Book study: Starting with Science, Chapter 6: Teachers Talk about Inquiry-Based Science Teaching

I am so excited about inquiry-based teaching these days! Eventually I’d like to learn how to incorporate it in all subjects, but for now I am starting with science. For the last several weeks, I’ve been posting a summary and relevant resources from each chapter of the book Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry by Marcia Talhelm Edson. This is the last chapter (well, technically it’s the second-to-last, but the last chapter is basically just a few pages that summarizes the book), and I would highly recommend the book to a preK-2 teacher who is looking to start dabbling in inquiry-based science! I had no idea where to start, and this gave me some great ideas.

Teach Run Eat book club: Starting with Science

This chapter was an easy read, basically just a conversation between teachers who teach inquiry-based science in preK-2nd grade. The whole chapter is worth a read, but here are a few highlights:

  • Research the topic you’re going to do an inquiry unit on. This seems like a no-brainer, but even in kindergarten I have found myself in over my head on a subject that we are studying. Chickens for FOSS science?? I knew absolutely nothing about chicks or eggs when I first started.
  • Don’t let your knowledge (or lack thereof) stop you! Even if you don’t know much about the subject, you can research and learn right along with your kids. It’s the perfect way to model the inquiry process.
  • One idea is to have a science workstation or center in the classroom. The kids can rotate through it each week, and get a chance to study their subject, or do other planned science activities. Then report back on what they learned in an end-of-the-week science meeting.
  • Almost no topic is too small to do an inquiry unit on! If your kids are fascinated by blocks, do an inquiry unit on blocks (what can be built, what they’re made out of, where they came from). If they are really interested in maps, see what you can learn about maps!
  • Teachers have to make time to answer questions that come up during the inquiry process. I love having science discussions about what kids are curious about, and I even have a wonder wall where they can post questions they are wondering. But I often don’t make time for kids to share answers that they have discovered with the whole group. I am really good at introductory science inquiries, but don’t make time to get beyond the basic facts.
  • Facts and answers are less important in inquiry-based science than the problem-solving skills kids learn from inquiry investigations.

The last point was interesting, and it’s one of the reasons I’m most excited about learning this teaching practice: teaching inquiry-based science “keeps every year fresh and exciting. As a teacher, you have to remain open to what the children are interested in and to learning about something you don’t know much about” (Edson, p. 104).

Constant learning, even while at work? That’s a type-A, forever-in-school-because-I’m-a-teacher’s dream come true!


Book study: Starting with Science, Chapter 5: Designing an Inquiry Unit

I am so excited about inquiry-based teaching these days! Eventually I’d like to learn how to incorporate it in all subjects, but for now I am starting with science. For the next 7 weeks, I’ll be posting a summary and relevant resources from each chapter of the book Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry by Marcia Talhelm Edson. I’ll also add a few of my thoughts in there as well!

Starting with Science book study on TeachRunEat

This was by far the most useful chapter in terms of direct classroom implementation of inquiry-based science! I’m super excited because I tried my best to do a real inquiry unit this winter. It was definitely challenging, and I don’t think I did it very well, but it’s a learning curve and this chapter proved to be very helpful. (Unfortunately I read the chapter after doing my inquiry unit on weather, so it will hopefully be even better next time!)

Some of the most meaningful takeaways from this chapter:

Inquiry units CAN be based on standards.

Ideally an inquiry unit would stem from something that the kids have expressed interest in. This is the most exciting and effective way of teaching. But it’s hard, as a public school teacher, to reconcileszzs my desire to teach what the kids are most interested in, with my obligation to teach the required curriculum for science (and all other subjects). My kids were SO interested in space this winter. They wanted to know everything about how the earth moves around the sun, how long it takes to get to space, how many planets there are. They had so many thoughtful questions, and it would have been so cool to take that intrigue and use it to teach the nature of science. But I basically had to squash their curiosity because there was no time to teach about space. (Although full disclosure – I did check out a bunch of space books from the library, and carved out 30 minutes to watch a Bill Nye the Science Guy about space. Gotta love Bill Nye.)

That is such a frustrating aspect of teaching with required (read: scripted) curriculum – kindergarteners are FILLED with curiosity and love of learning at all times. And so many times I can’t help them learn the new things they are interested in because I have to make time for writing personal narratives or writing teen number sentences.

