Effective chemical education for “learning to inquire” in upper secondary school

The Netherlands

Supervisor: Prof. dr. Albert Pilot

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Introduction – This thesis reports on a research aimed at identifying features that make a design of chemical education for ‘learning to inquire’ in upper secondary school effective. Inquiry skills are part of the upper secondary school science examination programmes in the Netherlands. Nationally as well as internationally curriculum developers and educational researchers agree on the importance of students learning scientific inquiry. Science educational research has not yet yielded an adequate approach for ‘learning to inquire’ in chemistry teaching.

Theoretical perspective and research design – The researcher has opted for development research consisting of an exploratory phase, a design focused phase, a phase of testing in practice and a phase of identifying the features that make an educational design for ‘learning to inquire’ effective.

Doing inquiry is considered as a cyclic, iterative, social and personal activity, to which not one specific method or succession of actions applies. Furthermore a model for designing chemical education for ‘learning to inquire’ has been constructed. In this model students are ‘researchers’ in a simulated ‘research community’. They work in teams on the same inquiry problem and go through an inquiry learning process, in which they themselves ask inquiry questions, formulate and carry out their inquiry plan as well as evaluate their inquiry results in a critical discourse with ‘fellow researchers’. In this process of inquiring and learning students will use ‘willing’, ‘knowing’ and ‘ability’ to acquire ‘new’ knowledge and abilities. The insight that ‘learning to inquire’ should take place in a ‘research community’ is supported by the social constructivist point of view. The procedural and conceptual knowledge in science(PACKS) model seems to be a suitable framework to concretise ‘knowing’ and ‘ability’ in a design of chemical education for ‘learning to inquire’. According to this model these mean that students need to understand aim and nature of the research task as well as relevant subject knowledge and empirical evidence in order to adequately conduct the inquiry.

To involve educational practice effectively in the research the researcher established a teacher network with five chemistry teachers in different schools. It was assumed that working together in the network would lead to a design that is feasible in chemistry teaching practice and effectively makes students ‘learn to inquire’.

Starting situation of the teachers and students – The exploratory research on the actual practice of teaching ‘inquiry skills’ to upper secondary students has shown that the five teachers have experience with hardly anything but prescriptive practical work that aims at verification of theory and acquirement of experimental skills.

In network meetings various inquiry tasks have been designed. In designing inquiry tasks the teachers first want to determine in mutual agreement the requirements for the inquiry tasks. Furthermore they think that the learning process in which the students ‘learn to inquire’ can best take place by having them do an actual inquiry. Next they connect inquiry tasks to topics in the textbook and they prefer small scale changes in their practice of teaching. They consider guidance and quality control of the learning process of great importance. With regard to the implementation of the inquiry tasks in class the research established that the teachers first focus on the practical feasibility, next on the coaching strategy and finally on the key issue: the quality of inquiring.

Students, age 16, (N=147) from seven different Form IV chemistry classes were observed when they independently from the teacher, in pairs, conducted an inquiry task (‘mineral water’ and ‘desiccants’). The students appeared to have difficulty understanding the aim of the inquiry, identifying the relevant variables, formulating an adequate inquiry method and adjusting an inadequate method. Moreover students have little knowledge of accuracy, reliability and validity in an inquiry. The motivation of students to do inquiry is influenced by the freedom of action they are allowed in an inquiry, their understanding of what they are doing, whether they learn something ‘new’ and by variation of doing inquiry with other activities in chemistry lessons.

The educational design for ‘learning to inquire’ – In the design focused phase the learning teaching strategy, the planned student and teacher activities, and the learning teaching materials are designed. The teaching learning strategy includes seven phases:

  1. introduction to chemical research and the inquiry problem, including motivation;
  2. introduction to and acquisition of chemical knowledge, including motivation;
  3. introduction to and acquisition of experimental skills, including motivation;
  4. introduction to and acquisition of the concepts accuracy (a), reliability (r) and validity (v), including motivation;
  5. application of chemical knowledge and knowledge of a, r and v, including motivation;
  6. application of experimental skills and knowledge of a and r, including motivation;
  7. reflection on chemical knowledge, knowledge of a, r and v and experimental skills, including motivation.

