Teachers How to Use the Learning Cycle for Guided Inquiry
Instruction in Science
John R. Staver and M. Gail Shroyer
Center for Science Education, Kansas State University
One way for elementary, middle,
and high school teachers to exemplify the current reform
in science education is to teach science via the Learning
Cycle (e.g. Lawson, Abraham, & Renner, 1989). Effective
use of the Learning Cycle offers teachers continuing
opportunities to recognize students' prior knowledge
and alternative conceptions, and to provide learning
experiences which help students to revise alternative
notions as well as to develop entirely new concepts
a constructivist-based instructional model.
One of our goals as elementary science methods instructors is to teach students
how to use the Learning Cycle. Our purpose in this article is to describe
how we introduce elementary science methods students to the Learning Cycle
as a teaching model. The principle that we follow is first to model the teaching
we want students to eventually carry out, and then describe the characteristics
of the teaching which we have modeled. Because the Learning Cycle is a guided
inquiry model based on constructivist principles, we introduce students to
the Learning Cycle through a series of guided inquiry activities that constitute
several Learning Cycles. In short, our students first experience the Learning
Cycle in action prior to a formal introduction of its rationale and structure.
In addition to achieving our primary purpose, this experience enhances students'
understanding of the science concepts that form the context for introducing
the Learning Cycle. Through the activities described below, we take the students
through three Learning Cycles as they experience phenomena of electricity,
invent definitions of closed and open circuits, apply these concepts, invent
definitions of series and parallel circuits, and discuss applications for
such circuits. The origins of the activities are undoubtedly in the Batteries
and Bulbs unit of the post-Sputnik curriculum Elementary Science Study (Educational
Development Commission, 1966). Current versions of Elementary Science Study
units are now published by Delta Education.
We utilize the five-stage version of the Learning Cycle - Engage, Explore,
Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate - which was developed by BSCS for its new
elementary (BSCS, 1992) and middle school (BSCS, 1994 a,b,c) science curricula.
The BSCS staff refer to this version as the Instructional Model. The original
Learning Cycle, developed by Robert Karplus and his colleagues for Science
Curriculum Improvement Study, SCIS, consists of three stages, Exploration,
Invention, and Discovery. Karplus and his co-workers (1977) renamed the three
stages as Exploration, Concept Invention, and Concept Application for Science
Teaching and Development of Reasoning, a set of workshop materials developed
for improving high school science instruction. The stages in the Karplus
models correspond to the middle three segments of the BSCS Instructional
Model. The first and last stages in the BSCS Instructional Model, Engage
and Evaluate, were added to the Karplus models to make a more complete cycle.
The Engage stage is used to capture students' attention and determine their
understanding prior to beginning instruction; the Evaluate stage is used
to assess what students have learned following instruction.
The Learning Cycle in Action
Setting the stage, we tell students in this segment of the course that they
will learn how to design and carry out guided inquiry science lessons according
to a specific teaching model. Moreover, they will use this model to teach
their lessons in class and then in their field experience sites. We tell
students that we will introduce them to the teaching model by modeling it,
with us as teachers and them as students.
We begin by asking the question, "What is the most difficult, least
understandable area of science for you?" Responses vary, but students
often name, "Physics!" We continue by asking, "What is the
most difficult part of physics?" Again, a frequent response is, "Electricity!" We
then dangle the bait with a challenge, "So you believe that electricity
is perhaps very difficult to understand. If we can show you how you can understand
electricity in a meaningful way and also teach electricity to elementary
school youngsters in a meaningful way, then would you believe that you can
understand and teach almost any concept in science, because almost everything
else must surely be easier to understand and teach than electricity?" Again
responses vary. A few students agree; most remain noncommittal. More important,
we have captured their attention, and learned a great deal about their prior
knowledge in science and science education, two important purposes of the
Engage phase of the Learning Cycle.