Anyway, I digress. What is cool is that this book made it clear that inquiry unit ideas CAN come from a district requirement or kit-based materials. (FOSS Science is what our district requires, and it’s the ultimate kit-based curriculum!) One positive spin to teaching young students is that they will be interested in almost any topic that we want to study, so I don’t have to worry much about engagement – as long as I teach it in way that allows room for inquiry.

Teachers should research the topic first, and write down the understandings they hope for students to reach by the end of the unit.

At the Education for Sustainability institute I attended, we learned a bit about the Understanding by Design framework for teaching, and this also emphasizes the importance of knowing what “enduring understandings” you hope for kids to come to by the end of your unit. It helps to write down the big ideas or questions that you want to pursue during the unit. They suggest starting with a broad question (such as “What do children need to understand about this topic?”) and writing down a web of more specific questions that you hope for children to explore. This will help you narrow down where the unit will go. The book has an awesome example of an inquiry unit on pets that the author did, including the list of questions they generated at the beginning of the unit.

Use KLEW charts.

I love this! Instead of the traditional Know-Want to Know-Learned charts, make a chart that is a little more in line with the nature of science:

K: What do we think we know?

L: What did we learn?

E: What is our evidence?

W: What are still wondering?

I love this because it allows for kids to share all the info they think they know on the topic before we begin to study it, whether or not the info is correct. (All K-2 teachers have witnessed the adorable and inaccurate ideas that kids come up with when making a KWL chart…)

It also emphasizes the importance of evidence, asking kids to prove how they know something. Hooray for using literacy buzz words in science!

Have research groups.

This was revolutionary for me! I seriously didn’t understand how you could honor what individual students were interested in, without swaying from the main topic. But! You can do whole group stuff at the beginning of the unit, and then build in time for research groups after a while. When you’re studying a big topic (like weather, in my class), lots of individual interests are peaked. For example, about half my class was fascinated by tornadoes and hurricanes, while the other half was split between wanting to know more about rainbows and lightning.

Enter research groups! I split the class into groups and gave them each a bunch of non-fiction books on their topic of interest. They “read” the book (or looked at the pictures) and then came up with three facts about their topic. Then I used these free Research Report books for them to write down their facts and draw pictures. When they were all finished, we presented them to another class.





The whole process was such a cool integration of reading, writing and science. Unlike during Writer’s Workshop, I didn’t hear a single complaint about having to sound out words! It was also a really neat way to demonstrate how scientists learn something new – they ask a question, gather information through research, and report what they learn to others.

One more note: In addition to reading non-fiction books for gathering information, the book also strongly encourages inviting in guest speakers (for “expert interviews”) and taking field trips (called “research trips”). In an ideal world I would have done this, but…one step at a time!

The next chapter has tips from teachers who teach inquiry-based units. Looking forward to reading it!

Book study! Starting with Science: Chapter 4, Assessing for Understanding

Book study Chapter 4

I admit it. I am horrible at assessing. Not that I never do it. I feel like I am testing and assessing all the time – in math and literacy. But assessing science, in kindergarten?? Not something that I am super comfortable with. I tend to teach a science unit, and then move on to the next unit. No rubrics, no final projects, just lots of activities and experiments and conversations. No culminating demonstration of knowledge. I feel like kind of a bad science teacher. But that’s what this whole book study is about, to become better at teaching science effectively. So! I was excited to read this chapter about assessing for understanding of science concepts. And it didn’t disappoint. Some take-aways:

Assessment should be about three different components of inquiry: content, science practices, and attitudes towards learning.

I loved seeing this! Having a curious attitude, being persistent in problem-solving, and understanding the science practices (observing, predicting, questioning, etc) are just as important as learning facts and information.

Assessments are throughout the unit, not just at the end.

Since assessments are on-going, this means I need to make a plan for how I will assess as the unit develops. They made a note that children’s conversations count as an assessment source – this is something that I often forget. But how can I tell that a child understands something? Because she talks about it! They also suggested observations of children using materials and drawing/writing in their notebooks as another source for assessment. Kids’ responses to Know-Want to Know-Learned (KWL) charts (or, as this book suggests to use Know-Learned-Evidence-Wonder) charts are a great way to notice what understandings children have.

Teachers should provide feedback to their little scientists.

