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Professional Opinion

A recipe for scientific literacy education

Inquiry-based instruction engages students in the skills they need to be productive global citizens
Rui Dionisio is superintendent of the Verona Public Schools in New Jersey.
Rui Dionisio is superintendent of the Verona Public Schools in New Jersey.

Verona Public Schools is dedicated to cultivating learning environments that nurture the natural curiosity of children. As Albert Einstein said, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”

A year after we launched our pilot program in inquiry-based science, feedback from surveys shows a higher level of student engagement.

The new science program, developed with support from the Smithsonian Institute and National Academies of Science, is being implemented this year in our elementary and middle schools with the goal of increasing student engagement and improving knowledge of scientific processes.

The Next Generation Science Standards define scientific inquiry as “the formulation of a question that can be answered through investigation, while engineering design involves the formulation of a problem that can be solved through design.” Research has shown that an inquiry-based teaching approach fosters deeper critical thinking.

Our new science program provides a commitment to active, hands-on learning in grades 1 through 8. It is focused on research-based standards that highlight what students should be able to do to at each grade level.

Implementing inquiry-based science is one approach to developing critical thinking and personalizing instruction for students by addressing the preconceptions that they bring with them to the classroom.

Scientific literacy

As educators, we have a responsibility to help students develop a deep understanding of science concepts so they grow up into responsible global citizens. Our schools must focus on critical thinking and problem-solving so our students can compete for careers that do not yet exist.

Curriculum developed with fewer topics in mind—which lets teachers devote time and energy to cultivating a greater depth of understanding—supports meaningful discussions centered around big ideas.

The National Research Council addressed this in its seminal reference guide, “Designing Mathematics or Science Curriculum Programs,” which established a clear set of goals and guidelines for achieving literacy in mathematics and science: “If the curriculum has been designed with rich and engaging tasks, appropriate instructional decisions can be made to assist all students in attaining significant cognitive growth.”

Memorization vs. inquiry

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences outlines how people learn through different modalities, such as auditory, visual and kinesthetic.

Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes that students should think independently and develop their own understanding of concepts—rather than simply accepting the ideas of others through rote memorization.

Inquiry-based instruction represents an evolution away from traditional, lecture-based methods of teaching science. Many students memorize facts without grasping the idea. They would better understand a concept if they were awarded opportunities to conduct hands-on experiments and to engage firsthand with scientific phenomena.

That is exactly what our new science program seeks to accomplish.

The research from the National Research Council and AAAS Project 2061 (a long-term research initiative focused on improving science education) is compelling: Conveying scientific processes in a coherent manner across all grade levels provides teaching and learning opportunities in a continuous, cumulative manner with the greatest potential for maximizing learning.

Our district is committed to the success of all students by advocating, nurturing and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth.

We look forward to our progress from the collective efforts of our faculty and support of the Verona community for years to come as we enhance science as we know it.


Rui Dionisio is superintendent of the Verona Public Schools in New Jersey.