Like NOS, the meaning of “science as inquiry” has been debated for decades, and precise descriptions of what inquiry means for science education seem to vary as much as the methods of inquiry (Bybee, 2000). “Scientific inquiry refers to the characteristics of the processes through which scientific knowledge is developed, including the conventions involved in the development, acceptance, and utility of scientific knowledge” (Schwartz, 2004, p. 8). The NSES states:
[Inquiry] involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations. (NRC, 1996, p. 23)
The National Academy of Sciences (2002) identified guiding principles for scientific inquiry that serve as a common basis across disciplines of research including political science, geophysics, and education. These principles are similar to the items on the list of generalized inquiry skills identified in the NSES (NRC, 2000), and included among the eight scientific practices of the NGSS. The NRC (2000, 2011), AAAS (1993), and the National Academy of Sciences (2002) offers descriptions of knowledge about SI, beyond basic investigative skills, that share commonalties.
When describing aspects of SI, we draw from these documents as they highlight the fundamental understandings learners should develop about SI (e.g. “different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations; current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations” (NRC, 2000, p. 20)). Researchers who have explored scientists in practice (e.g. Dunbar, 2001; Knorr-Cetina, 1999; Latour & Woolgar, 1979) have described similar aspects. Some of these common elements about inquiry were used as the framework in the development of the Views of Scientific Inquiry (VOSI) questionnaire (Schwartz, 2004; Schwartz et al., 2008; Schwartz, Lederman, & Thompson, 2001).
We have since revisited the common elements and identified additional aspects from this literature base to serve as the framework for the VASI instrument, which are likewise educationally and developmentally appropriate in the context of K-16 science classrooms. Specifically, students should develop an informed understanding of the following aspects of SI: (1) scientific investigations all begin with a question and do not necessarily test a hypothesis; (2) there is no single set of steps followed in all investigations (i.e. there is no single scientific method); (3) inquiry procedures are guided by the question asked; (4) all scientists performing the same procedures may not get the same results; (5) inquiry procedures can influence results; (6) research conclusions must be consistent with the data collected; (7) scientific data are not the same as scientific evidence; and that (8) explanations are developed from a combination of collected data and what is already known. It should not be presumed that the specific conceptualization of the construct represented by the eight aspects of SI is intended to be forwarded as the only one. These eight aspects are the ones that guided the development of the VASI instrument. Furthermore, it is argued, that these understandings are important for students to know and are developmentally appropriate for K-16 students.
Scientific Investigations All Begin With a Question and Do Not Necessarily Test a Hypothesis
It is valid to think that observations spark interest before a question exists and this is part of science. However, it is important to distinguish science from just walking through this world and observing. In other words, watching a baseball game is not doing science. It is this very issue that is at the heart of students not being able to ask a valid scientific question. They need to have specific knowledge that has been melded into some curious pattern or question. This is the practice followed in science investigations and in research in any area. There is no denying the importance of observing the world, but observing the world without something guiding your observations is not science.
Furthermore, “scientific investigations involve asking and answering a question and comparing the answer with what scientists already know about the world” (NRC, 2000). In order for scientific investigations to “begin” there needs to be a question asked about the world and how it works. Though these questions may originate through a variety of means (e.g., general curiosity about the world, a response to a prediction of a theory), congruent with the vision set forth in the NGSS, students need to understand that, in general, “science begins with questions” (Practice 1, Appendix F, p. 4).
Unlike what is prescribed by the scientific method, all investigations do not necessarily have to formally state a hypothesis. Though traditional experimental designs typically include one, this is not necessary or typical of other designs in the more descriptive sciences.
There Is No Single Set or Sequence of Steps Followed in All Investigations
Even when not explicitly communicated, school science often looks like the scientific method because of an over reliance on experimental design. Clearly, there are other ways that scientists perform investigations such as observing natural phenomena. The field of astronomy relies heavily on ways of gathering data, drawing inferences, and developing scientific knowledge that do not follow the scientific method, with descriptive and correlational research as two of the more prominent examples.
