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America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science
into ongoing classroom instruction have proven effective in enhancing students’ science achievement and interest in science.
Discovery Learning and Inquiry
One offshoot of the curriculum development efforts in the 1960s and 1970s was the development of an approach to science learning termed “discovery learning.” In 1959, Harvard cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner began to develop his ideas about discovery learning as director of an NRC committee convened to evaluate the new NSF-funded curricula. In a book drawing in part on that experience, Bruner suggested that young students are active problem solvers, ready and motivated to learn science by their natural interest in the material world (Bruner, 1960). He argued that children should not be taught isolated science facts, but rather should be helped to discover the structures, or underlying concepts and theories, of science. Bruner’s emphasis on helping students to understand the theoretical structures of the scientific disciplines became confounded with the idea of engaging students with the physical structures of natural phenomena in the laboratory (Matthews, 1994). Developers of NSF-funded curricula embraced this interpretation of Bruner’s ideas, as it leant support to their emphasis on laboratory activities.
On the basis of his observation that scientific knowledge was changing rapidly through large-scale research and development during this postwar period, Joseph Schwab advocated the closely related idea of an “inquiry approach” to science education (Rudolph, 2003). In a seminal article, Schwab argued against teaching science facts, which he termed a “rhetoric of conclusions” (Schwab, 1962, p. 25). Instead, he proposed that teachers engage students with materials that would motivate them to learn about natural phenomena through inquiry while also learning about some of the strengths and weaknesses of the processes of scientific inquiry. He developed a framework to describe the inquiry approach in a biology laboratory. At the highest level of inquiry, the student simply confronts the “raw phenomenon” (Schwab, 1962, p. 55) with no guidance. At the other end of the spectrum, biology students would experience low levels of inquiry, or none at all, if the laboratory manual provides the problem to be investigated, the methods to address the problem, and the solutions. When Herron applied Schwab’s framework to analyze the laboratory manuals included in the PSSC and the BSCS curricula, he found that most of the manuals provided extensive guidance to students and thus did not follow the inquiry approach (Herron, 1971).
The NRC defines inquiry somewhat differently in the National Science Education Standards. Rather than using “inquiry” as an indicator of the amount of guidance provided to students, the NRC described inquiry as