Inquiry-based instructional practises are a mainstay of the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) and Benchmarks of Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) in the USA.Here's a nice summary of where things stand, drawn from O'Neill & Polman:
Same Science for All? Interactive association of structure in learning activities and academic attainment background on college science performance in the USA
Robert H. Tai; Philip M. Sadler
International Journal of Science Education
Vol. 31, No. 5, 15 March 2009, pp. 675–696
In recent years, a number of curriculum reform projects have championed the notion of having students do science in ways that move beyond hands-on work with authentic materials and methods, or developing a conceptual grasp of current theories. These reformers have argued that students should come to an understanding of science through doing the discipline and taking a high degree of agency over investigations from start to finish. This stance has occasionally been mocked by its critics as an attempt to create ‘‘little scientists’’—a mission, it is implied, that is either romantic or without purpose. Here, we make the strong case for a practice-based scientific literacy, arguing through three related empirical studies that taking the notion of ‘‘little scientists’’ seriously might be more productive in achieving current standards for scientific literacy than continuing to refine ideas and techniques based on the coverage of conceptual content.I have not read O'Neill & Polman's study as yet.* However, a mere glance at the final section turns up the phrase "student-designed research projects," accompanied by a vote for Deborah Meir, "the principal who has led school reforms in New York and Boston [and recommended] that educators foster 'the capacity to hazard an opinion on matters of science that may pertain to political and moral priorities, and a healthy and knowing skepticism toward the misuse of scientific authority'** (Meier, 1995)."
Why Educate ‘‘Little Scientists?’’ Examining the Potential of Practice-Based Scientific Literacy
D. Kevin O’Neill, Joseph L. Polman
JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING
VOL. 41, NO. 3, PP. 234–266 (2004)
"Student-designed research projects" and "the capacity to hazard an opinion on matters of science that may pertain to political and moral priorities" have nothing to do with each other.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the typical student-designed research project is likely to render a teen-aged student less able to hazard an opinion on a matter of science that may pertain to political and moral priorities than a solid, book-based, content-rich science course would do, while at the same time causing him to consider himself more able. Not knowing what he or she doesn't know: that's your little scientist.
In any event, Robert Tai and Philip Sadler's analysis of survey data from more than 8000 high school students produced the following conclusion, which will come as a surprise only to ed-school trained educators:
Self-led, self-structured inquiry may be the best method to train scientists at the college level and beyond, but it's not the ideal way for all high school students to prepare for college science.This is the kind of thing parents and taxpayers do not need a peer-reviewed study to figure out, mostly because parents and taxpayers have a clue.
Data show that "autonomy doesn't seem to hurt students who are strong in math and may, in fact, have a positive influence on their attitude toward science" Tai said. However, "Students with a weak math background who engaged in self-structured learning practices in high school may do as much as a full letter grade poorer in college science," he said.
[snip]According to Tai, many secondary science classes are turning to a self-structured method of learning with the notion that students will discover science on their own. "Advocates should be sobered by this study's findings," Tai said.
Advocates should be overcome by guilt and remorse; advocates should get down on their hands and knees and beg forgiveness of parents and taxpayers for the countless thousands of young people lost to scientific and science-related careers because they arrived at college having spent 13 years pretending to be little scientists instead of acquiring the content knowledge they needed to study science in college.
But I don't see that happening.
* If you'd like me to send you the study, email me: cijohn @ verizon.net
** I guess pure research is out.