On inquiry, pseudo-discovery and Socrates as a canine

I am assured that, even though the migration issue has STILL not been resolved, I can continue to post without worrying about losing anything. Just in case, I am keeping a backup…

At the end of the school year we had a PD session on inquiry based learning. This presentation (a 40 minute PowerPoint, by the way) was a reasonable overview, but covered little in the way of new ground. It described the idea of inquiry based learning from Socrates to the present. When I recently looked back at some of my notes, I found that for that session I had written only one thing:

Socrates = Border collie

Think about that for a minute.

Socratic questioning is a method of forcing the student to think through a problem, and can be a powerful tool. But it is really intended to lead the student to a specific outcome. It also establishes a hierarchy – the teacher who does the questioning, and the student who is forced to think towards a conclusion that is known to the teacher. In other words, it is shepherding, hence the canine analogy.

This shepherding process is not restricted to Socrates. I have seen many instances and examples of so-called “inquiry learning” that involve a specific desired outcome known in advance to the teacher, which requires periodic* intervention to ensure the student is on the right track. We might add this to the pseudo-ed lexicon and call it “pseudo-discovery”. It is not real discovery, not real inquiry, just following signposts.

True inquiry or discovery-based learning involves the student asking the questions, and following where those questions lead, while the teacher’s role is to provide the tools and guidance for how students can accomplish their goals, rather than what they should be accomplishing.

While true discovery learning can be powerful, it can also be tremendously time consuming, and difficult to implement if there are many specific curricular requirements that must be met. But when planning, be sure to avoid pseudo-discovery. Even the students who may struggle in a science course are smart enough to know they are being led, and thus need not put forth the effort on their own, and also know that the teacher is holding out on them – that she/he is withholding information rather than just telling them, which can weaken trust, and grow resentment.

So where am I going with this?

I’m not entirely sure, except to say that not everything is what it claims to be, and we have to stand back and think of all the angles and possible consequences before jumping in to something because someone said it was a good idea. I teach Science. Science is an inquiry and discovery process, so it makes sense that teaching science through inquiry and discovery would be a good idea. But like all things that seem like a good idea, further analysis is required.


*I used periodic in the lay sense, as in from time to time, not the scientific sense of regular intervals. I apologize in advance to anyone more pedantic than I who might object to this usage.


7 thoughts on “On inquiry, pseudo-discovery and Socrates as a canine

  1. Richard Hake

    Frank Noschese of the PhysLrnR discussion list has initiated an 9-post thread (as of 29 June 2011 12:25-0700) by asking “How would you respond to Hitchcock’s “On inquiry, pseudo-discovery and Socrates as a canine.” The ninth response is mine at http://bit.ly/lwYSlY. Therein I wrote: “Socrates as a canine?? Hitchcock seems to have confused the *historical* Socrates with the *Plato’s pseudo-Socrates* of the “Meno.”

    To access the archives of PhysLnR one needs to subscribe : – ( , but that takes only a few minutes by clicking on http://listserv.boisestate.edu/archives/physlrnr.html and then clicking on “Join or leave the list (or change settings).” If you’re busy, then subscribe using the “NOMAIL” option under “Miscellaneous.” Then, as a subscriber, you may access the archives and/or post messages at any time, while receiving NO MAIL from the list!

    Richard Hake

  2. Jane Jackson

    You wrote, “Science is an inquiry and discovery process, so it makes sense that teaching science through inquiry and discovery would be a good idea. But like all things that seem like a good idea, further analysis is required.”

    Yes, further analysis is required. For further analysis of scientific process or method and its relation to inquiry, please consider this statement by David Hestenes, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Arizona State University in Tempe. His short article was published in the American Journal of Physics (AJP, 1999). You can download it at http://modeling.asu.edu/R&E/Research.html .
    Jane Jackson, Co-Director, Modeling Instruction Program
    Department of Physics, Arizona State University

    David Hestenes wrote:
    I tell my students that the scientific method has two components:
    — Empirical. Systematic investigation of nature to find REPRODUCIBLE PATTERNS in the structure of things and the ways they change (processes).
    –Theoretical. Construction and analysis of MODELS representing patterns in nature.

    Empirical investigations are conducted with experiments, which are designed to ask questions of nature. The questions are often formulated as hypotheses to be tested. In lab experiments questions are posed by the design of apparatus and experimental procedures. In natural experiments (as in astronomy) questions are posed through selection and comparison of observations. An affirmative answer to an experimental question is given by a model that has been validated by matching it to some pattern in the empirical data. The quality of the answer depends on the “goodness of fit” of model to data and on the variety of different experimental questions answered by the model.

    Effective implementation of the scientific method requires good tools as well as insight. The precision of empirical questions and their answers depends on the available scientific tools. Therefore, progress in science depends on the invention of powerful tools for empirical and theoretical investigations.

