Exploring vs Experimenting

Most people have a difficult time distinguishing between the exploration phase and the experimentation phase in the inquiry learning cycle. The end result of each phase is clear: exploration results in a question for further investigation, experimentation results in data, graphs, etc. that can be used to identify patterns.

One problem is that a teacher might launch the exploration phase by having the students do an experiment! It will seem like the exploration phase has been skipped and it very likely has been skipped if there is no further experimentation!

One way to look at the difference between exploration and experimentation is to think about a graph. During exploration the labels on the graph can just be observables, but they don't have to have any order to them. You might be looking at rocks, for instance. You could put the name of each kind of rock along the x-axis and then test them with something to see how easily they are scratched. The y-axis could have your determination of how hard it is to scratch each rock. No prior knowledge about rocks is needed to do the exploration. For some students the fact that a graph was generated would mean that an experiment was performed. In the broad sense of "experiment" that may be true, but it isn't an experiment in the inquiry learning cycle sense of the word.

For an experiment the x-axis and the y-axis must be ordered according to a measurable physical characteristic. From the exploration in the last paragraph we might ask: "What makes a rock hard?" To do an experiment we now have to decide what physical characteristic we want to measure as a determination of hardness and what physical characteristic of rocks to look at that may make a difference in the hardness of the rock. This requires us to use prior learning!

Continuing with the rock example we might decide that hardness could be determined by the amount of rock that can be scraped off by a nail. The idea is that a lot of scrapings would indicate a softer rock. A rock could be scratched by the nail for 15 seconds; the resulting dust could then be collected and weighed on a scale. That would allow us to label the y-axis as grams of rock scrapings and to have the numbers go from zero to the largest amount collected.

What about the x-axis? Many students think that we can just put the name of the rocks along that axis, but that would not be what we want. We are trying to determine why the rocks are hard, not just classify them as hard or soft. In our view, to classify them as hard or soft is still part of the exploration phase. To make it an experiment we have to think about what might made a rock hard. One possibility is the density. From our prior work we know that more dense materials are more compact and that seems like it might suggest that more dense materials would be harder. So, we now would determine the density of each kind of rock and then label the x-axis as density and have the numbers go from zero the densest.

Putting the density along the x-axis and the measure of hardness along the y-axis allows us to see if there is any pattern describing the hardness in terms of the density. We now have two measurable physical properties that we are trying to find a connection between. Being able to see if there is a pattern is an indication that an experiment has been performed.

I suggest that two indications of an experiment have been identified on this page. One indication is that each axis has something that can be measured and ordered. The second indicator is that in the experimentation phase we are required to use prior knowledge. We have to use a physical characteristic that was previously studied as a variable in our experiment.

Homework Assignment:

Your homework assignment is to write a reaction paper (no specific format) about this page. Use the Writing Assignments page to submit the homework. Include how your view of exploring vs experimenting has (or hasn't) changed due to this class.