Beginning this phase, we direct students to work in two- or three-person teams
with a goal of arranging a D-cell, a flash light bulb, and a length of wire
so the bulb lights. We distribute a D-cell, a flash light bulb with one end
of a 30cm length of copper wire wrapped around its base, and several small
squares of blank paper to each team. Students must draw a diagram of each
arrangement tried on a separate piece of paper and label it ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as
to whether or not the arrangement lights the bulb. To get them started, we
often hold up the D-cell, bulb, and wire so that the D-cell does not touch
the bulb or wire and ask, “Does this arrangement light the light? Here
is one that you can draw and mark ‘no’.” Students spend
15 minutes trying various arrangements. We move about the room, asking questions,
offering advise, and giving suggestions but few, if any, answers.
When students have exhausted their ideas for arranging and testing the D-cell,
wire, and bulb, we ask for their attention and give the following direction, "One
person from each team should put all the drawings marked ‘yes’ on
the table marked ‘yes.’ Another member of each team should place
all drawings marked ‘no’ on the table marked ‘no’." Students
then go to the tables, inspect the drawings, and identify common elements
among the arrangements that light the bulb or fail to do so. They spend about
10 minutes examining the drawings, searching for patterns in the data, testing
questionable arrangements with their own materials, and discussing their
ideas about why some arrangements light the bulb, whereas others do not.
This concludes the Explore phase.
Beginning the Explain phase, we involve students in an interactive question-answer
session which focuses on identifying common elements of specific arrangements
which light or fail to light the bulb. Asking a series of questions, we direct
them to construct a description of an arrangement which lights the bulb and
to use only vocabulary that a second or third grader would typically use
in a description. Two students act as vocabulary referees, judging the sophistication
of the words used in the description. We write their description on the chalk
board as they develop it. There is always a great deal of discussion among
the students, and the referees sometimes throw out complicated words. Consequently,
there is considerable modification of the description as it is developed
on the chalk board. An example of a completed description is: "One end
of the wire touches one end of the battery. The other end of the wire touches
the yellow base of the bulb. The silver tip on the base of the bulb touches
the other end of the battery."
Students agree that this is a description of an arrangement that will light
the bulb. We then challenge them to develop a conceptual description based
on their specific description of how the items are arranged. Students usually
struggle with this task, and to get them started we ask, "What does
the wire represent?" Responses vary, but someone usually says that the
wire is a route or a path. We wait specifically for someone to mention the
word 'path.' We then ask students to modify their first description so as
to include the concept of a path. Again, students alter the original description
through discussion, and we write the new description on the chalk board as
they develop it, being careful not to erase the original description. An
example of the revised description follows: "There must be a path around
the battery from one end to the other end of the battery. The bulb must be
in the path."
When we are satisfied with the description, we label it as a closed circuit,
and we discuss the concept. We then ask students to explain why the arrangements
on the 'no' table fail to light the bulb. They usually point out very quickly
that the path around the battery is broken or not complete. We immediately
write this idea on the board and label it as an open circuit. Then we discuss
their definition of an open circuit as a modification of their definition
of a closed circuit.
Our experiences with preservice elementary teachers have clearly demonstrated
that, although they now understand a closed circuit as a complete, unbroken
path around a battery and an open circuit as an incomplete, broken path around
a battery, they have little or no notion as to how the bulb is part of the
path. Thus, our next question is, "How is the bulb part of the path?" Usually
no one knows, so we suggest that they find out by examining the close, much
larger relative of their small bulb, a 40-watt light bulb. We then distribute
a 40-watt bulb and a hand magnifier to each team. Each 40-watt bulb's glass
is already broken so the innards can be easily viewed. We direct students
to inspect the wires and to find out where the wires go as they disappear
inside the base of the bulb. More discussion follows, and students point
out that one wire touches the metal base of the bulb, whereas the other wire
attaches to the metal tip at the bottom of the bulb. The two wires are connected
above the base by a very thin wire. We sketch a drawing of a bulb on the
chalk board. If the students do not identify the thin wire as the filament,
then we do so. Students use hand magnifiers to verify that their small bulb
is built like the larger one. At this point, students are able to point out
the path of wires through the bulb and to explain why the metal base and
tip of the bulb are part of the path. This concludes the Explain phase. Perhaps
45 minutes have elapsed since this phase began.
