How do we plan for IBL in science?

The guiding principles for developing inquiry-based learning (IBL) in science are drawn from best classroom practice and supported by the literature on teaching and learning. These two sources suggest that learning should involve creating a challenge that cognitively engages students within a practical context, prioritises student problem-solving activity and encourages reflection on their thinking, or metacognition.  Inquiry learning is investigative in nature and not all ‘hands on’ activities are inquiry in approach.  We still need to teach practical skills and the ‘cook book’ approach of science experiments can be helpful to teach laboratory skills.


IBL improves the quality of teaching and learning through:

  • Setting the scene with a context, vocabulary and activity to collect data. This phase of the lesson engages students creating a ‘need to know’ which lies at the heart of inquiry.
  • Collecting data to generate thinking about the data and making meaning through tables, graphs.
  • Developing questioning to promote students thinking and solving problems together, which are developed during the scientific process of investigating.
  • Not giving the ‘correct’ answer (which can be a challenge for teachers). Expecting all students to think, take risks and contribute means that teachers need to be neutral in their response to students. Encouraging all responses creates an environment for thinking to be shared and valued.
  • Bridging to other examples drawn from the curriculum, which use the same sort of thinking. In science, for example teaching of Mendelian genetics depends on students developing an understanding of ratios to solve problems of genetic crosses. The same thinking is needed to be able to write chemical formula, balance chemical equations and the scaling of maps. Instead of the focus on the discrete specific content, we can use the opportunity to help students understand that the same sort of thinking and reasoning underpins scientific thinking.

A comparison with the East Asian school systems highlighted the “commitment to higher-order problem solving, deep analysis of content, and activities requiring advanced thinking skills and deductive reasoning” (Jensen et al., 2012, p.15). The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) identified key aspects of teaching that have been shown to improve learning. These included teachers’ content knowledge, their pedagogical knowledge, practices that focused on clear and well-structured lessons supported by effective classroom management.

There are two tools to use in exploring for this professional question:

Tool II-1: Planning for IBL – a focus on questioning

Tool II-2: Planning for IBL – students generating questions

These two tools will help the group think about how to plan for IBL in their science classrooms.


Jensen, B., Hunter, A., Sonnemann, J., & Burns, T. (2012). Catching up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia: Grattan Institute.

OECD (2013). TALIS Teaching and Learning International Survey. Available from