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Finding Freedom in Dialectic Inquiry: New Teachers’ Responses to Silencing

by Deborah Bieler & Anne Burns Thomas - 2009

Background: The need to support new teachers in urban public schools is well established, given current shortages and research that highlights serious issues with teacher retention. Debate continues about approaches to support for new teachers, including questions about the importance of developing an inquiry stance toward teaching. As more teacher preparation and professional development programs adopt inquiry-based methods, the theory and practice of these approaches deserve close analysis. Examining the ways in which inquiry-based programs strengthen or constrain new teacher agency is an important step in understanding the relationship between teacher retention and the deprofessionalization of teaching.

Focus of Study: This article describes two groups of new teachers who experienced the inquiry-based programs of support in which they participated as silencing and uncritical. The authors argue that even in the best-intentioned programs, inquiry can become a fixed method in which the new teachers’ voice and agency are lost. In each study, the new teachers worked to reclaim voice and agency through dialectic inquiry, which the authors characterize as local, self-reflexive, and able to embrace the tensions that mark many teaching situations.

Research Design: This article draws on two yearlong practitioner research studies conducted with new teachers who were participating in structures intended to support their development as critical, reflective practitioners.

Recommendations: Given the nature of teaching as a profession, the authors argue that dialectic inquiry can help new teachers develop important attributes of agency and critique. The authors advocate for inquiry-based teacher development programs that remain flexible and reflective and are able to support new teachers in a profession that can be silencing.

Walt and Joss met each week in a university lounge with two other student teachers and their shared university-based mentor in a graduate-level teacher preparation program.1 On this day, with furrowed brows and large hand gestures, they explained that when they encountered the increasingly popular concept of engaging in inquiry in their coursework, they felt helpless, intimidated, and even unsafe when they asked their instructors to clarify what was meant by inquiry. Frustrated by their experiences, they critiqued the ways that inquiry was practiced in their program:


Ive never felt as intimidated as I do here. Ever. In an academic setting, in anything. . . . Having an inquiry theory doesnt mean youre executing it. I have no problem with the inquiry theory; I just dont think Ive seen the inquiry theory in our program yet, because inquiry has been used as a sieve in our courses.


Well, youve seen it, but what you havent seen is the step after that, where the inquiry stance is inquired upon.

Ironically, the enactment of what Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2001) term an inquiry stance is meant to engender inclusion of teachers across the professional life span based on the belief that teachers stand in a different relationship to knowledge when they make problematic their own knowledge and practice as well as the knowledge and practice of others (p. 49).

The student teachers were not the only new teachers to struggle with inquiry: Across town, in the home of a veteran teacher, four new teachers in a teacher networkAllie, Caroline, Kim, and Anne (the present articles second author and a teacher researcher)struggled as well. Caroline labeled the struggles slippages and described the ways that the experienced teachers in the teacher network in which they participated had silenced her most pressing questions:

Caroline: But there have been so many strange slippages of people saying things like Well, these kids dont have anything to stimulate them at home. I really do feel that we have come away from the sense of the power of the inquiry. Do people here really believe that children dont have things to stimulate them at home? And, do I really believe that? I mean what is my struggle with that? How do I interact with that in my own self?

As a new teacher participating in a grassroots, inquiry-based professional development network, Caroline hoped to engage problems of her classroom practicein this case, problems with provisioning for students and the unequal distribution of resources in urban schoolswith a range of committed teachers. This example shows the ways in which the structure that was intended to support her critical, reflective practice actually encouraged the same kind of hindering generalizations and comments that she experienced in other, non-inquiry-based professional development.

The need for critically reflective teachers in urban public schools is well documented (Darling-Hammond, 1997; Peske, Liu, Johnson, Kauffman, & Kardos, 2001), but the means for adequately preparing and supporting these educators remains the subject of intense debate (e.g., Bullough & Gitlin, 2001; Wideen, Mayer-Smith, & Moon, 1998). A key question centers on the importance of new teachers taking a critical inquiry stance toward the conditions of urban education (Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2005). Although teacher preparation programs and programs of support such as induction programs and teacher networks are offered as potential pathways for preparing and retaining teachers (Lieberman & Grolnick, 1996; Lieberman & Miller, 2001; Smagorinsky, Lakly, & Johnson, 2002; Weiner, 2000), these programs are equally contested terrain. Current research and literature abound with descriptions of inquiry-based teacher preparation and support programs (Britzman, 2003; Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2002; Grossman, 2005; Michie, 2003; Weiner, 2002), but the purposes and contours of these programs vary widely. Teachers who emerge from such programs can be unprepared for the challenges associated with urban teaching and learning, a problem highlighted by the fact that more than 25% of new urban teachers leave the classroom each year (Neild, Useem, Travers, & Lesnick, 2003; Useem & Neild, 2002).

