Educational research is conducted in order to understand and improve the way we learn and teach. Researchers often share their findings at conferences or in various publications. Sadly, the people who would benefit most from these studies do not always receive this information. Practitioners rarely attend educational research conferences because of the cost and time involved. They are not frequent readers of educational research journals, perhaps due to the cost, the academic jargon, or because the questions of study do not interest them. The disconnect between products of research and the needs of practitioners is often referred to as the “research to practice gap.” In science education, this gap has been around for decades—but this situation is about to change.
The present virtual issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST), with its thematic focus on scientific inquiry, represents a commitment by two communities to bridge the research and practice gap. One community consists of science educators who craft the instruction that ensures student learning. The other is made up of science educators who study various aspects of classroom life in order to understand more about the process of teaching and learning. These two communities—the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST)—are both dedicated to student learning and science teaching. While there are certainly people in each community who bridge research and practice, few projects have required such a significant collaboration in order to produce a product for both groups.
It is certainly a myth when statements are made that suggest science educators in the classroom do not want to hear about educational research related to their field. In the State of Science Education Survey conducted by NSTA in 2009, teachers clearly stated that they wanted to talk to colleagues about emerging issues in science education, and to participate in science education research. In fact, learning about and participating in research were the most common ways that science educators in the classroom wanted to improve their own classroom practice. When asked for specific areas to discuss and participate in research, educators indicated the topic of scientific inquiry along with a few other areas. For those who are interested, a summary of this study and the survey results can be found on NSTA's website at http://www.nsta.org/about/pressroom.aspx?id=56420.
Science education researchers are eager to share their work with educators in the classroom. Many of the problems studied by science education researchers have direct bearing on classroom teaching, and their reports are accessible, in language and publication format, to teachers. NARST, the largest organization of science education researchers, has even directed some of its Board members to facilitate initiatives that disseminate research to classroom educators. Initiatives include presenting research and sharing select research articles at NSTA conferences, and helping to identify research articles for the summer reading list published in NSTA journals. While these are important efforts, science education researchers who want to bridge the research and practice gap know that more could be done.
This virtual issue on scientific inquiry, and the additional products that will follow, respond to the requests by science teachers for educational research that informs their practice. Interest in scientific inquiry is further evident from the high retrieval rate of the NSTA position statement on scientific inquiry (NSTA website http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/inquiry.aspx). The topic is also important to science educators familiar with the national standard of science as inquiry. While this virtual issue strives to meet the interests of science educators in the classroom, those involved in this project also hope that science education researchers will be inspired to better tailor their work to meet the needs of science educators in the classroom. In adopting this position, there is certainly room for additional virtual issues for science educators who are practitioners.
The NSTA position statement advances two broad points about scientific inquiry: (1) inquiry is how scientists come to know the world; and (2) this approach is at the heart of how students learn science. These statements are expanded upon by providing descriptions about the abilities and understandings important in science, and in a discussion of the instructional support, professional development, and classroom environment that a teacher needs in order to create inquiry lessons. These recommendations are also found in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council 1996). The authors of the position statement recommend that all teachers embrace scientific inquiry, and affirm that NSTA is committed to making science as inquiry the centerpiece of science instruction. The succinct and direct nature of this position statement leaves no question about the importance of scientific inquiry in the classroom, and essential role of teachers in the creation of this environment.
In addition to selecting the topic, the NSTA Research Committee identified a process for identifying articles for this virtual issue. After some discussion, the committee elected to review 10 years of JRST (2000–2009), and to start with articles published 4 years after the release the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996). This was done in order to ensure that research pertaining to scientific inquiry would be found in the literature. During the review process, committee members sought out articles that directly supported the points found in the NSTA position statement, were written for science educators in the classroom, and that offered some insight or application for the teaching of scientific inquiry. Several of the committee members are science educators with strong ties to the classroom, or are themselves practitioners. Over 25 articles were initially selected, and a smaller committee of teachers and science educators identified the final nine articles.
The selected studies involve diverse study questions, methods, content areas, and countries of origin. They address topics such as assessment, scaffolding inquiry experiences, and working with diverse learners. In addition, the studies include a range of classroom educators, from elementary through high school, and from preservice to in-service teachers. Ultimately, the variations in the selected articles demonstrates that scientific inquiry exists in all science classrooms and across the professional development spectrum of science teaching.
For science educators who work in classrooms, these articles can be used to start conversations with colleagues, or be used as a reflective tool to contemplate one's teaching of scientific inquiry. Perhaps a position or idea will be advanced that will give new meaning to an existing instructional approach, or a finding will be shared that results in a new practice in the classroom. For science education researchers, this set of papers represents research that corresponds to the requests and interests of practitioners. If science education researchers are going to impact the school setting, it will be important to craft papers that do make a difference in the lives of teachers.
More importantly, this virtual issue represents just the first part of a larger initiative that is attempting to bridge the research to practice gap. The second part of the initiative will take place in upcoming months with a discussion about this issue published in NSTA Reports. The discussion will elucidate how this collection of articles supports the vision of science as inquiry as described in the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996).
It must be said that this issue would not have happened without the Editors of the JRST—Joe Krajcik and Angela Calabrese Barton, or the NSTA Research Committee. Thanks to Joe and Angie's vision, this virtual issue has become a reality. With the help of the NSTA Research Committee, articles have been identified that capture the diversity of research around scientific inquiry. Ultimately, this virtual issue is a product of commitment and collaboration, and it is a product that initiates the building of a bridge between research and practice.