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Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards


National standards
Abilities and understandings of inquiry
Inquiry teaching and learning
State standards

National standards

The National Science Education Standards (NSES) identify three goals of science education for all students:

  • to learn important principles and concepts of science ("learn science"),
  • to develop the procedural skills and critical reasoning skills needed to carry out a scientific investigation ("learn to do science"),
  • to understand the nature of science as a human activity and a way of constructing knowledge ("learn about science").

These goals emphasize the scientific process for building new knowledge--posing a question, carrying out an investigation, critiquing and communicating its results--as much as the existing facts and concepts of scientific knowledge. The term "inquiry" refers to this scientific process, in particular as it applies to education, where inquiry is both a strategy for "learning science" and a subject of study itself, in "learning to do" and "learning about" science.

The National Science Education Standards (NSES) define scientific literacy—what all students should understand and be able to do, regardless of background. They address what students should know and how their knowledge should develop with grade level. They include both disciplinary categories--life science, physical science, Earth and space science--and categories related to the history, process, and applications of science—such as ideas about the nature of science that students should understand and be able to use.

In addition to the standards for student learning of science, the standards also spell out national goals for the practice of science teaching that enables students to achieve these goals, criteria for assessing students’ progress and the science learning opportunities offered by schools, and elements in the design and support of school and district programs that enable students to become science-literate.

  1. From this page you can see the NSES table of contents, browse the standards online, or order a paperback copy of your own. The "Changing Emphases" tables are good, short summaries of each chapter. National Science Education Standards (1996).

    National Research Council: National Academy Press, Washington, DC. [ ]

  2. In this white paper, author Cherilynn Morrow identifies some misconceptions that scientists (and others) may have about the NSES. The standards are not a list of science facts for students to know, they are not required, they are not a fad, and they apply more broadly than just to the curriculum.

Cherilynn Morrow (2000). "Misconceptions Scientists Often Have About the National Science Education Standards." White paper available from the Space Science Institute. [ PDF ]


Inquiry—active participation in the process of science—plays a central role in the NSES, in both the science content standards and the science teaching standards. In the science content standards, the "abilities" of inquiry are skills and procedural knowledge that all students should be able to use in "doing science"--designing and carrying out an investigation.

The "understandings" of inquiry include ideas about science as a human process for constructing knowledge—that scientists use mathematics and technology, for example, or that they undertake different types of investigations to answer different types of questions. In the science teaching standards, inquiry teaching and learning strategies are recommended as especially effective for learning the "big ideas" or important concepts of science.

  1. This diagram summarizes the relationship between the different uses of the term "inquiry" in the NSES.
    diagram summarizing relationship among uses of the inquiry from those who learn science, those who learn about science, and those who learn to do science
    Click on the image for a full size version [ PDF ].

  2. The NRC has published a companion volume to the NSES focusing on inquiry. This book is an excellent, practical resource that explains and illustrates how inquiry helps students learn science content, master how to do science, and understand the nature of science and is an excellent, practical resource.

    "Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning" (2000). Steve Olson and Susan Loucks-Horsley, editors. Committee on the Development of an Addendum to the National Science Education Standards on Scientific Inquiry, National Research Council

    From this link, you can browse the table of contents or the text, or order your own copy. [ ]

Abilities and understandings of inquiry

Inquiry appears in the science content standards as the abilities and understandings of inquiry. Students need to be able to do science—to carry out an investigation—and to understand how scientists construct knowledge and how scientific knowledge differs from knowledge in other fields (for example, reliance on evidence).

  1. This one-page table [ PDF ] summarizes the abilities of inquiry ("learning to do science") and the understandings of inquiry ("learning about science") as defined in the NSES.

  2. This short article explains how students develop misconceptions about the nature of science and suggests some good ways to develop more accurate conceptions.

    "The Nature of Science: Always Part of the Science Story." Michael P. Clough and Joanne K. Olson. The Science Teacher, NSTA, November 2004. [ PDF ]

  3. Textbooks commonly present "the scientific method" as a standardized, linear, four- or five-step process, from forming a hypothesis to making and testing a prediction and revising the hypothesis. However, scientists describe a more complex, nuanced, and question-driven process that is both richer and less rigid. The "inquiry wheel" of Reiff et al. is a diagram that summarizes this more realistic inquiry process.

    R. Reiff, W. S. Harwood, T. Phillipson. "A scientific method based upon research scientists’ conceptions of scientific inquiry." Proceedings of the 2002 Annual International Conference of the Association for the Education of Teachers in Science, eds. Peter A. Rubba, James A. Rye, Warren J. Di Biase, Barbara A. Crawford. ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED (465 602). [ ]

Inquiry teaching and learning

Inquiry teaching and learning strategies are recommended in the NSES and shown by research on learning to be effective. Students need to learn scientific concepts by doing the same things that scientists do when they practice science: pose questions, gather evidence, formulate explanations, compare with existing knowledge, and communicate their ideas.

  1. This matrix [ PDF ] from the NSES companion volume, "Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards," summarizes the essential features of classroom inquiry and describes the range of variation from teacher-directed to student-centered. Students should spend some time on the "student-centered" side of this diagram, but teacher guidance is needed to help students develop the needed skills and to guide them to consider ideas they might not otherwise encounter. A common misconception about inquiry learning is that all activities must be "discovery" learning, in which students always pose their own questions and explore what interests them. This diagram shows how teachers can guide some parts of the inquiry process while still allowing students to build concepts themselves.

  2. More excellent links to be added on inquiry teaching and learning.

State standards

States also have developed science education standards. These tend to focus on the student learning aspects and may not include, as does NSES, standards for teaching practice, school and district practice, and assessment. The best of the state standards are well aligned with the national standards, but if you are working in a particular local context, it is good to be aware of state and district standards as well.

  1. This list of links to state standards web site has been maintained by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse (ENC). [ ]

  2. This commercial site offers a limited number of free searches of state standards on a clever map-based interface. [ ]

Suggest additional resources for this page.