The learning activities incorporated in a workbook concern an inquiry into ‘Diffusion: moving particles’. The students inquiry the relation between the masses of ions and the distance travelled in distilled water. They include that students individually read on chemistry research in general, think of examples related to diffusion, predict, observe and explain a diffusion demonstration experiment. As a team conduct a guide experiment, judge an exemplary research on accuracy, reliability and validity, formulate an inquiry question, set up and conduct an inquiry, write an inquiry report submitting it for publication, discuss the inquiry results with another team in an Internet symposium, rewrite the report into an article, submit it again for publication and compete for the inquiry award.The planned teacher activities are geared on the student activities and laid down in a teaching scenario. The materials are put on www.onderwijscentrum.vu.nl/internetsymposium.

The feasibility of and learning results in the second educational design – The design is tested in five Form V (age 17) chemistry classes. The activities of the five teachers and three groups of students (N=31) in the six lessons have been audio taped. The teachers have been interviewed at the end of each lesson. The students rated both the activities they conducted themselves and the activities conducted by the teachers on motivating, interesting and of learning value. The teachers have filled in a questionnaire concerning the inquiry project.

The analysis and interpretation of the various data show that the students as well as the teachers have for the most part implemented the activities as intended. Students and teachers remained motivated and interested in the project.

To determine the students' (N=80) learning results the discussions among three groups of students in each class have been audio taped. The worksheets of the students have been collected. The team reports, the discussion on the Internet and the team articles (N=34) have been judged for quality. The students who participated in the inquiry project as well as a control group (N=16) have taken a pre-test and post-test on ‘accurate and reliable experimenting’.

In seven of the eight planned activities the set standard (75% pass of the students) has been achieved. 63% of the students have written an article of sufficient quality. The articles show the students have difficulties with: formulation of unambiguous, relevant and concrete inquiry questions, conversion of data into a correct graph and application of the concept of reliability. Their answers in the post-test on ‘accurate and reliable experimenting’ show that they know more about accuracy and reliability in a research. They have significantly improved their average score (post minus pre-test) whereas the control group has not.

The educational design in theoretical perspective – In the identifying phase of the research it is concluded that an effective design of chemical education for ‘learning to inquire’ is to a considerable extent determined by the high level of authenticity of the students' inquiry actions. Through a full inquiry process they work on a ‘real’ problem within a simulated research community. In order to realize this, students need to be familiarized with doing inquiry by introductory and supporting activities. The learning teaching strategy should focus on each of the components ‘knowing’, ‘ability’ and ‘willing’ as distinguished in the model.

The model is fine-tuned and converted into guidelines based on theory and practice for designing ‘learning to inquire’. The feasibility of these guidelines is visible in the three other designs: “Traditional and modern soap: washing power”, “Cola and Teeth” and “Cold Packs”. These have been implemented in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Further research is needed to investigate the extent to which this model is applicable to other domains of science.

Key words: learning scientific inquiry, model for design of teaching, simulated inquiry community, diffusion of ions, development research

Full reference

Van Rens, E.M.M. (2005), Effectief scheikundeonderwijs voor ‘leren onderzoeken’ in de tweede fase van het vwo – een chemie van willen weten en kunnen. 154 p. Available on: http://dare.ubvu.vu.nl’handle/1871/9109  (including a 6 page summary in English).

Van Rens, E.M.M. & Dekkers, P.J.J.M. (2001). Learning about investigations – the teacher’s role. In H. Berendt et al. (Eds.),Research in science education – past, present and future (pp. 325-330). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Van Rens, L., Pilot, A., & Van Dijk, H. (2004). Enhancement of quality in chemical inquiry by pre-university students. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 2, 493-509.


Dr. Lisette van Rens. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Onderwijscentrum VU, De Boelelaan 1115, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands

T +31 (0)20 598924

F +31 (0)20 5989250

Prof. dr. Albert Pilot (supervisor) Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

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