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Biology Inquiries: Standards-Based Labs, Assessments, and Discussion Lessons

Biology Inquiries: Standards-Based Labs, Assessments, and Discussion Lessons

by Martin Shields

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Biology Inquiries offers educators a handbook for teaching middle and high school students engaging lessons in the life sciences. Inspired by the National Science Education Standards, the book bridges the gap between theory and practice. With exciting twists on standard biology instruction the author emphasizes active inquiry instead of rote memorization.


Biology Inquiries offers educators a handbook for teaching middle and high school students engaging lessons in the life sciences. Inspired by the National Science Education Standards, the book bridges the gap between theory and practice. With exciting twists on standard biology instruction the author emphasizes active inquiry instead of rote memorization. Biology Inquiries contains many innovative ideas developed by biology teacher Martin Shields. This dynamic resource helps teachers introduce standards-based inquiry and constructivist lessons into their classrooms. Some of the book's classroom-tested lessons are inquiry modifications of traditional "cookbook" labs that biology teachers will recognize. Biology Inquiries provides a pool of active learning lessons to choose from with valuable tips on how to implement them.

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Publication date:
Jossey-Bass Teacher Series
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8.55(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.65(d)

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Biology Inquiries

By Martin Shields

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-7652-0

Chapter One


What exactly does inquiry mean? What is standards-based science teaching? What is the constructivist approach? And, why should we include these ideas in our lesson designs? This first chapter addresses these basic questions with an overview of the theory on which the book's lessons are based. The term inquiry has assumed many faces in education. The chapter describes the different forms of inquiry distinguished in the National Science Education Standards. Constructivism is introduced and a list of more detailed resources for these topics is provided.

What Is Standards-Based Teaching?

THE NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION STANDARDS (the Standards) was published by the National Research Council (NRC). The Standards was developed over four years with input from tens of thousands of scientists and educators. The work is not a curriculum. That is, it does not provide lists of content topics that should be mastered in the way that many state standards do. The life science content standards, for example, focus on general themes that should be emphasized by teachers, such as the molecular basis of heredity. The national standards are a broad guide, a vision, for effective science education. They offer research-supported prescriptions for how best to develop scientifically literate students.

Standards-based teaching mobilizes the visionof the Standards. It employs strategies derived from learning theory research such as constructivism. It is steeped in inquiry. It strives for deep understanding of science content over superficial memorization of facts.

The National Science Education Standards are available for purchase in print or for free online from National Academy Press. Leonard, Penick, and Douglas (2002) offer a useful twenty-point checklist and rubric for teachers to self evaluate the extent to which they are standards-based.


The chorus from the acronymed science and science education organizations (AAAS, NRC, NSTA, NABT, BSCS) coalesces around the primacy of inquiry. The Standards advise that science teachers should employ varied strategies, but inquiry is clearly positioned as the central approach in the document. In fact, the NRC even published a separate volume focusing solely on inquiry in the science classroom (NRC, 2000). The Standards define inquiry as:

A multifaceted activity that 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. (p. 23)

The National Science Teachers Association position statement on scientific inquiry (2004) proclaims that "understanding science content is significantly enhanced when ideas are anchored to inquiry experiences." They recommend that all K-12 teachers make inquiry the centerpiece of the science classroom.

Scientific Inquiry Versus Inquiry Learning

An important distinction is carved in the Standards between the type of inquiry practiced by scientists and inquiry as an approach to teaching science content in the classroom. However, both are essential components of a science curriculum. Scientific inquiry refers to designing and conducting scientific investigations. According to the Standards, students should learn how to do scientific inquiry (abilities) and to comprehend how science is done (understandings). In essence, scientific inquiry should be taught as both process and content in a biology class. But "abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry" means more than just the science process skills that are traditionally taught such as observing, measuring, and experimenting. The Standards promote a more complete integration of science process skills with the evaluation, interpretation and explanation of data (NRC, 2000).

On the other hand, inquiry in the Standards also refers to a classroom strategy for teaching any other science content such as photosynthesis or molecular biology. Such an inquiry approach involves the learning of concepts through inquiry investigations. For example, students might discover for themselves in an inquiry that plants respire by collecting and evaluating data showing a net oxygen consumption in the absence of light.

It is clear that the Standards aim to move teachers away from the traditional standalone "scientific method" or "science process" unit that often initiates a course. Instead, science inquiry abilities should be developed continually throughout a course and in the context of new biology content learning.

