they do complex things if they canÂ’t do the basics? And itÂ’s hard to explain that. But, itÂ’s because theyÂ’ve had more experience doing complex things, and itÂ’s going to take them awhile, but those basic skills, if theyÂ’re using them in the context of solving real problems, eventually theyÂ’re going to get better at them.

3. Effective curriculum coordinator who carries the vision to the individual schools

Even when school districts have a clear vision statement on paper, teachers are often left on their own if there are no policies, curriculum, or support systems to enable implementation. Teachers in some districts are borrowing and piecing together inquiry-based lessons from the Internet or from a friendÂ’s classroom. The lesson is often unsupported by their pedagogy or assessment strategies, which are still drawn largely from a traditional textbook. In such cases inquiry-based science becomes a sporadic treat thrown into a traditional curriculum.

In Allenville, the superintendent and other district personnel sought ways to align the curriculum and assessment practices with their pedagogical vision. A district curriculum coordinator was charged with the task of alignment, and she led a district-wide effort to create a district curriculum for each grade and to identify and critique materials that support this sequence. This resulted in the creation of three units per grade that have both short and long investigations, accompanying materials, and performance assessments.

In every school, teachers struggle between the desire to create their own curriculum and agenda and the realization that there is not enough time to do so. In Allenville, teachers have received the curriculum with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In many cases the teachers have used the curriculum but adapted it to fit with their own style and approach.

A teacher commented:

WeÂ’ve pretty much been told that we canÂ’t throw it out, so thatÂ’s not an option, which is fine because there are a lot of good quality activities in there. My approach is look at each component and see how relevant it is to my students and to what I want to do...A couple of the kits I followed pretty much to the letter because I liked what they did. And within that too, even if I am following it, there are times when IÂ’ll pull out and do something more or change things around depending on my students.

Some teachers thought that the students often lacked background knowledge assumed by the curriculum kits and investigations being used. One teacher felt that the kits did not contain enough background material and required teachers to fill in the gaps.

We had a parallax activity. Great activity, you make the little instruments, find a parallax...They didn’t know what parallax was. I could have done the activity with them, and they still would have said “What?” It wouldn’t have made sense. So I gave them background information on it first, we talked about parallax, how they used it in ancient times and all this stuff, and we did the activity, and I just think they walked away with a much clearer knowledge.

Yet despite some teachersÂ’ concerns that the curriculum is not perfect, it is a place of departure. It provides a common forum for teachers to talk across grades about curriculum. The curriculum supports teachers who formerly had to transform their classroom towards inquiry with little more than a traditional textbook.

4. Availability of materials, kits, resources, and space

The materials, resources, and space to make the curriculum work are as important as curriculum itself. Some teachers run weekly scavenger hunts to collect materials or make trips to central resource rooms to browse and borrow. In Allenville, kits designed to accompany each unit include print materials, activity guides, manipulables, and teacher background information. The three units are done in rotation in each grade, so when one teacher finishes with a kit, it is passed on to the next class. The disadvantage of this system is that teachers often do not have lead time to “play with” the materials and resources before starting a unit. This is, of course, a greater obstacle during the first few years of implementation.

5. Teacher-teacher support is established to increase ownership of materials and to share concerns, strategies, and tips concerning implementation

In all the schools that we visited, teachers spoke of insufficient time to speak to their colleagues about the curriculum. This problem is accentuated now that many middle schools have abandoned science departments completely in favor of interdisciplinary teams of teachers. While there are many benefits to this approach, it limits opportunities for science teachers to consult with each other while adopting a new curriculum.

Allenville has implemented district-wide “articulation meetings,” in which teachers can discuss the units that they have just finished and share tips and strategies. While some teachers mentioned that these meetings were not well attended, at least the district has built a structure and allocated time for this type of discourse.

6. Creating a culture of trust between teacher and students

Inquiry-based science involves a restructuring of the classroom, which may entail students working collaboratively, students investigating a research question in a small group, and students working beyond the walls of the classroom. This requires a trust between teacher and student that needs to be cultivated over time. Teachers must feel comfortable that groups of students will indeed work on their project rather than just socialize, and students need to feel high teacher expectations for what independent or group work entails.

