An illustrative inquiry activity

An illustrative inquiry activity is the earthquake problem. The object is to analyze a computerized database to determine which of a set of varying factors do and do not make a difference to the likelihood of an earthquake, so as to be able to accurately predict risk based on these factors. Other parallel problems, some computer simulations and others involving real materials, have to do with avalanches, floods, the features of cars or boats that affect their speeds, and social phenomena such as the variables affecting the popularity of children's TV programs (Kuhn, Garcia-Mila, Zohar, & Andersen, 1995). In all cases the activity has the practical goal of prediction, but the only path to accurate prediction is analysis, specifically of the causal structure of the system (i.e., the causal or noncausal effects that each of the factors has on outcome).

In repeated sessions over a period of weeks, students working alone or in pairs direct their own investigations and make inferences based on their observations. As students acquire new knowledge about the causal system, their skills of inquiry (IV), analysis (V), and inference(VII) are exercised and may in the process undergo evolution.

Meta-level reflection is promoted in several ways. The most basic is by the set of questions that guide the activity: "What do you want to find out by trying it these ways?"; "What will this tell you?"; "What do you think of the way it's come out?"; "What did this tell you?"; "What do you conclude?"; and, most important, "How do you know?"

Another means of promoting metal-level reflection is the social interchange that comes from having students work together. Disagreements regarding conclusions may stimulate reflection, but so also will procedural disagreements. In the most productive collaborations, students scaffold one another's meta-level operations, monitoring and regulating partners' procedures in a way that the partners are not yet able to do for themselves, as in this exchange (from Kuhn, 2000):

S: We found out about the weight.
N: No, about the boat size, that's all.
S: Oh, the boat size.
N: Just talk about the boat size.

Overall, students working together make more progress than those working alone (Kuhn, 2000). The opportunity for meta-level scaffolding is one of the contributors to this difference.

A third, most direct way of promoting meta-level reflection is to ask students to evaluate inquiry and analysis strategies attributed to others. Pat and Lee, they are told, for example, did things in different ways and are having a disagreement about what can be concluded. How can their disagreement be resolved? Students who engage in meta-level activities of this sort show greater gains than a comparison group (Kuhn, Black, Keselman, & Kaplan, 2001).

Sources for further reading:

Kuhn, D. (2003). Understanding and valuing knowing as developmental goals. Liberal Education 89 (3), 16-21.

Kuhn, D., Katz, J., & Dean, D. (2004). Developing reason. Thinking and Reasoning, 10. 197-219.

Kuhn, D. (2007). How to produce a high-achieving child. Phi Delta Kappan. 88, 757-763.