The author suggests giving feedback to children about their drawings, their observations, and their data collection. She stresses giving non-judgmental feedback, such as “I’m curious about why you decided to ____” instead of the more judgmental “Why would you ____?” Giving feedback can help students grow as scientists – they can learn more effective ways of sketching an animal using details, or how to label a drawing.

Documentation is important.

This is the aspect I am most excited to start! I really want to have a documentation board, as the book suggests. It’s a big area on the wall (or elsewhere) that shows work samples, photographs of kids working, questions that children have, and other representations of the learning process. I might call it the “Learning Wall,” and change it regularly depending on what we are studying.  Below are three examples of documentation walls – from two of my teacher blog crushes, Inquiring Minds: Mrs. Myers’ Kindergarten and The Curious Kindergarten.

documentation walls


Book study! Starting with Science: Chapter 3, Science as a Context for Literacy

Book Study: Starting with Science Chapter 3

I am so excited about inquiry-based teaching these days! Eventually I’d like to learn how to incorporate it in all subjects, but for now I am starting with science. For the next 7 weeks, I’ll be posting a summary and relevant resources from each chapter of the book Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry by Marcia Talhelm Edson. I’ll also add a few of my thoughts in there as well!

Chapter 3: Science as a Context for Literacy: Reading, Writing and Speaking

I am a huge fan of integrating across the curriculum, and I’m always looking for more efficient and effective ways to do it. I was especially looking forward to this chapter, because I want science to be integrated throughout my day. I also would like reading and writing to be integrated throughout other subjects, both because that will boost literacy learning, and because it represents real life. In real life, we don’t say “Okay, now I will stop to think about science” or “Now I move on to doing math.” Instead, these subjects are integrated throughout our day. Ultimately I would like the school day to reflect this idea of integration across subject matter. But I need to take baby steps to get there.

So that’s where this chapter comes in! It was all about how to incorporate literacy into science. In fact, they said that science is impossible without reading, writing, speaking and listening! So for those of us that need to keep the Common Core in the back of our minds at all times, this is encouraging.

Here were some of the tips for incorporating literacy into your science block (or science into your literacy block).

Use science notebooks.

I use science notebooks in my classroom sporadically, but I would like to figure out how to make them more a part of our daily science routine. I use a regular spiral notebook, but the book suggests using anything from a composition notebook to paper stapled together. What it looks like is less important than what goes into it.

Their biggest emphasis was on using science notebooks authentically – the way a real scientist would use them. Science notebooks should be for recording observations, predictions, conclusions, and interesting facts. Diagrams with labels are a great thing to record in a science notebook, as are observational drawings, tables, graphs, and questions that come up throughout the unit.

A note on observational drawings – the author of the book suggested giving students explicit lessons on how to do observational drawings – how to look for shapes in what you see, and record details such as shading and texture. I could see asking our school’s art teacher to do some lessons on nature drawing. But the book also suggests that teachers go out and try it themselves! Scientific drawings are a great way to encourage close observation.

The book goes on to note that science word banks or word walls can be used to encourage more writing in the younger grades. They also noted that science notebooks can be a way for reluctant writers to learn that writing has a purpose – and can be fun!

Incorporate non-fiction read alouds.

This is an easy one, since most teachers have a unit on non-fiction that they need to cover. But the book gave a few helpful pointers when reading non-fiction books – the entire book doesn’t need to be read from cover to cover. Instead, look for parts of the book that are most relevant to what students are wondering. Paraphrase if necessary, and use the book as a way to model curiosity and wonder about the topic.

Have science discussions.

I am so excited to try this in my classroom! Science discussions are a perfect way to incorporate speaking and listening into your curriculum – and they will help kids solidify their scientific understandings. The author suggests having a predictable routine to your science discussions, and to remember to explicitly teach skills like turn-taking, listening and asking questions beforehand (and during)! Science meetings could have many purposes, including sharing research done by a small group, commenting on friends’ scientific drawings, or making a list of facts you’ve learned. I think science discussions could be similar to morning meeting, or even done during morning meeting! There is a book called Doing Science in Morning Meeting that I really want to get!