In this article, we examine the ways that we and these new teachers negotiated two structuresa teacher preparation program and a teacher networkthat aspired to support critical, reflective pedagogical practice but nevertheless seemed to silence our critique and reflection.2 We explore ways in which the process of inquiry became fixed in these programs of support, both in the prescription of inquiry as a method and in the programs hesitance to turn the lens of inquiry onto themselves. In this way, inquiry as practiced in these programs of support can be understood as false inquiry, which, we argue, takes on many of the rigid characteristics of traditional teacher education and professional development. Through a focus on the subgroups that emerged from our research projects, we examine the ways that new teachers can move past this rigid method to dialectic inquiry, which we understand to be marked by an embracing of tensions and an understanding of inquiry that is reflexive and agentive (Ellsworth, 1989). In some ways, this argument can be seen as the second generation of research about the nature of inquiry. By taking a nuanced view of new teachers who are participating in structures of support informed by research and theory about inquiry-based approaches, we highlight the ways in which even these approaches can become standardized and methodical.


Efforts to reform teacher learning in order to increase the potential for change among new teachers have included moves toward multicultural teacher education and professional development (Banks, 1997; Ladson-Billings, 1995), the social-reconstructionist approach (Liston & Zeichner, 1991), and inquiry-based teacher education (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993, 1999). These conceptions of teacher learning have developed with the intention of challenging long-standing practices and foregrounding the sociopolitical context of education. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) argued that an inquiry stance can be supportive to all teachers:

Teaching is a complex activity that occurs within webs of social, historical, cultural, and political significance. Across the life span, we assert that an inquiry stance provides a kind of grounding within the changing cultures of school reform and competing political agendas. . . . Teachers and students who take an inquiry stance work within inquiry communities to generate local knowledge, envision and theorize their practice, and interpret and interrogate the theory and research of others. (pp. 288289)

However, these alternative conceptions of support for new teachers are at risk of being interpreted in ways such that in reality, they reinscribe ideas about teaching and learning that run counter to real educational change. In this article, we argue that the inquiry stance described with such power by Cochran-Smith and Lytle may potentially be coopted and misinterpreted until it appears as frozen as the methods it was intended to replace. Drawing on data from two studies concentrating on new teachers, we demonstrate how false inquiry can silence new teachers voices, and we then describe the ways that the new teachers in our studies worked to reclaim their voice and authority through the practice of dialectic inquiry.


This article is rooted in critical and feminist traditions that understand the social world to be characterized by unequal power relations that result in the oppression and silencing of individuals. In response to this understanding, both critical and feminist thought share a commitment to honoring the agency of all human beings and a dedication to the work of disrupting oppression and working toward a more just society (Weiler, 1988, 1991). Specifically, the work of critical pedagogy, with which we align our two studies, explores social inequities and relationships of power in educational settings and seeks the empowerment of teachers and learners both inside and outside the classroom to expose and disrupt injustices (Giroux, 1983; McLaren, 1989). We have found Freires (1970/2000) notion of the subject/object dialectic particularly helpful in this exploration, noting that in social interactions that include new teachers, subjects position themselves as those who know and act, whereas objects are positioned as those who are known and acted upon (p. 36).