Inquiry Learning Defined

The NRC (2000) provides and explains a working definition of an inquiry approach to teaching science. Their definition centers on "Five Essential Features of Classroom Inquiry." (Bybee, 2002) summarizes the five essential features as:

1. Learners engage in scientifically oriented questions.

2. Learners give priority to evidence in responding to questions.

3. Learners formulate explanations from evidence.

4. Learners connect explanations to scientific knowledge.

5. Learners communicate and justify explanations.

As much as possible each of these features is pursued by students with significant input and sometimes self-initiation. Traditional cookbook labs and activities do not achieve these features. Typically such labs provide the student with a scientific question, an introduction that answers the question, a step-by-step procedure and directions on how to analyze the data and explain the results. Inquiries, on the other hand, begin with questions that may be developed or refined by students. Then they often require students to devise ways to answer the questions. Learners collect and interpret data, using it as evidence to support new understandings. Content learning then occurs as students evaluate their data in the context of scientific knowledge gleaned from book, teacher, or Web resources. Finally, scientific explanations are proposed, debated, and defended by learners. Volkmann and Abell (2003) offer an "inquiry analysis tool" to assess whether a lab activity includes the essential features of inquiry.

In general, inquiries involve less pre-lab than found in cookbook activities. First, students are not presented with the ideas to be learned in the beginning of the lesson. Instead they develop understanding of the concepts throughout the experience-and especially toward the end. New terminology is introduced after exploration. Second, there usually is not a long explanation of a procedure before an inquiry lab because students are more involved in developing the investigative approach themselves during the activity. Inquiry labs often begin with just a brief introduction to some possible materials, important safety notes, and sometimes a brief demonstration of relevant equipment or a data-collecting approach.

Partial Versus Full Inquiries

Inquiry learning activities that consist of all five of the "essential features" are considered full inquiries. Partial inquiries include only some of the five features. A partial inquiry might, for instance, provide experimental data for learners to manipulate, analyze, and explain. Both types of activities have value for the biology classroom. Partial inquiries can address a specific science process ability. They can form part of a sequence of experiences that together include all five features of inquiry. But many full inquiries should be used throughout a biology course.

Open Versus Guided Inquiry

Inquiries vary in the balance between student self-direction and teacher guidance. The NRC (2000) recommends that inquiries of different degrees of "openness" be employed by teachers. Specific biology content concepts are probably best taught through more structured, guided inquiries that focus learners on the intended outcomes. After all, students can't be expected to rediscover hundreds of years of biological knowledge through self-initiated questions. And some starting information or guidance is often necessary to raise the inquiry to higher levels. More open inquiries better develop scientific investigation abilities. These focus more on learning to do biological research than learning a specific biology concept. Clark, Clough, and Berg (2000) address this issue well:

In rethinking laboratory activities, too often a false dichotomy is presented to teachers that students must either passively follow a cookbook laboratory procedure or, at the other extreme, investigate a question of their own choosing. These extremes miss the large and fertile middle ground that is typically more pedagogically sound than either end of the continuum. (p. 40)

In Investigating Osmosis in Plant Cells the prime objective is developing understanding of osmosis in plants. So the learners are given a teacher-initiated question to investigate. They experience the five essential features of inquiry, and they delve deeply into osmosis. On the other hand, Investigating Plant Growth is a more open inquiry in which learners choose their own questions to investigate. With groups investigating different variables, the biology concept learning varies across the class. But all students experience scientific inquiry from beginning to end and at a depth that isn't possible in the osmosis example. Termite Trails Mystery exemplifies an inquiry in which students initially explore their own questions, but then discussion guides the group toward investigating one central topic.

Initiating Inquiry: Discrepant Events

Inquiry begins with questions. Sometimes questions are offered by the teacher and students are challenged to develop a means of finding answers and explanations. Or questions can be generated by students out of previous learning, readings, discussions, or explorations. One way to jump-start the inquiry process involves discrepant events. An occurrence that is discrepant to students is one that is contrary or inconsistent with what they were expecting. In Termite Trails Mystery, for example, a termite dropped onto paper begins to follow a red ink trail. This is strange and unexpected to the students. Discrepant events pique student curiosity. They capture attention and, most importantly, they motivate students to learn more about the observed occurrence. With a mystery to be solved, learners are primed for inquiry. They have a reason to design, conduct, and interpret experiments. They have a purpose for using books and Web resources to acquire scientific knowledge. Other lessons involving discrepant events include Red Dot Special, What Is Life? Glue Goblins, Mendel's Data, Cold-Blooded Thermometers, and Water Discrepancies.

Converting Cookbook Labs to Inquiry

Developing an inquiry-based classroom does not have to require reinventing the wheel. Many traditional labs and activities can fairly easily be modified into inquiry experiences. Generally, this involves simply reversing the organization of the lesson. Instead of concepts first followed by an "experiment" to verify the concepts, reposition the investigative part to the beginning. Begin with questions. Then students collect and interpret data. Eventually students are exposed to the concepts via teacher, book, or Web resources. They then further develop understanding by evaluating their lab experiences and data in light of accepted scientific knowledge.

The content information is back-loaded in an inquiry. It follows a period of seeking explanations for mysteries, solutions to challenges, and approaches to explorations. This is similar to watching a baseball game in that students are much more excited when the outcome is unknown than they would be in watching a replay (Alberts, 2000).