Book study! Starting with Science: Chapter 2, Strategies for Teaching in an Inquiry-Focused Environment

Book Study Starting with Science

I am so excited about inquiry-based teaching these days! Eventually I’d like to learn how to incorporate it in all subjects, but for now I am starting with science. For the next 7 weeks, I’ll be posting a summary and relevant resources from each chapter of the book Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry by Marcia Talhelm Edson. I’ll also add a few of my thoughts in there as well!

Chapter 2: Strategies for Teaching in an Inquiry-Focused Environment

This chapter was filled with easy, practical advice for what teachers can do to make their classrooms more open to inquiry-based learning. They talked a lot about the types of questions we ask as teachers, the importance of modeling inquiry and curiosity, and how to organize a classroom that “keeps inquiry alive” (p. 19). I was excited to see that I already incorporate some of these practices into my teaching, but there are a lot more I can work on.

For example, they explained that good inquiry teachers don’t automatically interrupt children when they are playing and learning to ask questions or prompt for answers. Experienced teachers back off, take time to listen, and wait for when the time is right to ask a guiding or probing question. Often times if we interrupt children as they solve problems or investigate something new, we will halt their curiosity and teach them to wait for us to give them the answer. Instead of jumping in to provide information, we should wait to ask questions.

The types of questions we ask are also important. I’ve heard this lots of times in teacher trainings – ask open ended questions that encourage children’s thinking, rather than direct questions with finite answers. But they provided a really good list of questions to “enhance exploration and take children deeper in their investigation.” I decided I wanted to print out this list and post it by my desk, to remind myself of what questions will help encourage inquiry in my classroom. And since I was making it for myself, I decided to share! Click on the link below to download a copy.

The author also really emphasizes the importance of teacher modeling in an inquiry classroom. Teachers should model enthusiasm and curiosity about the natural world whenever possible! Kids pick up on this enthusiasm, and begin to mimic the way you ask questions and show interest in learning new information. This is definitely true of kindergartners, who often copy exact phrases that I use, such as “I was wondering…” and “I’m so interested in…”

The last part of the chapter focused on making an inquiry-based classroom environment. They discouraged the use of a “science table,” and instead recommended that natural items be scattered throughout the classroom. Magnifying glasses here, a pet fish there, a fossil collection over there. They also recommended a touching table, with items frequently changed out so they don’t become like wallpaper (so stagnant that the kids stop noticing it). I use a Wonder Table, and allow the kids to bring in any items that make them wonder something. Since they are always bringing in items, I have lots of options to change what is displayed on the table.

Two other very cool ideas that I walked away with:

  • Have science themes in your dramatic play area, such as an entomologist laboratory for an insect unit, or a vet clinic. Such an easy way to encourage kids to be scientists!
  • Make a backpack for the playground filled with investigation materials, such as magnifying glasses, a bug box, field guides, and clipboards. I am definitely going to do this once the weather warms up!

After reading this chapter, I am definitely going to rethink the way I ask questions, how I model curiosity and wonder, and how my classroom promotes interest in the natural world!

Book study! Starting with Science: Chapter 1, Understanding Inquiry-Based Science

Book Study Teach Run Eat

I am so excited to start this book study! The concept of teaching inquiry-based science is a really tough one, and thinking about teaching it with K-2 students is even more challenging! So this book seems like it’ll be the perfect place to start. For the next 7 weeks, I’ll be posting a summary and relevant resources from each chapter of the book Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry by Marcia Talhelm Edson. I’ll also add a few of my thoughts in there as well!

Chapter 1: Understanding Inquiry-Based Science

My biggest take away from this chapter is that inquiry-based science is less of a thing to do as you teach, and more of a way of thinking as you teach. Teachers who use inquiry-based learning practices believe that “children learn by exploring, by raising questions, and by actively constructing knowledge” (Edson, 2013, p. 5). Before I launch a science unit, I want to make sure I answer those questions:

  • Will this allow my students time to explore, or will I give them specific directions that they can’t stray from?
  • Will it help them raise questions, or will they just look to me for answers?
  • Will they be actively constructing their own knowledge, or will I require them all to follow the same steps to get to the answer?

The book gave a great example of a lesson in which a teacher read a book about shadows, then turned off the lights (exciting!) and made shadows with shapes on the overhead projector. The kids were excited, and seemed engaged, but they weren’t actually doing science. Science was being done to them. Alternatively, the teacher could have handed out multiple flashlights and let the children explore making shadows on their own. While they may not have been able to explicitly state the objectives at the end (“Light blocked by an object will make a shadow”), most kids would have come to the same conclusion with their own five senses. This is fundamental for inquiry-based science.

