A Metacognitive Approach to Science & Inquiry

A students hilarious but true commentary on how to use the Scientific Method - please note the lack of thinking!

A students hilarious but true commentary on how to use the Scientific Method/ how to “do” Science! *Please note the inherent lack of thinking

In reflecting on the Science Fairs that I’ve attended I can’t help but ask: Whatever happened to inquiry in Science? It’s part of our standard PLOs in BC but this is one thing I found to be missing in all of these projects that test a hypothesis. I usually ask “Why did you do your experiment? How did you come to your question?” And what I usually get back is either a blank stare or  “it was in the package/online.”

The emphasis of science then, ends up on the doing but not the thinking, which I feel is the biggest shame. The essence of science and of learning is the thinking! Experiments (the doing) are done because of questions – the how and why – inquiry! Yet can be ignored in some science classrooms.  The process of thinking and questioning is being overlooked or underemphasized.

So often students are asked to use the scientific method. Which they do quite effortlessly once they’ve found an experiment from a quick google search. But how can we have our students try doing the first step on their own when they haven’t been given instruction on how?  Asking questions is a skill to be taught and explored before we ask students to even start using the scientific method in a deeper way.

An activity I would like to try is taking a metacognitive approach to science. A student would take a scientist, inventor, creator (whoever who has used the scientific method to test a hypothesis) – and instead of replicating how they came to their conclusion, dig around and discover how they got their essential question/ hypothesis and what the process of thinking is like.

This way, whoever the student chooses will act as a model for how to think. The student will have to research the life of that person, what affected their scientist enough to form that question, what connections, observations and reasonings their scientist would have made. By examining the process of thinking and question making, students may begin to understand what they must do when forming a question of their own and how this process creates the meaning behind the experiment. Why does it really matter if an egg floats or sinks in salt water? Why was answering that question important in the first place? It all comes down to the scientist and how they thought about it. Their thinking made that question an important one to answer.

Having students think about their thinking while their reading is a skill we teach day in and day out of our literacy programs (especially with the use of Adrianne Gear’s Reading/Writing Power kits). Metacognitive readers are good readers! But.. good thinkers make good scientists! 



2 thoughts on “A Metacognitive Approach to Science & Inquiry

  1. Hi Monica:
    This is a wise set of observations.
    Usually I am very much on the side of challenging my students (gr. 4-6) to do the level of thinking that adults do.
    However as most grad or PhD students will tell you, figuring out the researchable question is actually the hardest part of research.

    Quite aside from creating a question about a topic one is curious about (which I think kids can do), creating a good research question requires substantial knowledge of:

    the mechanics of the difficulty of kind of testing required &
    background knowledge of the area in question

    In my experience, my students, and actually most adults, do not have the level of knowledge required to create good research questions. When I did my Masters in Science Education, my professor suggested the research question.
    It was an interesting and manageable thesis topic. However as is the nature of science, while doing that research, I came up with other research questions that would have been good projects.

    That’s why I monitored, approved, and in many cases vetoed and suggested research questions in my class. I find that in most cases, it was the ‘process’ of hands on science that involved the kids. During the process, if they became interested in the topic, testable questions appeared.

    Regarding the Metacognitive idea.
    I also like this idea. However the challenge is….
    we don’t know what we don’t know. I mean that while I might explain (if I can) the process and background knowledge I draw upon to create a good testable question, it does not follow that the students’ knowledge will be sufficient for them to know the problems they may encounter. But you are right that we should try, but I would suggest we help them avoid frustration because of problems they could not anticipate.

    However: Do not be dissuaded by all this, you are on the right track-
    It’s just that we need to ensure we use the “I do it, We do it, We do it, You do it. – approach.
    ie. modeling, graduated release, and independent practice.
    I’m just suggesting that without ALL of the stages of this approach- the experience will be frustrating for the kids and their teacher too.

    • Ray, thank you for your well thought out response! I loved reading this.

      I agree that it’s very difficult to create a research question on your own and having that pressure on adults is even difficult. But you’re right, all I want is to try. Or even have kids understand how difficult it was for someone to think of a question in order to learn that with Science – it’s going to be difficult, frustrating and feel nearly impossible until it isn’t. And maybe it will feel nearly impossible for weeks or years or eons – but that’s Science and the process will create even more questions that seem impossible until, well, they’re not!

      I do like the idea of having students record the new questions they might have after following an experiment and then exploring those in more depth. Maybe students could then begin thinking about what experiment might be able to test the new question they have. This reminds me of the “Learning in Depth” project some Delta schools are taking on.

      With the “LiD” programs that I see unfold in schools (where students have a topic all of their own like “Money” and have the opportunity to learn about it deeply any way the student would like) I see an opportunity for students to create a substantial research question. As this is the first year some of these schools have tried it, I’ve seen powerpoint after powerpoint, clay model after clay model of the basic “Who,What,Where,When” type questions, but not the “Why and How.” Now that they have (or feel like they have) a solid grounding in their topic, an extensive background knowledge, they can start to form questions more deeply and explore those “Hows” and “Why’s” – the basis of inquiry. With teacher guidance on how to answer those questions they can begin their research and experiments. This would be interesting to see! 

I definitely agree that we can’t have students go all nine yards without us first showing them how to play the game and doing it with them. I guess what my hope is in the next science fair I attend I can hear students explain why testing egg density is important instead of the shrug of the shoulders that I was so often seeing.

      I just want to thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I feel a little more connected in this big blogiverse I’m trying to enter. It’s always a great feeling when you can continue the conversation you’ve been having in your head with someone who can offer great ideas and questions to think about! Your help is genuinely welcomed!

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