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Enquiry types: where do I start?

February 7th| Rebecca Riley
February 7th |

Enquiry Types: Where do I start?

Sometimes, primary science can feel like a mine field. Conceptual knowledge, enquiry types, working scientifically: what are they and how do they fit together? What is the difference between having practical activities in your science lessons and teaching practical science. 

There are 5 enquiry types:

Observing Over Time

Classifying, Grouping and Sorting

Research Using Secondary Sources

Pattern Seeking

Comparative and fair testing 

Really, they are five ways that can be used to find out the answer to scientific questions and by the time children are in year 6 they should be able to choose which one is the most appropriate. The problem? How can children do this if many teachers still find it tricky!

Ideally, every science lesson should include an enquiry type. There are many resources on line that represent each one with a different poster or character which can act well as a spring board for helping students (and teachers) identify them – some schools even create their own!

So, what actually are they?

Observing over time

This one is exactly what it says on the tin. Children watch something happen…over time. Plants grow, shadows move and trees change as the seasons pass but it is important to remember that this can be done over ANY amount of time. Dropping a ball, putting raisins in fizzy pop or mixing salt in to hot water: these observations can take place over seconds, hours, days or even months. 

What happens when you put skittles in water?

How much does a seed grow over a week?

Classifying, grouping and sorting

The official definition of classification is to arrange something in to categories according to shared qualities or characteristics. Effectively, putting things in to groups or sorting them. Children could be asked how they would sort ‘things’ and why or could be challenged to sort things in a specific way. Children could just divide in to groups, Venn diagrams could be used or even flow charts. 

Create a classification key to sort local animals.

How can you sort the following organisms?

Note: always try to use real photos.

Pattern Seeking

For me, I find this the most difficult to explain. In this type of enquiry children are trying to answer questions by finding patterns in the measurements and observations they make. For example, do bigger ice cubes take longer to melt? Is there a pattern where we find volcanoes on earth? What colour flowers do bees prefer? This is a great enquiry type to develop measuring and recording skills with a little bit more flexibility than a fair test. 

Does the size of a coin effect how many drops of water will fit on it?

How does the size of the parachute effect how fast something falls?

Comparative and fair testing

The one and only! For generations children have been carrying out ‘fair tests’. What makes it a fair test? You can only change one thing (this is called a variable) and see how it affects something else (this is also called a variable!). I feel that there can be quite a lot of overlap between fair testing and pattern seeking. The difference? If you can’t control all of the variables, it is pattern seeking. Questions like: what material is best for an umbrella? Or which magnet is the strongest? Are perfect for fair tests. One thing to remember, for all extended investigations, there is no need to write up a whole experiment- just focus on one thing. Can the children make a sensible prediction, can they conclude their findings or can they record their results appropriately? Too much writing can often take the focus away from the investigation itself. In fact, I’m a huge fan of a postit note!

Comparative Testing

Do worms prefer wet or dry soil?

Fair Testing

What type of boat holds the most ‘passengers’?

Research using secondary sources

If all else fails, do some research. You could be the best science teacher in the world but I challenge you to use any of the other 4 enquiry types to find out what happened when Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands or how the sun makes light. Sometimes you just need to look in a book, watch a video or explore the world wide web! In addition to this children could create their own research tools like questionnaires or interviews to collect their own data. 

How do we digest our food?

How old is the oldest fossil ever found?

So, how does ‘Working Scientifically’ fit in? 

For each key stage (KS1, LKS2 and UKS2), the National Curriculum outlines a number of ‘Working Scientifically’ skills. They range from recording and collecting data to using scientific evidence to answer questions. In an ideal word, every science lesson should include some conceptual knowledge (actually teaching the concept), an enquiry type and a ‘Working Scientifically skill that can be practiced and developed while carrying out the chosen enquiry. 

For example:

Conceptual Knowledge

Year 2: Describe and observe how seeds and bulbs mature in to mature plants.

Working Scientifically

KS1: Observing closely using simple equipment.

Enquiry Types

Observation over time


Children plan seeds and watch them grow over the half term. Use magnifying glass to look closely at changes. Record how the plant changes daily.

Do you have to include each enquiry type for every conceptual topic? No..

As long as you make sure that you have a good coverage over the school year and a clear progression of working scientifically skills. Otherwise, the links can be too tenuous .

Like every thing else, practice makes perfect. Although practical science can be quite overwhelming, just get stuck in. After all, don’t we instil a growth mindset in our children and constantly remind them that we learn from our mistakes? 

View all posts by: Rebecca Riley
Categories: Science

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