Science as Thinking: The Constants and Variables of Inquiry Teaching, Grades 5-10
by Wendy Ward Hoffer

Price at time of review: $33.75
280 pp.
Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325025770

Grade Level: 5-10

Reviewed by Ann Rubino
Adjunct, Lewis University College of Education

The author starts this book with a good “hook." In this case, it's the story of her first year teaching science and the predictable disaster—the beans sprouted over the holidays! There is also a success tale—about building calendars for Jupiter. As she learned early, science is about thinking more than remembering facts. And from that start, she developed her thesis that many standard practices can be modified to provide challenging training in thinking for students.

There are two sections in this book. The first, "Constants," is about the mainstays of the science classroom. The second, "Variables," is about the many aspects of science classes that can be modified to improve thinking and learning. The statement by one of her training colleagues that “if we knew better, we’d do better” led to the development of her composite teacher, Ms. Dobetter, who models her thinking and planning. This provides concrete detail about the sort of thought processes that lead to good thinking in the classroom.

This book's great strength is that it gives multiple concrete examples. In the early chapter on inquiry, the author delves into the real challenge of helping kids to actually inquire, rather than marching them through a series of prescribed procedures. Engagement is distinguished from learning, because kids who are having fun in a lab aren’t necessarily learning the concept at hand. Again, the thinking is the key, not just the doing. She connects inquiry to Bloom’s famous taxonomy, shows the relevant standards on the features and variations of inquiry, and then gives classroom examples and another table of suggestions linked to examples of questioning.

The concrete examples are wonderful for teachers who need to know “what to do on Monday” and don’t want to wade through volumes of theory. Ms. Dobetter thinks aloud as she plans an inquiry project on building paper towers. We follow her logic, see her expected roadblocks, and evaluate her planned questions. We read how the lesson goes, noting strengths and weaknesses as if we were present as evaluators. At the end there is a blank self-evaluation chart for readers to use.

This sort of thorough exploration takes place for each of the other constants: Big Ideas, Workshop, Assessment, and Culture. In Big Ideas, the author calls our attention to the seminal ideas that relate (Understanding By Design and the California State Framework, to name just two) and shows how they can help us get to greater depth in our teaching. The workshop chapter gives practical, time-tested strategies that can make the model succeed. In the assessment chapter, the author gives many good examples of formative approaches and shows how to relate them to the standards. "Culture" pertains to the classroom culture of learning and gives concrete examples of ways to foster constructive teamwork. The Variables section is similar in providing many specific examples of teacher practice, planning, questioning, and management for each of the topics (labs, demonstrations, lectures, discussion, reading, projects, activities, and fieldwork).

There is so much in this book. Yet it is very readable, and one can dip into any chapter and gain new and deeper insights. There are four pages of current resources, a manageable bibliography, and an index for ready reference. I strongly recommend this to any science teacher for personal use or for district-level training teams. It could also be a potential text for a methods course for grades 5–10.

Review posted on 8/10/2010

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