Thus far, we have focused on introducing closed and open circuits as we,
or they, may do in an elementary classroom. At this point, we redirect the
focus toward the Learning Cycle as an instructional model by asking, "Why
did we use the past 60 or so minutes to introduce closed and open circuits
when we simply could have directed you to read the definitions of closed
and open circuit in a science textbook? Reading the definitions and then
discussing them might take perhaps 10 - 15 minutes. Why did we spend all
the extra time?" Students usually point out the need to utilize hands-on
science activities to introduce processes and concepts to elementary school
students. They frequently mention Piaget's theory and point out how much
more interesting hands-on instruction is for youngsters. We ask, "If
the meaning of closed and open circuits did not come from a textbook, then
where did the meaning come from?" In the discussion that follows, the
students acknowledge and reflect that they constructed the meaning through
their activities with the D-cell, wire, and bulb as well as their discussions.
At this point they often express an awareness that we, as teachers, were
guiding them toward that end, but they did not realize it during the lesson.
We always point out that we only supplied the terms 'closed circuit' and
Our next series of questions focuses students' attention specifically on
their role as students and our role as teachers during the Explore and Explain
stages of the Learning Cycle. We ask, "What did we as teachers do during
the light-the-bulb activity? Also, what did we not do?" Students typically
point out that we asked a lot of questions and listened to them. Also, we
encouraged them to keep thinking, try new alternatives, and talk to one another.
They note that we did not answer their questions, give definitions, or put
words into their mouths. Then we ask, "What did you as students do?
What did you not do?" Students respond that they talked, explored, asked
each other lots of questions, laughed, and struggled. Also, they point out
that they sometimes became frustrated and embarrassed when they could not
light the bulb, and then became excited when they were successful. Students
tell us that they did not receive much information from us and did not listen
to lectures, memorize definitions, or read boring books. We then repeat these
questions, asking students to focus on teacher and student roles beginning
with the inspection of the drawings (start of the Explain phase) and ending
with the introduction of the terms 'open circuit' and 'closed circuit (end
of the Explain phase).' Regarding teacher roles, students point out that
we encouraged them to explain ideas in their own words. Also we continuously
referred to actions and data, not abstract concepts, in asking our questions.
Regarding student roles, students respond that they described and explained
their ideas to each other and to us, used the activities to develop explanations,
and did a lot of difficult thinking and reflecting.
Emerging from this discussion are students' descriptions of teacher and
student roles for the Explore and Explain stages. At this point we introduce
the term 'Explore' in terms of student and teacher roles during initial light-the-light
activity, then define it as experiences which provide a foundation for developing
students' comprehension of a concept. Then we introduce the term 'Explain'
in terms of student and teacher roles during its specific activities and
define it as the stage following Explore in which the teacher clarifies the
concept and introduces vocabulary terms associated with the meaning of the
At this point, we return to our initial question about electricity being
such a difficult idea to understand. We often ask, "Have you learned
anything new about electricity?" Many students respond that they did
not understand circuits or how light bulbs work until now. Next we ask, "What
did you think about our challenge that if you could understand and teach
electricity, then you could understand and teach almost anything in science?" Students
often reply that they thought we were joking, that there was absolutely no
way that we, or anyone, could make electricity comprehensible. We then often
ask, "OK, but did we get your attention?" Students usually reply
that we did and frequently offer one of two reasons. They state that they
were intrigued by the challenge regarding electricity or that they knew that
they must design and carry out inquiry science lessons. At this point, we
introduce the term 'Engage' for first stage of the Learning Cycle, define
it as an event or question related to the concept that the teacher plans
to introduce. Next, we review and discuss the Engage, Explore, and Explain
stages in terms of their sequence, the questions and activities done thus
far, and the appropriate as well as inappropriate teacher and student roles
in each phase. Finally, we introduce the term 'Learning Cycle' and define
it as a five-stage instructional model. We point out that we have already
modeled the first three stages. Two more stages remain to be modeled.
