Reform Math vs. Inquiry Science

3546334679_abb69fc9ff_nEd Real has an interesting post up about “reform math”. It’s a hard piece to excerpt but it has a lot of good bits and you should read the whole thing.

I’m not a math teacher, but much of what he says rings true to me. The parallels between reform math (as he describes it) and “progressive” science education – inquiry, discovery, PBL, etc. – are striking. A few thoughts on the apparent similarities and differences:

1. Inquiry science doesn’t seem to be primarily about “social justice”. Rather, advocates of inquiry tend to talk about it in terms of “authenticity” and “student-centeredness”. Certainly, they will sometimes talk about “access”, but those sorts of social justice rationales seem less prominent among progressive science educators. This may be because science is less heavily tested than math, and so achievement gaps are less salient, especially in the lower grades.

2. There is some extra pressure from administrators and districts to employ inquiry methods with students at the low end of the achievement distribution.  When low-achieving students engage in inquiry activities it can appear to the untrained eye that they are “doing science” the way the highest-achieving students do.

3. Inquiry science, like reform math, lowers the absolute-performance bar for success. Since the emphasis is on “doing” science rather than “knowing” science, it quickly becomes unfair to grade kids on the basis of the rigor and plausibility of the science they’ve “done”. After all, the fewer facts you teach them, the more unreasonable it is to demand that they incorporate facts into their experimentation/discovery/etc.

4. For the same reasons that “reform math is mostly fringe” in the real world, truly inquiry-based science instruction is also pretty rare. Teachers with especially high-achieving kids can get by with it – those kids probably know a bunch of science already anyway – but with lower-achieving kids it quickly becomes obvious that you’re going to have to give them a bunch of explicit instruction and that open-ended experimentation will either overwhelm them cognitively or give them cover to slack off.

5. Ed schools do not pretend that inquiry teaching is widespread in science classrooms. On the contrary, they are acutely aware that genuine inquiry is rare and it’s not uncommon for research papers authored by inquiry science advocates to bemoan the tendency of even the most sympathetic teachers to resort to heavily-guided instruction in their own classrooms.

Finally, a question: are reform math and inquiry science applications of the same logic to two different domains? It seems that way to me, but in both cases the logic is a little fuzzy and the arguments are a little vague so it’s hard to be sure.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted July 23, 2013 at 2:06 PM | Permalink

    Hey, thanks for the good words. You had some killer quotes:

    “When low-achieving students engage in inquiry activities it can appear to the untrained eye that they are “doing science” the way the highest-achieving students do.”

    “that open-ended experimentation will either overwhelm them cognitively or give them cover to slack off.”

    Indeed.

    “Ed schools do not pretend that inquiry teaching is widespread in science classrooms. ”

    I was like, I said that? And I did! Total overstatement. I worked for hours on that piece and still included that. Sigh.

    What I should have said, and I’ll have to clear this up in the eventual part 3, is that ed schools make this debate sound as if it were a genuine issue, that all throughout America teachers are tussling between these two approaches, that all math teachers desperately want to teach this way, except for a few fuddy duddies. When in fact, almost no one sticks with their method, and give it up for the reasons mentioned.

    Great post. I’m going to have to steal from it.

    • Posted July 23, 2013 at 11:46 PM | Permalink

      FWIW, I do think many science teachers tussle between the two approaches, or at least feel like they should be doing more inquiry stuff even if they don’t. My experience is that a lot of science teachers – maybe most – are vaguely sympathetic to the inquiry camp, but either misunderstand it (“Hey, I’m doing hands-on stuff!) or feel like they don’t know how to implement it.

  2. Seth Furlow
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:41 PM | Permalink

    I think you miss a major point of the idea behind inquiry. In my experiences the inquiry approach is more about scientific thinking and problem solving and moves away from the traditional approach to science which is all about knowing random facts that end up being meaningless in some short amount of time. Of course you need to know a base set of information to be able to develop a proper line of thinking about a topic, which is why I agree with your point that underachieving students can often feel overwhelmed in an inquiry environment. I see my students having no clue how to think scientifically about solving a problem way too often, which is why in my opinion a strong basis in inquiry rooted in some fundamental facts is necessary.

    • Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:31 AM | Permalink

      Thanks for the thoughts, Seth. A few thoughts in return:

      1) I have never been in a science classroom – no matter how “traditional” – that is “all about knowing random facts that end up being meaningless in some short amount of time.” In my experience that is a caricature with no basis in reality.

      2) It’s worth emphasizing that many “inquiry advocates” are advocating, specifically, not just *teaching different things* but *teaching things a different way* – namely, through inquiry/discovery learning as opposed to more guided/explicit forms of instruction. That’s more what I was referring to in this post.

      3) Some inquiry advocates may believe that what distinguishes them from traditionalists is their emphasis on “scientific thinking and problem solving”. Again, I have no idea why they believe that about more traditional instruction, but in any case they end up making the opposite mistake, underestimating the extent to which content knowledge is necessary for those sorts of critical thinking skills.

      I’m very glad that you explicitly appreciate the importance of knowledge – “information” – here, but it seems to me that you quickly slip back into underestimating its importance. The problem for most students is not an inability to “think scientifically”. Give them a familiar context and they will often “think scientifically” fairly proficiently. The limiting factor, in my experience, is much more likely to be their background knowledge (or lack thereof), and that is more likely to be a problem for less-privileged students.

      If that’s right – and obviously I think it is – giving them a “strong basis” in “scientific thinking” won’t do them much good. What they really need is more factual knowledge about the phenomena they’re evaluating.

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