Students need to develop not only an understanding of the variety of research methodologies employed both across and within the domains of science, but that, in general, “scientist[s] use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer” (NRC, 2000, p. 20). Put another way, these methods are guided by epistemological goals (Sandoval, 2005). This is supported by The Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2011) that states that “[s]tudents should have the opportunity to plan and carry out several different kinds of investigations…” (p. 61), including both “laboratory experiments” and “field observations.” Assessing students' understanding that there is no single scientific method, after instruction to explicitly address these different methods and their appropriateness, is consonant with this aim.
Inquiry Procedures Are Guided by the Question Asked
Though scientists may design different procedures to answer the same question, these invariably need to be capable of answering the question proposed. The procedures implied by the scientific method (i.e., experimental design) are not always tenable approaches for answering certain questions as “control of conditions may be impractical (as in studying stars), or unethical (as in studying people), or likely to distort the natural phenomena (as in studying wild animals in captivity)” (AAAS, 1990, Chapter 1).
Similar to the aforementioned aspect of SI, students need to understand the necessity of this alignment between research question and method, in that the former drives, and ultimately determines, the latter. In general, students should understand that the question governs the approach, with the approaches differing both within and between scientific disciplines and fields (Lederman, Antink, & Bartos, 2012). Furthermore, the method of investigation must be suitable for answering the question that is asked. This aim is mirrored by the NGSS, which emphasizes learners should be able to “plan a course of action that will provide the evidence to support their conclusions” (Practice 3, Appendix F, p. 7).
All Scientists Performing the Same Procedures May Not Get the Same Results
Students need to understand that scientific data do not stand alone, can be interpreted in various ways, and “that scientists may legitimately come to different interpretations of the same data” (Osborne, Collins, Ratcliffe, Millar, & Duschl, 2003, p. 708). As such, scientists who ask similar questions and follow similar procedures may reach different conclusions. This is due, in part, to a scientist's theoretical framework, what he or she considers as evidence, and how anomalous data are handled, for example. Likewise, as students engage in the scientific practice of analyzing and interpreting data (NGSS, Practice 4) and in critiquing the work of their peers, an understanding of the subjective nature of this process can be made explicit.
The history of science is replete with examples of differences in interpretation. The use of similar data by evolutionary biologists to support their specific conclusions is a case in point. A researcher operating from a Darwinian framework might focus his/her efforts on the location of transitional species, while, by contrast, from a punctuated equilibrium perspective transitional species would not be expected nor would what a Darwinian considered a transitional species be considered as such (see Gould & Eldridge, 1977).
Inquiry Procedures Can Influence Results
The procedure selected for a scientific investigation invariably influences the outcome. The operationalization of variables, the methods of data collection, and how variables are measured and analyzed all influence the conclusions reached by the researcher. For instance, a common investigation in high school biology class examines the root cells of a plant to identify cells in various stages of mitosis. The procedures used by the student invariably influence the type of data they collect, therefore affecting the conclusions they may reach. More generally, throughout the history of science technological advances have impacted the common practices of scientists, the results of their undertakings, and knowledge generated. Our understanding of the structure of the nucleus is just one example that shows our knowledge changing as a function of the investigatory procedures employed.
As one of the eight scientific practices emphasized in the NGSS (Practice 4), students must not only be adept at analyzing and interpreting data, but must also be able to compare the results from different data sets generated through a variety of methodologies. As such, they should develop an understanding of the logical connection between the method of inquiry, the specific procedures therein, the data collected, and thus the conclusions drawn.
Research Conclusions Must Be Consistent With the Data Collected
Each research conclusion must be supported by evidence that stems from the data collected (see the following aspect). Students need to understand that the strength of a scientist's claim is a function of the preponderance of evidence that supports it. The validity of the claims is further strengthened by the alignment of the research method with the research question. It follows, then, that claims must be reflected in the data collected. Scientific knowledge is empirically based, thus any explanations are anchored by the data that facilitates scientists' development of those explanations.
