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In Discovering Intelligent Design, Discovering the Importance of “Inquiry-Based Learning”

Casey Luskin

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When my co-authors and I were writing the new intelligent design (ID) curriculum Discovering Intelligent Design, we were careful to incorporate the teaching methods from inquiry-based science education. What’s that, you ask?

Basically, inquiry-based education encourages students to learn by asking questions. According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences:

Inquiry is a critical component of a science program at all grade levels and in every domain of science, and designers of curricula and programs must be sure that the approach to content, as well as the teaching and assessment strategies, reflect the acquisition of scientific understanding through inquiry.1

To ensure that teachers understand the importance of inquiry-based science education, in 2000 the National Research Council published a guidebook, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards. Former NAS president Bruce Alberts explained in the Foreword that “[t]eaching science through inquiry allows students to conceptualize a question and then seek possible explanations that respond to that question.”2 The guidebook goes on to explain how instructors should implement the method in their teaching:

Inquiry is a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations.3

DiscoveringIDCoverGraphicsmall.jpgThe guidebook further suggests that students learn how to “formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence” and “recognize and analyze alternative explanations and models.”4 The National Science Education Standards similarly stress that “[t]hroughout the process of inquiry” students should “constantly evaluate and reevaluate the nature and strength of evidence and share and then critique their explanations and those of others.”5

This weighing of competing explanations and evidence is strongly advocated by education theorists. In 2010 Stanford science education theorist Jonathan Osborne wrote an article in Science titled “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse.” He concluded that there are “a number of classroom-based studies, all of which show improvements in conceptual learning when students engage in argumentation.” In his view, students have the best chance of truly understanding scientific concepts when they learn “to discriminate between evidence that supports (inclusive) or does not support (exclusive) or that is simply indeterminate.”6 In other words, students should learn about scientific concepts by looking at the evidence for and against particular scientific claims.

Unfortunately, when it comes to evolution, many textbooks abandon inquiry-based teaching methods. Students are not encouraged to ask hard questions. They aren’t encouraged to weigh competing explanations. They certainly aren’t asked to consider evidence for and against any particular viewpoint. Discovering Intelligent Design encourages all those things.

Exploring Multiple Viewpoints
Discovering Intelligent Design exposes students to multiple views about the origin of the universe, life, and species. In each case, it compares and contrasts the most prominent materialistic theories with the theory of intelligent design.

For example, Section II of the book investigates the origin of the universe and its finely tuned, life-friendly parameters. Discovering ID obviously presents intelligent design as one potential explanation. But it also covers materialistic viewpoints, like the multiverse hypothesis, the static universe model, the oscillating universe, and others. In each case, evidence for and against the models is presented.

Of course most of the textbook is devoted to exploring biological evolution and intelligent design:

  • In chapters 7 and 8, the textbook explores prominent theories for the origin of life and contrasts those with an ID-based view.
  • In chapters 2, 9 through 12, and others, the textbook looks at Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.
  • Finally, chapters 13 through 17 look at the evidence for and against common ancestry.

In each case, evidence and arguments for and against multiple views is presented, and students are encouraged to weigh the evidence and form their own conclusions.

Ask Questions
Of course core to the inquiry-based method is asking questions. In Discovering ID, each chapter is bookended by questions intended to help the student better investigate the subject matter. For example, Chapter 9 opens with an assessment question, asking students to think about ways we might test Darwin’s theory.

The chapter ends with additional questions that can be answered through discussion or in writing. They include:

1. What are the four potential effects of mutations? Do mutations provide a viable mechanism for generating biological complexity? Why or why not?
2. Irreducibly complex systems require many components to be in place simultaneously in order for the whole system to function. How does this counter Darwin’s theory?
3. Does co-option provide a plausible explanation for how irreducible complexity can arise by unguided mechanisms? Why or why not?
4. Though materialists may argue that organisms might still survive some non-advantageous mutations, what would natural selection tend to do in a competitive environment? How would that affect an evolving species?
5. Do you think any explanation given thus far explains the cell’s complexity? Elaborate on your answer.

The students are encouraged to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of competing explanations, and form the best conclusion.

Inquiry Activities in the Workbook
Inquiry-based learning figures even more prominently in the workbook. For each chapter in the textbook, the Discovering Intelligent Design workbook includes further questions. Some of these are review questions that focus on learning vocabulary words, or memorizing facts. Others, however, use the inquiry-based method.

For example, each chapter in the workbook includes an essay question where students are encouraged to explore some issue and explain and justify their own opinions. Next, there’s an inquiry activity. Using hands-on experience, these activities allow students to learn more about important concepts explained in that chapter.

For example, Chapter 1’s inquiry activity asks students to look at ordinary household items and determine whether they incorporate both complex and specified information. In Chapter 3, students explore the Doppler Effect by constructing a “buzzer ball” which can be used to understand how the pitch of sound changes as a sound-emitting object moves closer and then recedes. This requires making careful observations about how the laws of physics operate.

Chapter 4 has an inquiry activity for the artistically inclined — but it still requires the student to learn some math. The student gets to build a “universe-creating machine,” and must also research the precise values of finely tuned parameters of physical constants that are necessary for life. In a lab project in Chapter 6, the student calculates the density of liquid water and ice, and explains why ice floats. This requires collecting data and taking measurements. Chapter 7 includes another fun activity: students get to leave out rotting meat to do their own homemade test of spontaneous generation. The student must compare and contrast results from different experiments, and explain why different results were obtained.

But bear in mind, inquiry-based learning helps students understand how science works as a whole, not just the debate over intelligent design and Darwinian evolution. In his 2010 paper in Science that I mentioned earlier, Jonathan Osborne wrote, “Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible.”7 That is an important truth, too often forgotten. The new Discovering ID curriculum was crafted with it in mind.

References Cited:
[1.] See, Nat’l Comm. on Sci. Educ. Standards and Assessment, Nat’l Research Council, National Science Education Standards (1996), p. 214.
[2.] Bruce Alberts, Forward to Comm. on the Dev. of an Addendum to the Nat’l Sci. Educ. Standards on Scientific Inquiry, Nat’l Research Council, Inquiry and the Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning, p. xii (Steve Olson & Susan Loucks-Horsley, eds. 2000).
[3.] Comm. on the Dev. of an Addendum to the Nat’l Sci. Educ. Standards on Scientific Inquiry, Nat’l Research Council, Inquiry and the Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning, pp. 13-14.
[4.] Ibid. at 19.
[5.] Ibid. at 124.
[6.] Jonathan Osborne, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” Science, Vol. 328 (5977):463-466 (April 23, 2010).
[7.] Jonathan Osborne, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” Science, Vol. 328 (5977):463-466 (April 23, 2010).


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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