Allenville has succeeded in building a culture of inquiry. We observed one class where groups of students went unescorted to the stream several hundred feet from the building to collect samples and return. This scene contrasts with districts where teachers will never let students out of their sight. The assistant principal explained that a culture of independent and group research is fostered throughout the building. The school-wide practice of looping (where teachers have the same students for two consecutive years) contributes to this culture of trust.

In the two-year have an opportunity to develop certain skills, and a certain set of expectations, with the group of students that youÂ’re working with. [The students conducting research at the stream] have spent a year and a half working with and setting expectations, where they build within that two-year cycle, opportunities to go out and do research, and they develop a trust. Now this was a prime example of where you want to get kids to.

7. Heterogeneous grouping

Heterogeneous grouping at the middle school level was widely adopted in all schools that we visited. This reform was problematic in districts that had either not adopted a pedagogical shift toward inquiry, or that had retreated from inquiry in favor of stressing coverage for the state exam. In such schools teachers felt that heterogeneous grouping slowed the pace and often forced them to “teach to the middle.” In Allenville, most teachers had shifted their classrooms away from a frontal, lecture style. They felt that a varied mix of abilities and strengths helped in cooperative groups, with some students being more abstract, others being more facile in art, writing, or manipulation and understanding of materials.

The kinds of things that we do are more open ended. It allows kids to go to their own levels...If someone is done, understands the concept, thereÂ’s always something else for them to move on to. ItÂ’s not like they have to sit there and wait till everybody gets it.

8. Flexible scheduling

In addition to looping, flexible scheduling in Allenville fosters inquiry-based science. One of the greatest obstacles to implementing inquiry is making the time for investigations, data collection, and analysis within rigid 45-minute schedules. Allenville has implemented flexible scheduling where small teams of teachers determine how the day will be structured. The teachers in Allenville expressed how important this has been as they implement a vision of inquiry-based science.

It allows me to do a lot more with the science because I’m able to have the kids more spread out, have them working on different things...It gives me longer blocks of time for each day. We usually go between an hour and an hour-and-a-half a day. Whereas if I didn’t have the support of my teammates it would be a 45-minute block every day and having to set things up, take things down and start for the next group. So this way I can do it with all of my kids and spend longer periods of time. And my teammates are very supportive in terms of if I need a little more time to finish.

9. Small interdisciplinary teams

Every district that we visited has implemented cross-discipline teacher teams, most often composed of four to five staff members. Even in the districts which support flexible scheduling, it is logistically difficult to arrange a change of schedule involving four teachers.

By contrast, Allenville has moved towards two- to three-person teams.

Often one teacher will teach two subject areas. These smaller teams make flexible scheduling a reality. One teacher explained:

Being only the two of us, it’s very flexible. We dont have to switch groups at certain times, we can do a whole day activity, which weÂ’ve done before.

10. Valuing problem-solving and inves tigative skills within the system

It is too often the case that educators speak of valuing inquiry, but assess students using multiple-choice exams. Students are often promoted and placed in high school honor classes because of test performance rather than because they have developed a sophisticated ability to conduct science investigations, to collect and analyze data, and to relay their experiences to others. The superintendent of Allenville stressed that students and teachers know that inquiry-based science counts from elementary school all the way through high school:

We expect kids to have this curiosity about science, an understanding of problem solving approaches and how to go about getting answers. So, when [the high school science department head] has testing for honors courses and so on itÂ’s not about content, itÂ’s about these processes that kids should have. ItÂ’s more general.



It could be said that Allenville is dealing with how, not whether, to implement inquiry. The concerns voiced—how much, to what degree should it be student centered, how to do it under the pressures for coverage and the limits of time—all are mentioned in the context of a general approach that is accepted, but needs some fine-tuning. Perhaps the most urgent concern is how to balance science rigor and factual information while preserving student exploration and ownership of questions.

The formulation of inquiry-based science will continue to evolve in national and state policy frameworks and documents. Its implementation will ultimately depend on the interplay between teachers’ interpretations of inquiry and coherent visions of reform articulated at the school and district level. Allenville provides evidence that a strong, pedagogical vision elaborated through the creation of coordinated materials, opportunities for teacher-teacher communication, and the careful alignment of reforms such as teaming, looping and heterogeneous grouping, support teachers as they refine their understanding of inquiry-based science.


National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the national science education standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.