Consider the relatively unusual case of pharmaceuticals whose clinical trial data, emerging after their approval, exhibit questionable links to more serious side effects than reported. Although the safety claims about such medicines may be supported to an extent by clinical studies, trends in the data that are suggestive of serious concerns may go without interpretation. The conclusions in these situations are inconsistent with the data and such inconsistencies in these types of cases have serious implications for consumers.
As communicated through the NGSS, students are expected to construct explanations supported empirically and to engage in argumentation from evidence (Appendix F, Practice 6). As such, it is important for students to understand that the tenets of their explanations and arguments must be consistent with, and are likewise qualitatively a function of, the data they collected.
Scientific Data Are Not the Same as Scientific Evidence
Data and evidence serve different purposes in a scientific investigation. Data are observations gathered by the scientist during the course of the investigation, and they can take various forms (e.g., numbers, descriptions, photographs, audio, physical samples, etc.). Evidence, by contrast, is a product of data analysis procedures and subsequent interpretation, and is directly tied to a specific question and a related claim.
Observations of the orbit of Mars around the sun, in and of themselves, are, simply put, an example of data. When these observations are made in conjunction with an attempt to determine the validity of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, they constitute evidence in support of, or in opposition to, this claim.
It is necessary that students understand the distinction between data and evidence and can describe how the interpretation of data (i.e., the use of data as evidence) is a potential source of bias. This is congruent with the NGSS (2013, Appendix F) which state:
Being a critical consumer of information about science and engineering requires the ability to read or view reports of scientific or technological advances or applications (whether found in the press, the Internet, or in a town meeting) and to recognize the salient ideas, identify sources of error and methodological flaws, distinguish observations from inferences, arguments from explanations, and claims from evidence [emphasis added] (p. 13).
Explanations Are Developed From a Combination of Collected Data and What Is Already Known
“Scientists strive to make sense of observations of phenomena by constructing explanations for them that use, or are consistent with, currently accepted scientific principles” (AAAS, 1990, Chapter 1). As such, investigations are guided by current knowledge, and conclusions, while derived from empirical data, are additionally informed by previous investigations and accepted scientific knowledge. Students that are engaged in scientific practices consistent with the NGSS need to grasp this relationship. In addition, they must also understand that scientists must recognize when well-supported conclusions differ from accepted scientific knowledge, or have “greater explanatory power of phenomena than previous theories (NRC, 2011, p. 52). Scientists are then faced with determining how these findings must be interpreted given what is already understood. Consider, for example, when paleontologists unearth dinosaur bones. These bones are not found in a perfect skeleton. Indeed, the bones are not even found in complete pieces. Scientists must use what they already know about skeletons in conjunction with the data (the newly unearthed bones) to construct the skeleton, while also remaining aware of any potential inconsistencies with current knowledge.
The overarching intent of the VASI questionnaire is to assess learners' knowledge of scientific inquiry, as represented by these eight well-supported, core aspects. Though there is clear overlap between the eight scientific practices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the aspects of SI targeted by the VASI, the focus of the VASI is on understandings about SI as opposed to the doing of SI. Thus, while the practices emphasize that students must be able to plan and carry out investigations, the VASI targets students' knowledge about aspects of these common scientific practices. Put another way, a procedure tightly aligned with a guiding question may serve as an assessment criterion for discerning a student's ability to plan and carry out an investigation, but whether a student has an informed conception of this necessary coupling may not always be assessed, but is a targeted aspect of the VASI. The doing of inquiry and the knowledge about inquiry are both important, unfortunately the knowledge about inquiry is typically not assessed.
For practices such as “engaging in argument from evidence” and “constructing explanations,” for example, the VASI could help discern students' understanding of such constituent aspects as: research conclusions must be consistent with the data collected, scientific data are not the same as scientific evidence and that explanations are developed from a combination of collected data and what is already known.
