Sunday, May 10, 2009

Guided discovery and Inquiry Based Science for Children

In the rapidly changing world of the 21st century, science literacy is an essential skill for all young children. Through science education, children come to understand the world in which they live and learn to apply scientific principles and ways of thinking of their lives. The following compares and contrasts guided discovery and inquiry based learning. It is important to compare and contrast these different approaches to teaching science and where they are appropriate to use in children’s’ learning. The future depends on these critical skills and ways of thinking so that children can participate as informed members of society and face challenges that the future brings.

Inductive teaching and learning is an umbrella term that covers a range of instructional methods, including inquiry learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, case based teaching, discovery learning, and just-in-time teaching (Featherston, 2007). These methods have many features in common, besides the fact that they all qualify as inductive. They are all student-centered, meaning the learning involves more responsibility on students for their own learning than the deductive approach. This can be seen when students are actively engaged in the material and take ownership over their experiences (Hodge, 2006). Guided discovery and inquiry based inductive methods both derive from the learning theory of constructivism (Gunel, 2008; Hammer, 1997). Constructivist methods involve students discussing questions and solving problems in class (active learning), with much of the work conducted in groups (collaborative and cooperative learning).

Discovery learning is an inquiry-based approach in which students are given a question to answer, a problem to solve, or a set of observations to explain, and then work in a largely self-directed manner to complete their work and draw conclusions from (Fleer & Hardy, 2007). One of the best means of helping children know the world at hand is to organise materials so children can explore, question, reason, and discover answers through their own physical and mental activity (Featherston, 2007). Teachers set the problems and provide feedback on the students’ efforts but does not direct or guide through the process. What teachers are more likely to do is apply a variant of discovery learning, involving giving guidance throughout the learning process. For learning new tasks, discovery learning is more efficient, and for transferring learned skills to tasks that are alike or of more difficulty. Guided discovery learning calls for social facilitation as direct and indirect guidance (Harlan & Rivkin, 2006). As Hodges 2006, learnt through his experience with discovery guided teaching no longer did he see himself as the “all knowing sage”, but gained the view of himself as a facilitator helping children construct their knowledge. The teacher acts as a facilitator as children imitate and interact with peers through their exploration and problem solving. Opportunities are made from these experiences to help children to draw meaning and the teacher can assist in extending children’s’ conceptual learning.

Discovery science experience works when it is seen as part of children’s continuous search for knowledge, which is heavily researched and proved through Piagets work as the child having an innate drive to understand their world. When compared guided discovery and Inquiry based learning have an emphasis on how to find the answers, as well as what can be taught (Harlan & Rivkin, 2008). Although research has shown that experience alone through exploration is insufficient to develop scientific literacy but with moving through to inquiry based learning offers both aspects. The importance and crucial point is to ensure that children develop an ability to think about and approach the world in a scientific way. Guided discovery and inquiry based learning offers this through the teachers’ demonstration and modelling of the different ways of thinking and how thoughts can be structured. This helps children consider how scientists approach questions and problems through the teachers modelling. In contrast to guided discovery approach Inquiry based learning offers a more structured framework that allows students to identify science principles and select from science principles. By conducting inquiry based investigations and practising as scientists, students can get a sense of the nature of science and learn skills and understandings at the heart of scientific literacy (Christina V. Schwarz, 2007, p. 104). The focus of inquiry based learning is to promote both students’ understanding of scientific concepts and the development of their reasoning skills (Gunel, 2008). In contrast the guided discovery approach seems to be more of a way of allowing children to use prior knowledge (misconceptions) or practise new learnt skills.

Guided discovery learning adds freshness to the classroom and creates a partnership in learning between the children and teacher. Learning something when you want to learn it – on a “need-to-know” basis- is both memorable and emotionally satisfying (Christina V. Schwarz, 2007; Olson, 2009; Palincsar, 2000). Harlan and Rivkin 2008, state the child instigated approaches are more ideal for very small classes of preschool children, for nurturing interests of gifted older children, and for creating an atmosphere of inquiry within the classroom. Although it must be taken into account that it is sometimes difficult to provide the same degree of support for larger classes or to fit spur- of- the- moment activities into a more structured school program. Olson 2009 suggests using a guided discovery approach to engage children and find out prior knowledge and a more relatively structured form of inquiry based learning in the first year, gradually shifting toward a more self-directed learning further on down the track. Guided discovery sets good foundations and opportunities to model thinking processes of science. It allows making invisible thinking processes visible to children and is the beginning to move on to more formal inquiry based learning.

Both guided discovery and inquiry based learning is guided and scaffolded through thoughtful questioning and of great importance, is the listening to children (Gunel, 2008). Both approaches need the insurance of a good balance between convergent and divergent questioning. There must be flexibility at using convergent and divergent questions and appropriate wait time to gain a strong sense of student thinking (Fleer & Hardy, 2007; Olson, 2009; Palincsar, 2000). With appropriate wait time allows opportunities for teachers to be able to identify prior-knowledge and misconceptions (Hammer, 1997). Which are critical to the planning of guided discovery and inquiry based approaches. As the core value in inductive and constructivist methods is the understanding of where each child is coming from and the experiences and knowledge they bring to the classroom.

The goal is to give children access to the widely shared understandings of the natural world and another is to help them experience the processes that create those understandings: observation, experimentation, careful recording of information, and willingness to think creatively. Using guided discovery and inquiry based models of teaching are just another way of helping students to understand their world. It is important to understand the similarities and contrasts in both, so that the most effective approach can be implemented to try and meet all students’ needs. The need for flexibility in teaching science and the use of different approaches and in different times and different contexts is essential to meeting the diverse needs within the classroom. Each of the approaches has a legitimate place and emphasise different areas of science that involve different ways of engaging children into the thoughts of science.


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Christina V. Schwarz, Y. N. G. (2007). Using a guided inquiry and modelling instructional framework (EIMA) to support preservice K-8 science teaching. Science education, 91(1), 158.

Featherston, T. (2007). Becoming an effective teacher. Victoria: Thomson.

Fleer, M., & Hardy, T. (2007). Science for children (3rd ed.). Sydney: Prentice Hall Australia.

Gunel, M. (2008). Critical Elements for the Science Teacher to Adopt a Student-Centered Approach: The Case of a Teacher in Transition. Teachers and teaching : theory and practice, 14(3), 209-224.

Hammer, D. (1997). Discovery learning and discovery teaching. Cognition and instruction, 15(4), 485-529.

Harlan, J. D., & Rivkin, M. S. (2006). Science experiences for the early childhood years: an integrated affective approach (9th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Olson, J. K. (2009, February 1). Being deliberate about concept development: effectively moving students from experience to understanding.(Methods & Strategies: Ideas and techniques to enhance your science teaching)(Report). Science and Children. Retrieved from

Palincsar, A. S. (2000). Investigating the engagement and learning of students with learning disabilities in guided inquiry science teaching. Language, speech & hearing services in schools, 31(3), 240-51.

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