The other major point of the chapter was to emphasize the importance of choosing appropriate topics in inquiry-based science. The topics should be relevant to the students’ lives, and for young children, this means very directly relevant – since they are still such concrete learners. For example, teaching about habitats by studying the rainforest (which, for most of us, is miles away) is much less relevant to students’ lives than learning about the garden in their schoolyard. Using situations that arise in the classroom – such as the death of a classroom pet, or a parent visit – to launch learning units is inquiry-based science.

The book provided a great list of questions that you can use when choosing a topic for your science units. The questions included “Why is this topic especially worthwhile for this group of children?” and “Can the children actively explore this topic through their senses, close observations, and scientific investigations?”

I think that this will be hard for many teachers to do, though, particularly for those of us who are expected to teach a prescribed curriculum, such as FOSS Science. My units are set ahead of time, and I am supposed to follow the scripted lesson plans provided by the company. The conclusion here is clear – scripted science curriculum is NOT inquiry-based science.

Fortunately, a lot of districts are beginning to incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards (including mine)! These standards are more like the Common Core, in that they provide rigorous, deep learning standards but do not require a scripted curriculum. (In fact, there are no boxed curricula for them on the market right now!) Hopefully, many districts will realize that writing or purchasing scripted curriculum, in which every class does the same thing at each grade level, is not good science teaching. Instead, teachers should be trained to use inquiry as the backbone of their curriculum.

I’ll leave my summary there for now. But since I brought up the Next Gen Science Standards (NGSS), which I am pretty excited about these days, here are some great resources for incorporating them into your classroom, if you have the freedom to do so!

Book study! Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry

It’s been a long time since I’ve written! The start of the school year has come and gone, and now we are back from winter break {although today was a bonus break day, due to extreme cold in the midwest}. I’ve been neglecting the blog for many reasons, including having too many hobbies and prioritizing spending time with some pretty awesome people. I’ve also been doing lots of reading of teacher books. For the most part, I have been reading all kinds of stuff on teaching science!

good_posters_science_web_1While I love teaching science, I definitely don’t think I’m good at it. I want to be a super-duper science teacher who writes all her units from scratch based on the kids’ interests, and knows exactly how to guide her students to finding the most interesting science facts in the world. I basically want to be a Bill Nye for kindergarten.

But I hesitate to steer away from our (boring) (scripted) science curriculum, because I haven’t been taught how to teach good science without it! I know many teachers share my hesitation. It’s pretty shameful how little science is emphasized in teacher education programs. When I was in college, we had one science methods course in the entire five semester program. It was a wonderful, rigorous course that taught me to love teaching science – but it wasn’t enough. Now that I am in the classroom, it’s clear how little science is valued in school districts. We don’t get professional development in it. It’s all literacy and math all the time. So no wonder I hesitate to say I’m good at teaching science! And I am known as one of those “science people” at my school!

Anyway, I decided to take matters into my own hands several years ago, when I realized how little schools are helping teachers become better at teaching science. If they weren’t going to teach me, I would teach myself. Since then, I have read tons of books, attended workshops, and even quit teaching in the school system in order to teach environmental education. (That only lasted a few years – it was so much fun, but I missed being in the classroom.) I continue to talk to other science teachers, participate in committees, and find good science resources. And my new goal for 2015 is to share my findings here, on my little corner of the internet!

This is me, reading all the science teacher books:

There are so many to choose from!

To begin with, I picked up a new book called Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry. “Inquiry-based science” has long been an elusive term for me. Everyone says it’s the best way to teach science for all ages, but I never quite knew what it meant, and what made “inquiry science” different from hands-on science, or lab science, or environmental science. When this book came to my attention, it seemed like the perfect start! I teach kindergarten, and teaching science to young children can be an extra challenge. So this book, which is geared towards preK-3 teachers, will hopefully speak to those challenges as well.

Book Study Teach Run Eat

I plan to read a chapter each week, and post what I learn here on the blog. I’ll also include links to helpful resources that are mentioned in the book or that I come across on my own. I’m excited to share, as I love reading book studies by other teacher bloggers! If you’d like to join me, you can purchase the book here or here.

Happy reading!