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Creating a Next Generation Inquiry-Based Classroom

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August 15th, 2019

As we discussed in a previous blog, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have transformed K-12 science education in countless ways.

One of those major shifts is the change in the role of the teacher. Teachers are no longer “on stage” or “performing,” which has been the traditional model of instruction. Instead, the science classroom is an inquiry-based environment where students develop Science and Engineering Practices and take intellectual risks.

What Is Inquiry? 

Inquiry is curiosity about something. It’s asking questions and answering those questions. For example, you’re probably reading this article right now because you’re curious about an inquiry-based classroom. You’re asking questions and finding answers to those questions.

The National Science Education Standards (NES p.23) defines scientific inquiry as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Scientific inquiry also refers to the activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.”

In other words, scientific inquiry is simply what scientists do: they ask questions and then answer those questions, which leads to more questions. It’s how scientists understand the natural world.

Scientific Inquiry vs Scientific Method

Before we dive into scientific inquiry, let’s first clear up any confusion between the scientific method and scientific inquiry.

Mytko, C. (2008)

The scientific method is taught as a rigid, decomposable, stepwise account for memorization. It’s the traditional way of thinking—not how students think in an NGSS classroom. Focusing on the scientific method shifts teachers’ attention away from the substance of student thinking and makes no place for scientific thinking.

Developing an Inquiry-Based Classroom

Teaching through scientific inquiry is a continuum, ranging from structured to free.


Figure 1: Scientific Inquiry Continuum

The structured side of the continuum is how science was taught in the past. Figure 2 highlights what a science classroom might have looked like prior to NGSS.


Figure 2. Teaching Science Prior to NGSS

The Wonder of Science (n.d.)


The explanation phase comes first and is largely made up of reading about science and listening about science. The exploration phase comes second, but there is very little true “exploration” involved.

Compare this to the free side of the continuum, which is reflective of teaching science in an NGSS classroom.

Figure 3. Teaching Science in an NGSS Classroom

The Wonder of Science (n.d.)

Here, the exploration piece comes first and is comprised of observing phenomenon in the natural world. Explanation comes second and is made of the Cycle of Scientific Inquiry. The explanation does not come from a lecture—it comes from doing science.

The Cycle of Scientific Inquiry is made of five steps:

The Wonder of Science (n.d.)

In a science classroom on the structured side of the continuum, students have limited need to engage in the Cycle of Scientific Inquiry. In an NGSS science classroom on the free side of the continuum, learning looks very different. It’s embedded in wondering about and doing science, as opposed to reading about and memorizing science.

In order to shift from a structured science classroom to an inquiry-based NGSS classroom, we need to move our instructional approaches to the free side of the continuum.

Incorporating Socratic Dialogue

Socratic dialogue is the last scientific inquiry ingredient that is important for creating an inquiry-based culture in our classrooms.

Francis Vigeant (2016) defines Socratic dialogue as “an art of asking higher order questions that cause students to use higher order thinking skills to consider the connections between concepts and responses with creative, evaluative and analytical answers.”

There are five main features of Socratic dialogue:

  1. Students are discussing what they think and why they think it.
  2. It requires listening and thinking.
  3. It requires teachers to take students ideas seriously.
  4. It should be student-led at some point.
  5. The teacher’s role is to help ensure the rules of fair discussion are being followed. If things get too far off, the teacher can also play the role of an interested skeptic who helps pivot discussion.

Why is Socratic Dialogue So Important to the Inquiry-Based Classroom?

Socratic dialogue plays many roles in the NGSS inquiry-based classroom.

First, it’s an opportunity for students to step into a real-world context, identify a phenomenon, and start to make sense of that phenomenon. It empowers students to start developing their own ideas and to work with the ideas of others, rather than being passive participants.

Second, Socratic dialogue engages students in a number of Science and Engineering Practices, including:

  • Asking Questions
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  • Constructing Explanations
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Socratic dialogue serves as a springboard into the work of scientists and engineers. They are developing answers to questions and solutions to problems through experimentation and prototyping. They’re doing science.

Finally, Socratic dialogue is a group discussion. That means it exposes gaps in students’ individual thinking and helps them to refine the questions or problems they’ve identified. This process launches students into hands-on discovery. Presenting their ideas and receiving feedback from their peers leaves students with more refined ideas and more informed opinions.

Utilizing the Cycle of Scientific Inquiry along with Socratic dialogue will transform your classroom and the way in which your students think. It promotes higher order thinking, engages student interests, and teaches the relevance of science through application—all of which are vital components to NGSS.

Illuminate provides NGSS assessment solutions and professional development for NGSS classrooms all over the country. To learn more, reach out!


Mytko, C. (2008, August 27). What is inquiry vs. the scientific method? Retrieved from

Scientific Inquiry in Five Steps. (n.d.) Retrieved from

Vigeant, F. (2016, March 30). Steps to Create a Science Inquiry Environment in an NGSS Classroom. Retrieved from


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