Feminists add to these commitments the significance of local individual voices and lived experiences (hooks, 1994); scholars such as Greene (1988) emphasized the rich complexity that is revealed in examinations of the [concrete] . . . particular (pp. 7071). Others (e.g., Liston & Zeichner, 1991) noted the ways in which the particularities of teachers/learners and educational settings are socially situated, able to be understood only in terms of their larger contexts. The feminist tradition of embracing multiple and unstable positionalities and representations of all people (Moseley, 2001) has enriched our understanding of Freires (1970/2000) subject/object distinction as a constantly shifting dialectic rather than a fixed binary relationship. Additionally, our studies have drawn heavily from the notion that all individuals are continually coming to voice (hooks; Rich, 1993)a process well delineated by Black feminists such as McElroy-Johnson (1993), who defined voice as a strong sense of identity within an individual, an ability to express a personal point of view, and a sense of personal well-being that allows [her/him] to respond to and become engaged (qtd. in Henry, 1998, p. 236). We see the process of coming to voice as fundamentally connected with the realization of agency and the practice of inquiry: As a person comes to voice, recognizing that his or her opinion matters and has a place in the world, he or she often experiences an increasing desire to enact her or his agency, which we understand to be the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices (Murray, 1997, p. 381). We understand a person who has engaged in the processes of coming to voice and enacting his or her agency as someone who is becoming, in the Freirean sense (1970/200), a subject (one who acts) rather than an object (one who is acted upon). We believe that it is crucial for teachers, particularly new teachers, to be subjects in this sense because it is agentive teachers who can most easily engage in dialectic inquiry.

Our article has also been informed by dialogue theory, particularly as critical and feminist scholars have conceptualized dialogue as a significant space not only for inquiry but also for the raising of voice, which Giroux and McLaren (1996) linked to participation in dialogue and the strengthening of individual agency. Informed by dialogue theorists (e.g., Cook-Sather, 2002; Sidorkin, 1999), we understand dialogic spaces as alternatives to monologic domination when all participants can position themselves as agents. In this sense, metaphors that characterize dialogic spaces as public spaces (e.g., Arendt, 1998) or third spaces (Burbules & Bruce, 2001; Gutierrez, Rymes, & Larson, 1995) are particularly helpful in illuminating our studies of new teachers who often gathered outside prescribed structures to engage in inquiry.


We conducted practitioner inquiry studies with new teachers who participated in structures that endeavored to support critical, reflective pedagogical practiceone in a teacher preparation program and the other in a network of practicing teachers. The two studies from which this article draws were conducted as dissertation research by the authors during 20012002 and 20022003 in a large northeastern U.S. city. Exploring the ways in which new teachers experienced structures of intended support, both year-long studies were conducted as qualitative inquiries with data sources consisting of field notes, audiotapes of meetings, e-mail, transcripts of dialogue interviews, and site documents. In keeping with traditions of practitioner inquiry, both authors maintained multiple, shifting positions within the research contexts, moving between critical theorizing and action as we engaged in practice with the new teachers (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Fecho, 1995). Our methods draw from feminist research methodology that rejects the one-directional investigation of subjects that characterizes traditional patriarchal research design. In accordance with feminist research as praxis (Bloom, 1998; Lather, 1993), we aspired to conduct studies in which both the researcher and the researched merged into coparticipants who engaged together in the work of inquiring, transforming, and being transformed. As we worked with the new teachers, we attempted to be constantly aware of the need for each of us to [develop] the skills of self-critique, of a reflexivity which will keep us from becoming impositional and reifiers ourselves (Lather, 1991, p. 80).

The first study centered on 1 year of daily mentoring interactions with student teachers in Evans Universitys secondary Teacher Preparation Program (ETPP). For the purposes of this article, a narrower field of dataonly the mentoring interactions related to the student teachers portfolio constructionwas used. These data consist of audiotapes, transcripts, field notes, and e-mails that represent the oral and written communications between Deborah (the present articles first author) and each student-teacher as the portfolios were created. The data collected by Anne focused on weekly meetings of the City Teacher Network (CTN) and subgroup meetings of four new teachers. In addition to the field notes of meetings, transcripts of interviews, and subgroup conversations, this study draws on data that emerged as CTN planned and hosted an event showcasing the work of public school children.

Through the process of independently analyzing our data, several important connections emerged that encouraged each of us to think beyond the contexts of our individual studies and to look for ways that new teachers engaged in inquiry across artificial barriers of experience, space, and time. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993) pointed to the new knowledge about teaching that can be generated through joint analysis when they argued for

knowledge of teaching that is inside/outside, a juxtaposition intended to call attention to teachers as knowers and to the complex and distinctly nonlinear relationships of knowledge and teaching as they are embedded in the contexts and relations of power that structure the daily work of teachers and learners in both the school and the university. (p. xi)

In our joint analysis, we wanted to know what could be learned by exploring how new teachers engaged in inquiry in contexts that were at once located inside and outside schools. We were particularly interested in what happened when the new teachers inquiry practices were in tension with those of the experienced educators in these contexts. Therefore, our analysis focused on data that evidenced such tension, which we came to understand as difficult conversations. This analytic category represents difficult conversations in which the new teachers participated as they struggled to define and practice inquiry. The resulting pool of data included, for example, e-mails in which ETPP student teachers resisted an inquiry-based assignment, or phone calls in which CTN new teachers suggested alternative ideas about inquiry during CTN meetings. This pool of data represents difficult conversations in which the new teachers participated as they struggled to define and practice inquiry. The data presented here are meant to be illustrative, representing emerging ideas about the nature of inquiry in supporting new teachers.


