Inquiry on the Road


As I drive down the arrow-straight road through stands of sagebrush receding into the
horizon, I can see the snow-covered Three Sisters, Broken Top and Bachelor Butte in the rear view. Off to the right is Pine Mountain with its covey of telescopes clustered near the summit. A few more miles and I top a rise, see the newly acquired school zone flashing light, and turn into the parking lot of the Brothers School.

The town of Brothers consists of the stage stop, the school, and a scattering of buildings. Down the road a bit there is a cluster of trailer houses, mainly occupied by the employees of the Oregon Department of Transportation who maintain this stretch of Highway 20 between Bend and Burns Oregon.

Brothers is about 45 miles from Bend, its� nearest neighbor of any consequence, so you might say it is isolated. On the other hand, a seemingly steady stream of semis thunders past the school all day long and quite a few thirsty travelers converge on the stage stop to tank up their cars and themselves for the long trek to Burns. The high desert country makes you thirsty just to look at it.

Swinging out of my pickup, I grab my briefcase and a small box of supplies, step up on the sidewalk and enter the spanking new school. Ann Pirruccello, the teacher, greets me at the door and heads off to the kitchen to get me my morning coffee. She knows I am as thirsty as the travelers across the road at the stage stop. Some of the 17 kindergarten through grade 8 kids who attend are already here working on reading games or other learning activity on their individual Mac iBooks. They look up and say �Hi, Dr. V.� I have been here before. Ann comes back with the coffee and says, �We are going to do foam today.�

�Okay.� I begin to think of ways to do inquiry with foam. My mind runs through the kind of questions I will need to ask to focus the children on observation, comparison and action. Ann starts the kids off with a bunch of materials and soon they are messing about having a great time. I am able to move from group to group adjusting my questions to the age and sophistication of the students (Remember, these are ages 5-14). Some exciting discoveries are made and announced to others who attempt to replicate the findings.

An hour or so later I am back on the road heading toward Bend. By one p.m. I will be meeting with teachers in Prineville, planning my next visit to their classrooms.



For two years I worked for the Crook Deschutes Education Service District in Central Oregon. My job was to set up regional curriculum and instruction services in the sparsely settled part of the state often called �Oregon�s Outback.� Somewhere along the line it became known that I had been involved in science inquiry since 1960 when I worked on the National Science Foundation Traveling Science Demonstration Program at the University of Oregon. I was invited to speak to the Central Oregon Science Teachers� Association on using inquiry to address the new Oregon Science Standards and used a demonstration of the process to illustrate. Some of the teachers attending the presentation wanted to know how it worked with children so I volunteered to demonstrate the process in their classrooms. Out of this rather casual beginning, the current professional development model evolved. Besides Brothers, the schools involved are located in Prineville, Madras, Culver, and Sisters. Except for the one-room school in Brothers, all are more-or-less standard elementary, middle and high schools. The towns are at least twenty miles apart.

As the model currently exists, teachers who participate in the Central Oregon Eisenhower Grant Consortium are informed of my availability to come to their classrooms to teach a demonstration lesson. I meet the teacher before the classroom visit to talk about the topic they are on and to let the teacher know what to expect. We then schedule a specific time (I usually make at least two visits to the same class since it is difficult to model the whole process in one lesson) and I begin to prepare for the demonstration.


The ultimate purpose of the demonstration lesson is to provide teachers with examples of tools they can use to help students learn to manage their own acquisition of science knowledge and skills. As teachers, we need to bring the processes of learning to the forefront of student awareness and to foster the metacognition that is prerequisite to personal learning management. In the process we can guide our students both to meaningful understanding of science concepts and to the development of the skills necessary to manage their own learning of science.

What seems to be an immense task turns out to be relatively simple in practice. A short list of focusing questions helps the teacher guide the students through the various thought processes of inquiry while calling attention to them. Post-inquiry activities include review of these processes until the students can both articulate them and use them �on the fly.� I provide the teacher with copies of handouts I adapted from the book Primary Science: Taking the Plunge, edited by Wynne Harlen. The sheet of Inquiry Question Strategies includes sample questions for the teacher listed by inquiry activity. It is shown below as Table 1. The teacher can follow my lesson while tallying the questions I use with the children. My goal is to move generally from the observation side of the chart to the more complex activities. How far I get and how much I have to recycle depends, of course, on the children. Other handouts for more specific skills such as observation may be given to the teacher, especially if I find several students who are deficit in the skill. After the class I try to talk to the teacher about what took place and why, but this does not always happen since the teacher often has other duties to attend to.


