Inquiry opportunities presented by practical work in school physical sciences. A South African case study
Inquiry underlies most science curriculums. There is a widespread belief that inquiry is a both 21st century skill and a vehicle to develop other 21st century skills in learners. Engaging learners in science process skills helps them to engage in inquiry through practical work. The result of integrating inquiry and practical work is a strategy called inquiry-based practical work. While this strategy is embodied in current science curriculums, it is often not easy to implement in science classrooms. This study explored inquiry opportunities presented to learners through practical work in the context of the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) syllabus in South Africa. We regarded inquiry as a continuum with the levels of complexity defined according to learner autonomy over the science process skills, question formulation, experiment procedure design and solution finding. The variation in learner autonomy over the process skills results in four types of inquiry through practical work, which are confirmation, structured, guided and open-ended. A qualitative research approach in the form of phenomenon-based case study was used. Four research sites representing different school contexts were purposely selected. On each research site, one physical science teacher and one physical science class participated in the study. Data were generated by means of semi-structured interviews with teachers, focus-group interviews with learners and direct practical work activity observations. The study identified structured inquiry as the highest level of inquiry practised in the classrooms. However the structured inquiry was practised in four different ways depending on how learners were given autonomy over, the science process skills question posing, experiment procedure design and solution finding. The teachers ensured that the learners had autonomy over one or two but not all three of the process skills. The study recommends further studies to explore how the teachers can reduce the scaffolding for learners in order for them to engage in higher levels of inquiry such as the guided and open inquiry as part of the 21st century skills.
Keywords: inquiry; inquiry-based practical work; physical sciences; practical work