Inquiry-based Learning: Challenges for Science Teachers

Feb 8, 2019

By Geoff MacDonald

Science can be, and has been, instructed through a variety of teaching strategies. Trends in western science education continue to change as the focus of society shifts. Many modern researchers and educational associations today agree that inquiry-based science should be a foundational platform throughout the school science curriculum (1-3). So, what exactly is inquiry-based science?

What is it?

Inquiry-based science represents not only how scientists practice, but also how students most effectively learn science (4). In a classroom environment scientific inquiry allows students to tackle problems that will challenge their current understanding of the world around them. These problems arise as students ask questions about a topic or phenomenon out of curiosity. For example, a group of students may be discussing the weather, and one student might ask why it rains some days. The teacher would act as a facilitator and guide students to design an experiment and investigate when/how or why it rains.

Teachers lacking confidence with science may construct science lessons around reading textbooks and having students generate answers to the teacher’s or textbook’s questions. This traditional approach used by teachers unintentionally presents the scientific method in a way in which memory and trivial knowledge become the focal point to learning concepts (5). A more realistic introduction to learning science enables students to generate questions while teachers facilitates some possible routes of discovery in which students are able to seek possible solutions to the questions (6).

The Challenges

According to Kuhn and Dean Jr., “Inquiry is a complex, multifaceted activity” (p. 867)(7). The burden of facilitating these specialty skills to a group of students can be challenging for a teacher who may be intimidated by the content knowledge within the science curriculum (8). This lack of confidence has been repeatedly uncovered during research conducted with preservice teachers (9-11). Some teachers claim to feel comfortable teaching with the inquiry-based model, but students ask too many questions and flood an idea with variables (7) leading to ineffective plans and testing methods to answer these questions.

Supports for Teachers

Inquiry-based science has become a “prerequisite to any hope of achieving a vision of science teaching and learning” claims Flick & Lederman (p. 303)(12). This becomes a major issue if the teachers themselves have alternative perceptions regarding how to ‘do’ inquiry activities (13). Teachers may require professional learning and peer-mentoring supports to inspire the willingness to participate in new teaching practices (14, 15). The Gaia Project leads students and teachers through sustainability in action projects that allow high school students all around New Brunswick to solve meaningful real-world problems within their schools and communities. Professional learning models are being piloted by staff from The Gaia Project to provide supports for teachers in New Brunswick as inquiry-based learning becomes more prevalent in science classrooms.

About the author

Geoff MacDonald completed a Master’s degree focused on inquiry-based science instruction and curriculum development and was also a teacher in New Brunswick. He now works with The Gaia Project to develop the New Brunswick Climate Change Education Plan.

Click here to learn more about Geoff.


[1]National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. National Academies Press

[2]National Research Council. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states.

[3]New Brunswick Department of Education: Education Programs and Services Branch.
(2002). Atlantic Canada Science Curriculum: Grade 5 . Instructional Resources Branch. retrieved from:

[4]Sheninger, E., & Devereaux, K. (2013). What principals need to know about teaching and learning science. Bloomington, IN: Solution tree press.

[5]Gess-Newsome, J., & Lederman, N. (1999). Nature, sources and development of pedagogical
content knowledge for science teaching. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

[6]Brand, B., & Moore, S. (2011). Enhancing teachers’ application of inquiry-based strategies using a constructivist sociocultural professional development model. International Journal of Science Education, 889-913.

[7]Kuhn, D., & Dean Jr., D. (2005). Is developing scientific thinking all about learning to control variables? Psychological Science, 16:11, 866-870.

[8]Appleton, K. (2003). How do beginning primary teachers cope with science? Toward an
understanding of science teaching practice. . Research in Science Education , 1-25.

[9]Abd-El-Khalick, F. (2001). Embedding Nature of Science Instruction in Preservice Elementary Science Courses: Abandoning Scientism, But… Journal of Science Teacher Education, 215-233.

[10]Sherman, A., & MacDonald, L. (2007). Pre-service teachers’ experiences with a science education module. Journal of Science Teacher Education. 18, 525-541.

[11]Gess-Newsome, J. (2002). The use and impact of explicit instruction about the nature of science and science inquiry in an elementary science methods course. Science & Education, 11:1, 55-67.

[12]Flick, L., & Lederman, N. (2006). Scientific Inquiry and Nature of Science: Implications for Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

[13]Luft, J., Bell, R., & Gess-Newsome, J. (2008). Science as inquiry in the secondary setting. Arlington, VG: NSTA Press.

[14]Fullan, M. (2014). Teacher development and educational change. Routledge.

[15]Huberman, M. (1992) Teacher development and instructional mastery’, in HARGREAVES, A. and FULLAN, M. (Eds.), Teacher Development and Educational Change, Basingstoke, Falmer.

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