“When will I use this anyway?” Sigh. 

How is it possible that a learner cannot see the value in content about which an educator is so passionate? Although some might hypothesize that this type of question comes from a student who wants to get out of doing a task, when asked in earnest, the student might just be uninterested in the content. Perhaps such a scenario should serve as a red flag and prompt the instructor to consider a new pedagogical paradigm. Finding ways to engage students and to make material relevant parallels student success — the more engaging and relevant the material, the greater the learning potential.

Capturing student attention

Inquiry instruction is the process of encouraging students to ask a question and use their own problem-solving skills to find the answer. This practice provides a foundation for a classroom culture of true inquisition and authentic learning. I allow students to develop questions, find ways to answer those questions and then make mistakes and fail in lab experiences and activities. I then provide opportunities for them to discover what went wrong, incorporating time to modify and attempt to correct those errors. What makes students interested in the question to begin with? That is part of the power of using inquiry instruction. Students are innately interested in questions they derive on their own. When students have ownership over what they are learning, their motivation increases.

I once read that material does not become important until it becomes personal.

Students develop a solid foundation to learn content material by posing genuine questions and exploring information to discover the answers. For example, I show students pictures of algal blooms that covered the Yellow Sea that threatened the sailing regatta in the 2008 Olympics. Students are inevitably curious about the cause of these blooms. I ask them to propose an explanation and then design an experiment to test that explanation. Does their data support or refute their hypothesis? Can they leverage their newly discovered information to help answer the original question? Through this process, my students gain an understanding of the nitrogen cycle, acquiring this information in their own unique and hands-on way. This style of learning is relevant and enduring.

My personal pedagogy has changed.

Inquiry has not always been a central part of my instruction. I was a pre-service teacher in an era when students were expected to sit in desks, follow instructions and learn by lecture. A good classroom was a quiet classroom. I have always strived to build relationships with my students (and it is still my number one goal today), but a relationship alone does not carry enough weight when information seems boring or outdated. In response, I have worked diligently to realign my instruction with emerging research.

My first step.

A fellow biology instructor and I developed a curriculum that primarily uses inquiry and hands-on learning. To authenticate this program, we developed an experimentally valid pilot. While my personal data was not included in the study, I was able to watch student engagement unfold as I piloted this course alongside the key instructor in the study. Although research supported the value of this form of teaching, when it came right down to it, I was anxious about this shift in my classroom. I nervously wondered if I could indeed succeed in the role of facilitator. Would discipline be an issue in this environment? New is not always easy. I did it anyway, trusting the research. The result was amazing. My students were engaged, they loved my class and they felt empowered in their own learning.

Discipline issues? Not a one.

This class of students—regular kids in a regular schedule—succeeded; they scored as well as or higher on both state and local assessments when compared to their counterparts who were in a classroom with more traditional instruction. To measure the possible differences students had in their attitude toward science and science instruction, my principal had a one-on-one conversation with the student participants at the end of the semester. The overwhelming response was that they loved this method of delivery. One student even commented that he wished all teachers would teach this way. The best news is that my students became better thinkers and problem solvers at the end of our journey together.

Where do we go from here?

I understand the hesitation many educators have about allowing a shift in ownership of learning; I had the same uncertainty. It can feel uncomfortable and scary.  However, the value of making this change is crucial for the success of our current students. We must not allow our own discomfort to impede our effectiveness as an instructor. Reports such as “Education for Life and Work” support the idea that the future work force will need persons with the ability to synthesize information and solve unique problems (National Research Council, 2012). Memorizing laundry lists of facts or formulas does not promote the type of learning that builds these skills. Lectures that are infused with prescribed answers to prescribed questions do not build these skills. Inquiry learning, on the other hand, proactively encourages students to practice problem-solving and information synthesis, thus preparing them for the future work force while acquiring content material. When students are provided opportunities to play key roles in their own learning, student engagement improves, authentic learning improves and yes, test scores improve. What would be my advice to those who want these benefits? It is worth the risk! It is worth the failed attempts. It is powerful and rewarding when students celebrate knowledge they have worked to attain.


National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life andWork: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, J.W. Pellegrino and M.L.

Hilton, Editors. Board on Testing and Assessment and Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Shannon Ralph
Shannon Ralph is the Kansas 2015 State Teacher of the Year and engages in a year of professional learning facilitated by the Council of Chief State School Officers. For information on a state's selection process, contact its State Teacher of the Year Program Coordinator. She earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Washburn University and a Master of Science in biology from Fort Hays State University. Shannon began her career teaching middle school science in Holton, Kansas and has taught at Dodge City High School for the past 14 years. She currently teaches all levels of biology. Shannon spent two summers at the University of Kansas participating in the Research Experience for Teachers program, where she collaborated with other participants and researchers to create high school lessons that allow teachers to incorporate engineering concepts into physics, chemistry and biology classrooms. The team also authored an article that was published in The Science Teacher. She is co-author of a lab-based biology curriculum that focuses on using inquiry as its key delivery method, which is aimed at increasing student engagement and learning. Shannon has presented at national conferences for both the National Association of Biology Teachers and National Science Teachers Association. Shannon is passionate about intentionally building personal relationships with students in order to make lessons both relevant and meaningful.