The Framework contends that “[e]ngaging in the practices of science helps students understand how scientific knowledge develops; such direct involvement gives them an appreciation of the wide range of approaches that are used to investigate, model, and explain the world” (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 42). The intent of the VASI is to facilitate an “inquiry as ends” approach (Abd-El-Khalick et al., 2004) that positions scientific inquiry as an explicit instructional outcome. This is unlike implicit approaches that typically emphasize the “doing” of science, but neglect to address instructional objectives targeting learners' understandings of foundational aspects of scientific practice (i.e., knowledge about scientific inquiry). In this paradigm, “doing science” is seen as a sufficient vehicle to help students “know science.” A body of research that spans decades (e.g., Abd-El-Khalick, 1998; Barufaldi, Bethel, & Lamb, 1977; Haukoos & Penick, 1985; Riley, 1979; Scharmann & Harris, 1992; Spears & Zollman, 1977; among others) has indicated that these implicit approaches are not sufficient for improving students' and teachers' understandings of NOS or SI. In general, we echo the sentiments of Sandoval and Reiser (2004) in that “[p]lacing these epistemic aspects of scientific practice in the foreground of inquiry may help students to understand and better conduct inquiry, as well as provide a context to overtly examine the epistemological commitments underlying it” (p. 346).
With this in mind, it is argued that the eight aspects of SI targeted by the VASI, while not explicitly communicated in all eight core scientific practices of the NGSS are, nonetheless, contained therein to varying degrees. An understanding of each aspect of SI, it is further argued, can only serve to bolster efforts to develop the knowledge that is specific to each of these core practices. The VASI, it is hoped, will ensure that teachers are not leaving to chance whether their students' engagement in various scientific practices leads to their development of informed conceptions about these practices. Put another way, in the NSES and NGSS there is a clear recognition that doing something alone does not engender an understanding of what is being done. The knowledge targeted by the VASI is embedded in the doing or practices of science, but it needs to be made explicit so that students can recognize and apply the knowledge to unique situations. Again, students can learn to use procedures and algorithms and not understand what is actually being done. This view is supported by the NGSS, in large part, through the following statement from the Reflecting on the Practice of Science and Engineering section of Appendix F:
Engaging students in the practices of science and engineering outlined in this section is not sufficient for science literacy. It is also important for students to stand back and reflect on how these practices have contributed to their own development, and to the accumulation of scientific knowledge and engineering accomplishments over the ages (p. 16).
This section continues, further emphasizing “that reflection is essential if students are to become aware of themselves as competent and confident learners and doers in the realms of science and engineering” (p. 16). The VASI is a means to assess the efficacy of these referred to explicit-reflective classroom practices aimed at developing understandings of the practice of science outlined in the NGSS.
In summary, understandings about SI have long been viewed as an integral component of scientific literacy. Various reform documents emphasize developing students' and teachers' “understandings of inquiry” (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 2000), beyond that of typical science concepts and common procedures of scientific investigations. Furthermore, these aspects of SI are not new to the field of science, as they were explicated a half century ago in Schwab's The Teaching of Science (1962). The NRC (2000), AAAS (1993), and the NAS (2002), along with various science educators (e.g., Flick & Lederman, 2004; Osborne et al., 2003) and researchers who have examined how scientists “practice” (e.g., Dunbar, 2001; Knorr-Cetina, 1999) helped inform the identification of essential aspects of scientific inquiry that serve as a foundation for the VASI questionnaire. To the overarching goal of developing a scientifically literate populace—the general citizen will need to have a strong knowledge about how scientists construct knowledge and with what level of confidence they should have about that knowledge. They need to know why and how scientists looking at the same data can validly disagree, for example. The scientifically literate citizen will make decisions about controversial topics through their knowledge about scientific inquiry and scientific practices, as opposed to running to their garage to do an experiment.
Accurate descriptions of the changing landscape of scientific inquiry from science studies and the learning sciences clearly support Duschl's (2008) contention that “there are additional important details for the development of learners' scientific literacy” (p. 9) beyond the eight aforementioned aspects of SI. At the level of the K-12 learner, though, the aspects of SI undergirding the development of the VASI, it is argued, are at a level of generality that positions them as requisite knowledge for developing understandings of these “additional important details.”