Inquiry can be broken down into three key areas: questioning, investigation, and argumentation. Without any one of these three legs, inquiry loses its power.
Good questions are at the heart of inquiry – I hope that goes without saying. There is no inquiry without genuine questions.
Questioning has to be followed up with investigation – seeking answers to questions. This could take the form of scientific experiments, deep research, interviews, etc. No matter the type of investigation, if this step is neglected, the questions are meaningless and the answers are pure fluff.
Finally, we come to the leg that makes inquiry social and human – the argument. Great investigations based on interesting questions hold only so much power without this critical step.
Exposing one’s work to criticism – to share, to get feedback, to educate others – is the step that makes inquiry soar. With students, this may be the hardest step – and the most important.
In Teaching Argument Writing (Hillocks, 2011), the author lays out a powerful case for the importance of crafting strong arguments. He follows his argument with a clear method for teaching students to do so. My lesson trial was based upon this method.
My students had just completed a 3 day lab investigation with the common nematode, C. elegans. The investigation was a comparison of wild type C. elegans and a genetic mutant variety. The mutant C. elegans had the ability to maintain a normal level of activity when exposed to a salty environment, whereas the wild type had to essentially freeze in place for 24 hours in order to adapt to the salt.
To make a long story short, my students had ample data and needed to make a conclusion.
To start the argument writing process, I prompted my students with the question, “Which type of C. elegans was better, the mutant or the wild type, and why?” Because of the ambiguity of the answer (one could argue the merits of each side), students were forced to pick a side and use data to back up their argument.
Normally, this is the point where I have to pester students over and over again to use data in their conclusions and to explain how their data supprts their conclusion.
My students were already in groups of 3 or 4 for their lab work, so I asked them to work with that group. To begin, I had them get a whiteboard (I have several poster sized whiteboards made from shower board) and draw this graphic organizer:
Once they had done that, I asked them to pick a side as a group and write their claim (their answer to my question) in the top section.
Next, after a brief discussion about evidence, I asked them to gather evidence to support their claim. They could use their lab notes, our class data (posted in a spreadsheet projected for all to see), or some data tables that I had provided them earlier in the lab. These data tables contained data from experiments previously done on C. elegans in labs.
The next step was probably the hardest, and required a bit more discussion and explanation.
For each piece of evidence they listed, I asked them to come up with reasoning to connect the evidence to their claim. To do this, they had to come up with common sense or scientific ways to explain how each piece of evidence supported their claim.
Finally, I asked each individual to write a conclusion in paragraph form. To do this, they used the whiteboard their group had generated and turned their claim, evidence and reasoning into a paragraph or two.
While the reasoning was weak at times, these were very solid conclusions.
Usually a good portion of my students make claims entirely based on vague quality statements about lab data (e.g., “because the temperature went up”, or “because the pH changed a lot”, etc.).
However, over 90% of the conclusions I collected in this lesson trial contained specific data to support their claim.
Not only do too few students use data consistently in conclusions but those who do often just throw it in there and expect the data to speak for itself (e.g., “the temperature was 90 deg. C”, or “the pH rose from 7 to 11”, etc.). There is often little or not explanation of HOW the chosen data supports the claim.
In this lesson trial, approximately 70% of my students had reasoning that clearly connected their data to their claim. As mentioned before, some of the reasoning was very weak or vague. That being said, I rarely get ANY reasoning from students in a first draft of a conclusion.
Overall, this process was very effective. I have tried many things in the past to teach students to write good conclusions. I have provided models of various levels of quality, detailed rubrics, feedback and revision protocols, and more. However, none of those processes has been as efficient as this one at getting students into the ballpark of a quality conclusion.
This process could easily be modified to culminate in paired discussions, a whole class discussion, or full-fledged lab report writing. It could also be a great lead in to deeper inquiry – they could find the weak points in their claim and “go back to the drawing board” to gather more data.
Hillocks, G. (2011). Teaching argument writing, grades 6-12: supporting claims with relevant evidence and clear reasoning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Special thanks to Dr. Maureen Munn and Dr. Jeff Shaver from the University of Washington Genome Sciences Educational Outreach Program for providing the C. elegans lab and all associated materials. It was awesome!
Morgan Freeman “Your argument is invalid” Image courtesy of Pop Hangover: http://www.pophangover.com/2012/01/24/your-argument-is-invalid/
NOTE: This post was originally posted at my personal blog, Wisdom Begins with Wonder