All three of the following chapters place a great deal of emphasis on the ideas and understandings that students bring to the classroom. Each begins by engaging students in activities or discussions that draw out what they know or how they know, rather than beginning with new content. Students are viewed as active processors of information who have acquired concepts, skills, and attitudes that affect their thinking about the content being taught, as well as about what it means to do science. Like Lionni’s fish (see Chapter 1), students bring preconceptions to class that can shape (or misshape) learning if not addressed. These chapters engage students’ ideas so that they can be reexamined, reshaped, and built upon.
Issues of what should be taught play a fundamental role in each of the chapters that follow. While engaging in inquiry involves a great deal of activity that is under students’ control, the authors are quite clear about the knowledge that students need to acquire to understand the topic, and they guide students’ inquiry to ensure that the necessary concepts and information (including the terminology) are learned. The chapters emphasize both what scientists know and how they know. But the authors’ approaches to instruction make these more than lists of information to be learned and steps to be followed.
Of particular importance, opportunities for inquiry are not simply tacked on to the content of a course; rather, they are the method for learning the content. This sets the stage for a number of important changes in science instruction. Simply having students follow “the scientific method” probably introduces more misconceptions about science than it dispels. First, different areas of science use different methods. Second, as discussed above, lockstep approaches to conducting science experiments exclude the aspects of science that are probably the most gratifying and motivating to scientists—generating good questions and ways to explore them; learning by being surprised (at disconfirmations); seeing how the collective intelligence of the group can supersede the insights of people working solely as individuals; learning to “work smart” by adopting, adapting, and sometimes inventing tools and models; and experiencing the excitement of actually discovering—and sharing with friends—something that provides a new way of looking at the world.