The first authors study explored the relationships that she developed, as a university-based mentor, with four secondary English student teachers who were enrolled in a masters degree and teacher certification program at ETPPa program that emphasizes inquiry in learning to teach. These relationships were dialogical in nature, characterized by an explicit rejection of traditional mentoring practice in which the mentor is positioned primarily as a knower and an evaluator, and the student teacher is understood to be primarily a learner and one who requires evaluation. In the second authors study, new teachers participated in CTN, a professional development network that has met weekly for more than 20 years to engage in inquiry about students, schools, and teaching in urban settings using a set of descriptive processes. Although it was not officially designed as a structure of support for new teachers, members of CTN provided support for new teachers, including lending their professional expertise and the weight of their combined experience to challenging teaching situations. The new teachers were encouraged to develop an inquiry stance toward their teaching and the profession by asking questions about their practice and interrogating the theories and policies of others.

The two new teacher groups that were the focus of our respective studies are bound by significant commonalities, and together, they provide rich portraits of, and raise important questions about, what it means to learn to teach. Both the student teacher/university-based mentor relationship, in which the first author was a mentor, and CTN, in which the second author was a new teacher, were designed to be supportive of teacher development by bringing together educators with varying levels of experience. Although CTN is an outside-of-school gathering in members homes, the ETPP mentoring relationships also developed primarily outside of schoolin coffee houses, restaurants, and parking lotsand over e-mail. Despite these out-of-school settings, both new teacher groups inherently valued the expertise brought by experienced teachers and implicitly understood the new teachers exposure to and interaction with more experienced teachers to be a primary catalyst for new teacher development. Although we see many benefits in organizing meaningful interactions between newer and more experienced teachers, we find that such groupings, even when purposely located outside of school, can easily fall prey to what Freire (1970/2000) called the banking model (p. 71), a metaphor for traditional teaching practice in which a knowing actor/subject (a teacher, traditionally defined) makes deposits into not-knowing, acted-upon objects (students, traditionally defined). The new teachers in our studies were interested in disrupting the banking model, both in the supportive structures of CTN and ETPP, and in their own classrooms.

The contexts and methods of these studies were also influenced by our understanding of practitioner research, specifically the centrality of participant observation in such research. Our understanding of this position as encompassing full participation and active observation at the same time was informed in part by our roles within each study. At the same time that each of us was collecting data for these studies as a researcher, we participated as one of those who was being researched; Deborah understood her engagement with the four student teachers to be one not only of dialogic partner but also of a new mentor who was researching her own practice, whereas Anne was a new teacher who regularly attended CTN meetings to inquire into her practice as an eighth-grade teacher. These multiple roles and shifting perspectives heightened the importance of the subgroups that developed in each study and influenced the ways in which we came to understand our work in those spaces.

The contexts in which each of our studies was located were predicated on the idea that new teachers were in need of a particular kind of support to develop as professionals. Although on the surface, many differences exist between the two contexts (including size of organization, institutional affiliation, and positionality of the researcher), both embrace a progressive stance toward supporting new teachers in which inquiry was central. In this article, we argue that both CTN and ETPP enacted false inquiry, an understanding of inquiry that inadvertently limited the agency of the new teachers who participated in these programs. Faced with such limitations, the new teachers engaged in dialectic inquiry by expanding the definition and practice of inquiry to include asking questions about the programs that were designed to be supportive. Further, we argue that this shift allowed these new teachers to move past false inquiry and engage in practices that they considered meaningful and just.



