A study of an experienced teacher over one year

Students discussing science

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Changing teaching to be more student focused could support learning

It is not uncommon to find chemistry teachers sticking to traditional methods of instruction that involve a considerable amount of teacher talk and directed instruction. Teachers are often wary of changing their role from instructor to a person who guides students through a scientific inquiry. 

A guided inquiry, or problem solving, approach starts with a question and expects the students to determine the procedures that will lead to a solution. While there has been several studies looking at successful inquiry teaching they have looked at individual episodes rather than examining how the teacher makes the transitions into and out of the inquiries. Dennis Smithenry of Elmhurst College, Illinois, US has filled this gap by studying the work of one teacher over a year.1 

This experienced chemistry teacher had been using an inquiry-based approach for a number of years built into the set curriculum for 16-17 year olds who were science specialists. Data were gathered through direct observations, video recording and through the teacher's own log of the duration of the various activities that occurred during every lesson. The time spent on activities was compared with data gathered in previous research on methods used by US teachers and showed that the teacher spent much less time on lecture and discussion and much more time on laboratory work, some of which was structured by the teacher and some of which required the students to devise appropriate procedures. Compared with the US average, the teacher spent marginally more time on group work and approximately the same amount of time on assessment and other activities. During the teaching of all topics the teacher ensured that students experienced several teacher-directed tasks, a set of structured inquiries and one multi-lesson guided inquiry. 

As the year went on more time was devoted to guided inquiry. These sessions were carried out in 4 clearly defined steps. First the teacher introduced the perquisite concepts and skills and then explained the problem to be solved. At this point control was handed over to the students and they had to apply the concepts and skills to solve the problem as a whole class. The final step involved the students reflecting on their performance and the teacher giving feedback and appraising the achievement of the learning outcomes. 

The approach did not reduce the time to cover the curriculum content, it simply changed it from being more teacher focused to being more student focused where the students' voice dominated the discussion, not the teacher's.