As a transition, we ask students to speculate as to what the nature of the
yet-to-be-introduced stages could be. A good question is, "Thus far,
we have captured your attention in Engage, provided you with a concrete,
activity-based foundation for developing the concepts of closed and open
circuits in Explore, and clarified the meaning and introduced the term for
the concept in Explain. What other elements of high quality teaching and
learning have we not yet done and could be carried out following Explain?" Students'
most common response is the application of newly introduced concepts to familiar,
everyday situations. At a more general level, students express a keen interest
in using science to address and solve individual, communal, and societal
problems. We capitalize on their comments and point out that teaching students
how to apply knowledge to new problems, although often taken for granted,
is a fundamental goal of science education. We emphasize that, if application
of knowledge is an important goal, then as teachers we must teach specifically
for application of knowledge. Moreover, we note that they have just described
the next stage of the Learning Cycle, and we introduce the name Elaborate,
identify it as the stage following Explain, and define it as a set of experiences
for building students' understanding of concepts by applying the concepts
to new situations.
At this point, we refocus students' attention on the application of closed
and open circuits, saying, "As we proceed through the next activity,
reflect not only on the application of circuits, but also on the characteristics
of this activity in terms of its place in the Learning Cycle." We distribute
a file folder to each team. The folders have six metal notebook brads (labeled
A,B,C,D,E,F respectively) sticking out as shown in Figure 1. The folders
are taped shut so that they cannot be opened easily. We tell the students, "The
metal brads may be connected by wires in some manner inside the folders.
Work in your team to test for connections with your D-cell, bulb, and copper
wire. Record your data for each possible connection on a piece of paper.
Develop a model of a circuit diagram based on your data and draw the diagram
on a piece of paper." Students must use their newly constructed concepts
of closed and open circuits to do this task. They typically spend about 10
- 15 minutes collecting data and developing a circuit diagram. We move about
the room, again asking questions, offering advice, and giving suggestions
but not answers.
have not yet mentioned evaluation in their speculations
above, we ask, "What else should a teacher do at this point?" Usually
someone will respond that the teacher needs to find out
what students have learned. If not, we typically ask, "If
you were us, what would you do to assess how well your
fellow students understand circuits?" Responses vary, but
students typically mention paper-and-pencil tests. An extensive
discussion then occurs regarding paper and pencil tests.
We ask questions such as, "What can you assess with paper-and-pencil
tests? Could you do well on a paper-and-pencil test and
still not understand the concepts? Could you understand
the concepts and not do well on a paper-and-pencil test?
What else could you do that might be a more authentic assessment?" Many
issues are discussed, including learning styles, matching
goals with instruction and evaluation, and the need for
authentic assessment. Based on our experiences with these
discussions, it seems clear to us that doing hands-on activities
as a means of evaluation is a novel concept for students.
then introduce the term 'Evaluate', describe it in
terms of the activities that we are discussing, and
define it as the final stage in the Learning Cycle
in which students do activities that help the teacher
to examine their understanding of the concept. Next
we ask students to generate a list of possible assessment
strategies that represent a multifaceted evaluation.
An extensive variety of activities is generated and
examined in the ensuing discussion. These activities
emphasize writing, speaking, doing, attending to different
learning styles, and provide avenues for triangulation
of their results.
evaluation of students' comprehension of the Learning
Cycle focuses on our primary goal, to enhance students'
understanding of the Learning Cycle model and their
ability to design and carry out Learning Cycle instruction.
However, introducing the Learning Cycle by modeling
it has afforded us ample opportunities to examine their
understanding of closed and open circuits. The extensive
interaction and student talk has allowed us to listen
while the students tell each other and us what they
know about circuits during the Engage, Explore, Explain,
and Elaborate stages. Moreover, we have also made several
informal assessments regarding their knowledge of the
Learning Cycle. We ask students to describe what they
have learned about circuits and about the Learning
Cycle by writing in their journals, which are an on-going
part of the course.
this point, we turn our attention to designing and
teaching Learning Cycle lessons in partial fulfillment
of their field experience associated with the science
methods course. Students carry out the assignment in
phases, with their work in each phase being evaluated.
First, they must choose and obtain approval of a science
concept appropriate to the grade level of their field
experience students. Then, they design the instruction
itself according to the five-stage Learning Cycle.