Both programs we studied placed a strong emphasis on supporting new teachers through the use of inquiry: ETPP, the teacher preparation program, described itself as inquiry based, and CTN, the teacher network, enjoyed a reputation as engaging in teacher inquiry as professional development. The student teachers were exposed to ETPPs conception of inquiry through program materials, courses, and assigned readings, whereas the new teachers learned of CTNs inquiry process through repeated observation and participation in network practice. What became clear to both authors about these understandings of inquiry was that each program seemed to have a fixed notion of what could be considered inquiry, which comprised both specific methods that were to be undertaken and limits on the kinds of questions that could be asked. In this way, inquiry became what we came to understand as false inquiry, prescriptive methods that are designed to be implemented without taking into consideration the needs and desires of new teachers and without adhering to the spirit of an inquiry stance.3 We argue that the false inquiry that was enacted by these two structures of support inhibited the development of new teacher agency. Although inquiry was not expected to be the end of the learning process for the new teachers in either ETPP or CTN, inquiry was understood and practiced in a rigid manner. In the next sections, we discuss the ways in which the new teachers in ETPP and CTN felt silenced when they experienced inquiry as a fixed method of professional development.

Inquiry as method in the teacher preparation program

The ETPP administrators often referred to the programs final portfolio requirement as the culmination of the students inquiry experiences; they required each student teacher to submit a portfolio that was organized around a central inquiry question and that consisted primarily of artifacts connected to this question. ETPPs administrators made their definition of inquiry most explicit on two occasions during the year: first, during the programs summer orientation, when an administrator briefly introduced the portfolio requirement, and second, during a spring seminar, when another administrator modeled her understanding of the inquiry process for the student teachers. On the first occasion, at ETPP orientation, Ruth, a program administrator, gave a welcome address in which she explained, What should be prominent is that you are not involved in transmission to students; you are a learner along with them. We emphasize inquiry. In her definition, Ruth made clear not only that she hoped to tie the practice of inquiry to a learning stance that she expected these preservice teachers to take, but also that the practice of inquiry runs counter to teaching-as-transmission. Likewise, program materials, such as the ETPP handbook and required texts like Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998), unanimously praised the practice of inquiry and correlated it with effective pedagogy. Additionally, the secondary English student teacher subgroup in ETPP studied texts that provided examples of, and theorized about, teacher inquiry (e.g., Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Fecho, 2000). Though the expectation that ETPP student teachers would both practice inquiry and encourage their students to do the same was made clear from the first day of the program, the definition of inquiryspecifically, the relationship between questioning, learning, and avoiding transmissionwas not immediately made explicit.

The second occasion that inquiry was explicitly addressed in the program came almost 1 month later, in a seminar meeting designed to prepare the student teachers to create their end-of-year portfolios. On this occasion, a second administrator, Sharon, claimed to model the practice of inquiry for the student teachers, but it is difficult to reconcile this model with the learning stance that Ruth described. This example illustrates one way that, despite their best intentions, teacher educators can enact false inquiry, or inquiry as method. At the conclusion of this seminar, Sharon said to the teachers, Pay attention to how I did this. There was a lesson plan to this class today. I was trying to model for you the inquiry process. You were discovering the inquiry process. I could have lectured, but I didnt. Given this explanation, this seminar becomes essential to constructing an understanding of how ETPP teachers were expected to approach the notion of inquiry, both in terms of their classroom practice and in terms of their portfolio creation.

Sharon begins the class by noting that the Praxis tests are standardized tests that say that youre a teacher. She then asks, Why would we do a portfolioinstead of a qualifying exam on everything there is to know about teachingor enough to get you on your way? She adds that it would probably be easier to do, and to evaluate in May, so why would we do it? She asks the student-teachers to Write a few bullet points about what a portfolio is and then has the student-teachers share their responses with one another first in pairs and then in the large group. After this, Sharon shifts the focus, commenting, It sounds like youre pretty much experts in portfolios. What might be included in them? As the teachers volunteer their responses, which are being written on the chalkboard, Sharon notes that these responses are your hypothesis about what will go into the portfolio; however, immediately after she makes this comment, she seems to interrupt the spirit of hypothesis in response to Celine, the first to suggest a portfolio item. Celine proposes, Resume. List of coursework taken, and Sharon responds, Not required but good for potential employers.

