Experimental Inquiry is a special kind of problem solving that is governed by rules of process and evidence. Marzano (2000) describes experimental inquiry as a “process of generating and testing hypotheses for the purpose of understanding some physical or psychological phenomenon” (p. 57).
The most well-known type of experimental inquiry is the “scientific method,” a way of answering questions about nature. There are six steps to the scientific method.
- State a question or a problem.
- Gather some information that is relevant to the problem.
- Create a hypothesis that explains the problem.
- Test the hypothesis by conducting an experiment or collecting more information.
- Abandon or modify the hypothesis to fit with the results of the experiment.
- If the hypothesis is found to be true or not true, “construct, support, or cast doubt on a scientific theory” (Shafersman, 1997).
Investigation is a way of using knowledge that is similar to experimental inquiry. It is “the process of generating and testing hypotheses about past, present, or future events” (Marzano, 2000, p. 47). The definitions of these two processes may sound like they describe the same kind of thinking, but there are significant differences.
Experimental inquiry is built on empirical evidence. This is evidence that can be examined through the senses. Theoretically, there should be no disagreement about what empirical evidence says because it is looks the same to everyone. The fact that the sun rises in the east is empirical evidence. People may disagree about why it rises in the east, but few would quibble with the fact that it does. The learners measuring bean plants in the Project Plan, The Great Bean Race, are collecting empirical evidence by measuring their bean plants. Scientific thinking requires that people figure out what kind of empirical evidence they need to prove or disprove their hypotheses.
A high-school learner may hypothesize that learners who start school later in the day get better results than those who start early. She can collect the empirical evidence of which learners start school early, which ones start school late, and what their results are. These are facts and no one could disagree with what she finds out. Like a learner who measures a shadow at different times of the day, the numbers she finds are empirical evidence.
Now, of course, other things will need to be figured into experiments. Maybe in the high-school study, all the smart learners start school early in the day, or maybe just by coincidence there happen to be a lot of good learners who start school late in the day. Maybe the learner measuring shadows is measuring them on a cloudy day where he can’t really see the edges clearly or maybe the tool he's using to measure has blurry marks on it. All kinds of factors must be considered in experimental inquiry, and scientists and others who do this kind of inquiry know what the rules are. They know there is a right way to go about collecting and analyzing evidence. And that is what makes what they do officially experimental inquiry.
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