    –Scientific instruments extend the range and acuity of human perception enormously, making it possible to discover or verify patterns of great subtlety.

    — Mathematics (the science of patterns) has been created, in large part, to provide precise conceptual tools and methods for constructing and analyzing refined models of physical systems and processes.

    Appreciation for the roles of instrumentation and mathematics is essential to understanding scientific method.

    This view of scientific method has been incorporated into a Modeling Method for physics teaching. See http://modeling.asu.edu/

    I doubt that students can understand the scientific method without being reflectively engaged in implementing it to the point where they can see its benefits themselves. It is noteworthy that scientific method is nowhere mentioned in the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996). Rather, the Standards emphasize scientific inquiry, which relates the ideas more closely to the students’ own experience. SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY is SCIENTIFIC METHOD in action!

  3. Art Zadrozny

    As much as I don’t find PD time that productive, it can stimulate good thoughts. Your question is one that I struggle with as many students do not like the idea of having to ‘discover’ the answer to a question the teacher knows the answer to.

    In my experience, the answer is two fold: first the student’s protest is really just that they don’t want to have to do the work to find the answer. The comments I get in my end of year student survey are usually: ‘just tell us what we need to know to pass the test.’ The second and more important reason is a little less obvious: yes it would be nice to have a world where students just get to go off an try different things. The problem is how to they know if what they are doing has any point, or any validity? Discovery is a wonderful process, but can be very time consuming, especially if there is no skill or focus to the trial and error process being conducted. If the technique is not valid, the results are meaningless.

    Students are ‘students’ because they need to learn the basics before being turned loose into our competitive world, which will show them no mercy if they do not have the skills to succeed. They need to learn how to collect data with some degree of precision, how to record and analyze results and how to determine if their conclusions make sense, (is the effect the result of the cause they have identified?) To learn these skills, one needs to have a fairly contrived environment where student effort can be tested. The key here is getting students to understand the real purpose to the environment we construct for them.

    The nice thing about the modeling method, developed by David Hastenes, is that it can achieve these results while allowing students to have fun trying out something that, while already known, is new to them! The pleasure and excitement on student’s faces when they start to understand the concepts being explored, whether its getting a linear result for a constant acceleration lab or figuring out how to build a circuit for an Ohm’s Law lab is priceless and worth the time it takes versus the old style ‘lecture’ method. More importantly, it allows them to develop methods for conducting research and trying out new systems that can be applied in almost any career they might choose to pursue.

    Art Zadrozny
    Physics Teacher
    East High School
    West Chester, PA

  4. ed

    Thanks Jane and Art for mentioning the Modeling Method. That is something that requires more time, and a post of its own. I have experimented with it – with as much as I could glean from written articles, as I have never been to one of the workshops (anyone want to offer one in Toronto?). From my limited experience, it can be very effective.

  5. Paul Bianchi

    “When planning, be sure to avoid pseudo-discovery”. Hmm.
    If you mean, don’t lie to the kids by telling them they’re going to discover a brand new law of nature, ok. But if you mean, don’t create lab activities where you (the teacher) already know the answer, then I think you’ve created an artificial and unnecessary restriction on learning.
    One of the most valuable things about scientific knowledge is that is objectively verifiable – if I’ve already done the experiment you are about to do, then I do know (pretty much) what result you will get. But you seem to be arguing that this makes doing lab experiments about the basic principles of science somehow disingenuous. I disagree.
    One of the biggest failures in science education is that you still see examples on thenews everyday of people who simply choose to disbelieve a scientific result. Most people really see no difference betweena principle of science and a personal opinion. Evolution and climate change are just places for us to wear our political leanings on our sleeve, rather than natural phenomena with an objective, scientific dimension to them. That, for me, is the primary reason why you ought to do the classic experiments in class – to make the emotional point that, hey, all eight lab groups did more-or-less the same thing and got more-or-less the same answer. There is an objective reality going on here that is discoverable. You don’t get that reaction in students just by telling them the formula.
    Is that pseudo-inquiry? Ok, yeah it is if you want to take a hard definition of inquiry. Then pseudo-inquiry is not only ok, it is essential to getting across the point of the objectivity of scientific principles – just be honest about it.

    1. ed

      Thanks for your comments, Paul.
      I didn’t mean never do classic labs of the observation/verification/measurement variety. I meant that if you are planning “discovery” labs, be cognizant that mistakes will be made along the way, erroneous results will arise, frustration will occur. Plan accordingly to support students in troubleshooting their investigations as part of the process. Do not enter into a “discovery” lab with the expectation that all students will get specific “correct” results, and do not narrow the parameters so much that there is no way things can go wrong.


Leave a Reply