During the current school year I have worked with children in grades K-12. Topics have included colored lights, cells, small things, comets, astronomy, crystals, solutions, magnetism, invention, machines, glaciers,�.. You get the picture. I find that with a few days notice I can come up with an inquiry lesson on virtually any science topic. One
reason is that the first lesson focuses in large part on what the students already know


Questioning strategies used to foster inquiry are listed below in order of increasing complexity.

Do you notice�?
Have you seen�?
What is it?
What does it do?
What happens?

How many?
How long (time)?
How often?
Is it bigger/smaller?
How much?

How alike?
How different?
Can you make a table?
Can you classify these?

What happens if�?
Can you predict�?

Can you find a way to�?
How would you make a�?

Why do you think this happened?
How did this occur?

*Adapted from Primary Science: Taking the Plunge by Wynne


about the topic. I find that this includes many misconceptions, no matter the grade level. These misconceptions are sometimes used as a focus of inquiry. By the end of the first session I try to have some idea of what the students are interested in investigating and often get them into teams to carry out their activities. During the second session with the class, I move farther to the right on the question strategy chart and utilize the action and problem posing strategies. The students and their teacher carry on from there.


There is no question that students respond positively to the inquiry lessons. Their enthusiasm and interest are obvious and virtually every teacher comments on this. Since the lessons were designed to demonstrate a process to teachers and not to teach specific information we have no measurement of student outcomes. I believe it would be inappropriate to do so since our goal is to allow teachers a chance to see the inquiry process modeled with their children in their classroom. This is far different from taking a course about inquiry teaching. An appropriate evaluation of the model would include comments from the teachers regarding what they learned, whether they are now able to better implement the inquiry process and whether or not they are actually using the process in their teaching. Anecdotal feedback from teachers has been that the lessons had a positive impact on their teaching. On the negative side, many teachers question the time it takes to do inquiry, particularly in light of the pressure to teach to the content standards. My response is that inquiry is what science is about. If we cannot find time to include inquiry, we are not teaching science. One potential solution is to integrate inquiry into science content lessons and to add occasional inquiry excursions where the students can apply the process in extended investigations.


Teachers, in their professional development opportunities, rarely get to see someone else teach a lesson in their own classroom. The participating teachers have expressed appreciation for this chance to see someone else model inquiry teaching with their students. It is clear that students both enjoy the inquiry experience and the visit by an outside �scientist.� From the perspective of the visiting teacher I see a few things that can be improved. Although the participating teachers have been involved in a series of workshops on inquiry I have not been a part of that training. The visiting teacher project would be much more efficient if an orientation to the program could be held in advance of any visits. A one-day seminar should be sufficient to prepare teachers to best take advantage of the visitations.

The first round of visits found the traveling teacher in classrooms in as many as three towns in one day. An effort is now made to schedule all visits on a particular day in one town. This does not always work out, of course, but it is now the norm. Distance between schools within a town, time and cost all remain problematic, but the opportunity to actually see someone demonstrating inquiry with their own students in their own room merits the effort to overcome the difficulties.


As I drive past the road to the Les Schwab tire warehouse the traffic begins to pick up. I top the rise and start the steep descent to Prineville and wonder what exciting science topic awaits me with the fourth grade class of Lisa Alvarez at Ochoco Elementary School. Whatever it is, it promises to be a fun learning experience for me, the children and Lisa.


Harlen, W. (Ed.). (1985). Primary Science: Taking the Plunge. Oxford, England: Heinemann Educational.

Dr. Valiant served as a public school science teacher and administrator for over 30 years. Following retirement in 1991 he worked as manager of the Education Services Division of a design firm, returned to the role of Curriculum Coordinator in another state, and began his own educational training and consulting business. He is a nationally known consultant and speaker on a variety of topics including educational futures, higher level thinking, brain research, facility planning and science inquiry.

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