The stages of scientific enquiry have been developed and refined over time, to add consistency of approach and structure to systematic investigation. These processes; stimulus, curiosity, enquiry, initial investigation/observation, initial perception, initial hypothesis, experimentation, observation and recording, drawing conclusions, evaluation of initial hypothesis, formation of new hypothesis and re-experimentation, are perceived as a sequential flow of enquiry. However, in reality they are less well defined, due to sub-sequences and adaptations necessary to accommodate changing requirements. The extent and depth attainable within the stages are governed by the capabilities of the individuals involved. If the procedure of scientific enquiry is too prescribed, Children will follow the process, but do not necessarily learn.
To advance learning, it is essential that children are capable of contextualising scientific concepts. Piaget’s constructivist conjecture establishes that children learn and develop cognitive knowledge by independent exploration of their milieu.
Social constructivist ideas facilitate children to create independent erudition through active learning, enabling focus, investigation and discovery by intervention with objects and experiencing phenomena in different contexts:
‘Practical experience … shows that direct teaching is fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrot like repetition of words by the child, simulating knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum.’ (Vygotsky. 1962:83)
Vygotsky’s concept of ‘Zones of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) defines that a child can develop their ability in collaboration with an adult or capable peer, until they are confident to continue independently. ‘What the child is able to do in collaboration today, he will be able to do independently tomorrow’. (Vygotsky, 1987:211)
Bruner, amongst others, expanded this concept, by introducing ‘Scaffolding’; a framework whereby individuals provide additional stimulus, information, environment or resources to facilitate a learner until confident to pursue knowledge independently and support is withdrawn.
Constructivism accommodates the limitations of younger children due to their lack of experiential knowledge and motor dexterity, by focusing on specific scientific enquiry skills which are within their capability, such as handling resources and using the senses to explore the properties of materials. Freezing and melting water to observe its different states is a practical example within the classroom. Stimulus and curiosity is achieved by encouraging interaction with water and freezing it in an engaging way; for example, filling a rubber glove before putting it into a freezer. This fulfils key criteria identified in The Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, (EYFS):
• Investigate objects and materials by using all of their senses as appropriate