In a modified cookbook lab, the procedure is either deleted or greatly reduced. Instead of a step-by-step recipe, students may be presented with some general guidelines or suggested approaches. The use of a new data-collecting tool might be explained. Some possible materials to use may (or may not) be listed. Students create their own experimental designs. Each lab group in a class may develop a different approach to exploring the topic of the lab.

Investigating Osmosis in Plant Cells and The Osmosis Inquiry Egg are examples of classic labs that were modified into inquiries. Llewellyn (2002) and Clark (2000) offer many useful strategies for converting labs into inquiries.

Questioning in an Inquiry Classroom

Questioning comprises the core of inquiry. Often, students generate questions to investigate. They question their own ideas and those of their classmates. And teachers continually question students to find out what they know and to challenge them to think. In an inquiry-oriented classroom, teacher questions go well beyond asking for recall of facts. Instead, questions intend to draw students out, to prompt learners to develop an understanding of concepts. For real learning to occur, students have to be held accountable for being engaged. Inquiry questions don't let the recipient off the hook-they require the student to explain, to analyze, to justify.

The following list contains examples of responses and questions frequently heard in inquiry-oriented classrooms:

Good question. What do you think? (as a typical response to students' questions)

Interesting. Why do you think that?

Interesting idea. How could you test that?

Interesting idea. What evidence do you have for it?

Is there another possible explanation for that?

What kinds of data could help answer that question?

What can you conclude from that?

How do you explain these observations/data/results?

What are some hypotheses for that?

What information would you need to research before investigating that topic?

How confident are you of these results? Why?

What else could have led to these experimental results?

What are the variables in this experiment?

What are the constants in this experiment?

What further questions are raised by these results/conclusions?

Good start. How could we improve on that idea?

What can you now conclude about your hypothesis?

How do you justify your conclusion/explanation?

How could that experiment be made even better?

What will that experiment tell you? How will it do that?

What kind of data will you collect? Why?

Can you think of any other data that would provide even more information?

What mathematical analysis can you do to your data to get more information out of it?

Does everyone agree with that statement/conclusion/reasoning?

Who has some constructive feedback for this group?

"The Lab Didn't Work"

An attraction of cookbook labs for teachers is their predictable, consistent results. Students as well as teachers become molded to the lab experience where everyone knows the expected lab result and most groups either get that result or fudge their data to look like they did! If students don't achieve the expected, they conclude that either "the lab didn't work" or they "messed up." But with inquiries there is not usually one right answer or outcome. Instead, the emphasis is on "What results did you get and how do you explain them (whether expected or not)?"


Excerpted from Biology Inquiries by Martin Shields Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Teaching biology through inquiry takes practice--it does not come easily. This book provides a diverse series of excellent labs and activities that will serve as stepping stones that lead to an inquiry based biology classroom--a place where all students can experience the joy of developing their understanding and appreciation for biology."
--Brad Williamson, biology teacher and former president of the National Association of Biology Teachers

"Ignite your creative energies as if you were just walking into your classroom for the first time. Martin Shields has created the source for sound strategies all in one text—he has just what you have been waiting for."
--Marion V. “Bunny” Jaskot, biology teacher and president of Biology Teachers Association of New Jersey

"This is exactly the book I have been waiting for. There aren’t any books quite like it out there that I know of  or I would have bought them. Any teacher who wants to increase their source material would welcome the lessons in this book. Equally important, the book  also shows teachers how to turn current activities into inquiry-based activities."
--Jeff Sandler, biology teacher

"Biology Inquiries is a practical and resourceful book that serves both aspiring and practicing inquiry-based biology teachers. It transcends the spirit of inquiry into forty-seven laboratory investigations; a must-have for those who want to elevate their teaching through inquiry."

--Douglas Llewellyn, professor of science education and author, St. John Fisher College

"This is an excellent resource for upper middle grades and high school teachers that supports any biology curriculum. It contains tested activities, developed by an experienced biology teacher, with valuable suggestions for implementing this inquiry-based approach."
--Sandra D. Adams, professor of biology pedagogy, Montclair State University

"This book perfectly bridges the gap between standards and practice.  I would not only recommend this book to my teaching colleagues but also to professional developers and science education professors. It is a clearly marked pathway through the jungle of science education reform and is an exemplar for pre-service as well as in-service teachers. Martin Shields not only provides labs, discussions and assessments that follow the standards, but he also provides strategies and implementation tips to help teachers apply the standards in their own classrooms. Science reform never seemed so do-able and fun!"
--Vivian Lee Ward, project director, Access Excellence

Meet the Author


Martin Shields has taught high school biology for thirteen years. He has worked with students of all ability levels from remedial to Advanced Placement. His educational background includes a masters degree in biology and he has had diverse research experiences. He has been published in The Science Teacher and regularly presents on inquiry and other teaching strategies at state and national conventions.

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