Inference vs Observation

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inference Tube1
The ‘famous’ chip can inference tube

In my last posting, I looked at the importance of observations and how combined with wondering these are two critical skills for all students. If you’re like me, one of the first problems you encounter when trying to teach these skills to others is people aren’t that great at making observations. But, they’re good at making inferences. Knowing the difference between inference and observation is critical to supporting our students make sense of the world around them.

About a decade ago I was confronted with a simple exercise that reminded me that I needed to review the difference between inferences and observations. The facilitator of the workshop I was attending handed out an unknown object he had purchased online. We were asked to provide an observation of the object. Much to my surprise, most people gave inferences. Now, when I repeat a similar exercise, like the inference tree in the reference below, I get similar results with any level, any subject of teacher. It’s not that they don’t know the difference, it’s just that we’ve internalized the actions and haven’t stopped to really think about the difference between the two. Like a good relationship, we’ve come to assume things that make life flow easier, but still need regular maintenance to ensure they continue to function smoothly.

Now imagine the challenges students have figuring out the differences.

While you can read a definition for each term and understand the term, it doesn’t mean the application of the term is easily accomplished. We need to know more about each of these terms with operational definitions that help students in the moment of inferring or observing. For observing we have the anchor chart. A quick glance at that teaching tool will help students focus their observing skills. An inference is based on the observations. Often you can differentiate between an observation and inference by putting the words “I think” in front of the statement. An inference supports an “I think” statement; whereas an observation doesn’t require the “I think” prefix.

Perhaps this is a good time to start building a table as a quick reference:

Observation Information about an object or event
Wonderings Information about an object or event that makes the observer curious and/or want to know more
Inference An explanation using observations and prior knowledge for why something occurred in the past
Coming in future post…  
Coming in future post…  

For successful teaching of inquiry, it is essential students, of all ages, know the difference between inference and observations. As Leager points out, “… children continually filter and compare their observations with the constructed knowledge of their personal background experiences and related assumptions. This is the process of inferring. Inferences are the interpretations of observations. Any class supporting the development of inquiry needs students who can understand both and correctly apply both in their studies.

Finally, I like the tips provided by Finson when it comes to building inference skills. Maybe another anchor chart can be built here!

  • An inference is only as good as the observations on which it is based.
  • An inference is only of multiple possible explanations for a set of observations.
  • Inferences are not always correct.
  • Inferences are influences by prior knowledge and experiences or the context in which the inference is made.
  • Examine your assumptions when making inferences.

 References and Additional Support

Finson, Kevin D. October 2010. Inference or Observation? Science and Children. NSTA.

Leager, Craig R. February 2008. Observation Versus Inference. Science and Children. NSTA.

For inference activity ideas search the following terms:

  1. Inference tree activity (and select images)
  2. Inference tube activity
  3. Black box science activity