This segment includes preparation of lesson plans and
materials lists. Next, students peer teach their lessons
in the methods class. Peer teaching sessions are video
taped and followed immediately by self critiques and
suggestions from us and from fellow students. Finally,
students revise and teach these lessons in field experience
classrooms in local schools. The lessons are evaluated
by the classroom teacher whose students experience
the lessons, by us, and by the methods students themselves.
Thus, the assessment is an authentic one.
At this point, the students have experienced one
complete Learning Cycle. Our modeling of the Learning
Cycle continues, but now we ask students to think specifically
about a teacher's role as they do the activities that
follow. For example, we say, "As you do the following
activities, think about them in terms of the stages
of the Learning Cycle and in terms of a teacher's role.
Identify what you are doing as an Engage, Explore,
Elaborate, or Evaluate."
We then distribute a second bulb, a second D-cell, two
bulb holders, and three additional pieces of copper wire.
We direct students to tape the two D-cells together end-to-end,
unwrap the first copper wire from its bulb, put the bulbs
into the bulb holders, and construct an arrangement so
as to light both bulbs at the same time. Almost immediately,
students identify this as an Elaborate activity. Working
with individual groups as they create a successful arrangement,
we ask students to take one light out of the circuit.
Most groups build a series circuit, so the second light
ceases to shine when the first bulb is removed. We ask, "How
many paths are present in this circuit?" Students usually
answer, "One." Our next question is, "Would you please
trace the path with your finger?" They usually respond
quickly and successfully. Then we ask, "Why does the
second light go out when you remove the first light from
the circuit?" The typical answer is that the path is
broken when the first bulb is removed from its holder.
Next we ask for a description of this arrangement. A
typical answer is: "There is only one path around the
battery; both bulbs are in the path." If no one has already
volunteered the name, we then introduce the term 'series
circuit' to describe this arrangement and ask, "Having
finished the activity, what stages of the Learning Cycle
best describe it?" Many students reconsider their earlier
choice and now identify it as an Explore and Explain
activity. In the following discussion, we point out how
Elaborate as a stage can quickly become Explore followed
In a final activity, we direct the group to develop
an arrangement such that, when one bulb is removed, the
other bulb continues to shine. By now students often
say, "What are you going to introduce now? Here comes
another Explore." Our response to such a question is, "Try
to anticipate. Tell us what your ideas are before we
actually introduce the term." We move about the room
offerring assistance and advice as the groups work. Students
quite often struggle with this task. Sometimes groups
set up two separate circuits, each with a single light
in its own path. When this occurs, we direct them to
try an arrangement in which only two wires touch the
batteries. When one or two groups achieve success, we
have their members demonstrate their arrangements to
the others. In doing so, a student removes one bulb from
its holder and traces the path of the electricity for
the second bulb. The student then replaces the first
bulb, removes the second bulb, and traces the path of
the electricity again. Other groups then build an arrangement
like the one just demonstrated. When each group has built
and tested its arrangement, we ask, "How is the path
of this circuit different from the series circuit that
you built earlier?" Students typically point out that
the other bulb continues to shine because, although some
wires are shared, each bulb has its own path. We then
ask if anyone knows the name of this kind of circuit.
Sometimes students tell us that this is a parallel circuit.
If they don't, then we introduce the term 'parallel circuit'
and define it according to the students' descriptions.
In the discussions that accompany and follow these activities,
students mention several applications of series and parallel
circuits. A frequent example is a string of Christmas
tree lights as a parallel circuit. We point out that
we are old enough to remember Christmas tree lights in
series. We tell students about the instance in which
the first author's father became so frustrated in trying
to find the bad bulbs in a string of series Christmas
tree lights that he tossed the lights into the trash.
A Concluding Reflection
We judge much of our success as teachers in terms of
our students' achievement. Our extensive experiences with
elementary science methods students have taught us that
a primary element in our students' eventual success in
designing and carrying out Learning Cycle instruction,
and consequently our own success as teachers, is our willingness
to model the teaching that we want our students to implement.
We think of this as honoring the principles of constructivism
upon which the Learning Cycle is founded.
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