In this and other similar comments, Sharon implies that there was in fact a predetermined set of required portfolio items, thereby revealing this activitys similarity to other teaching-as-transmission methods. An example of teacher-centered practice that positions the instructor as the holder of knowledge, this activity demonstrates the paralysis involved in this interpretation of inquiry. Inquiry conceptualized as hypothesis testing evokes the scientific methodthe four-step process of observation, hypothesizing, testing, and theorizing. This systematic process is indeed a method; however, in this lesson, the students only discovered what the instructor, or a more general learned community, already knows. In this lesson, Sharon appeared to conceptualize inquiry as the process of students discovering commonly accepted facts and/or ways of knowing. Significantly, in this conceptualization of inquiry, the impetus for discovery is the teacher-generated question, and the answers to the question are known by the teacher: a scenario that renders students relatively passive in the process. Thus, this lesson involved false inquiry, in which the instructor used the language of inquiry, but during which the new teachers were positioned as passive recipients of others knowledge and beliefs rather than valued as critical observers and generators of their own knowledge and beliefs. The practice of false inquiry, particularly in the context of teacher education programs, is concerning because it can inhibit not only student-teachers identification and pursuit of their own questions but also the ability to support their students individual inquiries.

An exchange between Joss and Sharon in the final portion of this seminar further illustrates the tension between inviting students to be active participants in inquiry and maintaining a more traditional student-as-receptacle approach, the latter of which had been at play in the seminar thus far. The exchange below occurred after Sharon asked the teachers, in small groups, to test their hypothesis by examining former student-teachers portfolios to determine whether they included the items they hypothesized. When the small groups regathered in the seminar room to report their findings,

Sharon, standing in front of the room, calls on Joss, who, from the back row, asks if its okay to ask a general question first. He asks, Are these considered good examples? She raises her eyebrows in apparent surprise at the question and simply tells him that yes, they are. She doesnt ask him why hes asking but instead calls on someone else. The next teacher comments on the intimidating amount of content in the electronic portfolio she viewed, and then another teacher mentions that she liked an involvement with parents section she read. A third teacher says that the chronological movement of the portfolio she looked at made sense. At this point, Joss, who had raised his hand again almost immediately after his question was answered, is again acknowledged by Sharon, and appears to continue what he wanted to say earlier. He says that he was struck by the lack of critical thinking in his groups portfolio, that it seemed to be a regurgitation of words weve already heard in the programbut not here today (sarcasm which draws the classs laughter) but has no depth or breadth (which draws the classs laughter againapparently these are some of the words weve already heard). Sharon is silent for a moment and then states, Wow. Joss continues: I expected to see change, essential questions, an examination of essential questions. I thought it would be more of a self-inquiry than a cut and paste. Sharon does not respond to Joss but points to another teacher, and then another and another, who summarily report their groups findings, and Josss questions linger in the room, unengaged.

This seminar meeting, and particularly this exchange between Joss and Sharon, raises important questions both about what needs new teachers are assumed to have and how supportive structures enact their understandings of inquiry. As the above example demonstrates, new teachers are often assumed to need pedagogical modeling and formulaic requirementseven under the auspices of promoting inquiry. Indeed, the highly structured portfolio requirements included a 15-page paper and 37 specific artifacts ranging from lesson plans, student work, and copies of and reflections on coursework essays, to student assessments of the student-teachers teaching. The rigid structure of both the means and the ends of inquiry, as they were enacted by ETPP administrators through the ways they modeled the inquiry process and crafted the portfolio requirements, appears to be in conflict with the notion of inquiry as learning stance that was promoted during orientation. In his ironic comments in the example, Joss appeared to be aligned with such a stance as he called into question the nature of authentic inquiry. Interestingly, Joss used the terms regurgitation, cut and paste, and a lack of critical thinking to contrast his definition of self-inquiry: change, essential questions, an examination of essential questions. Josss practice of inquiry, perhaps an attempt to reconcile Wiggins and McTighes (1998) concept of essential questions with Cochran-Smith and Lytles (1993) notion of an inquiry stance, is an example of what we call dialectic inquiry: It is organic, growing out of his personal reflections on his surroundings and thus rejects the formulaic; it signifies his desire for change in himself and his surroundings; and it is willing to ask hard questions that are productive but likely to cause discomfort. In contrast, Sharons silence and silencing in response to Joss demonstrate how false inquiry is characterized by a closed posturing, a reluctance to engage with difficult questions and to challenge and be challenged, and to see promise in the examination of moments of tension. We explore the concept of dialectic inquiry in greater detail in the next section.

This example of false inquiry demonstrates that new teachers are often expected by their more experienced colleagues to imitate a model or to follow a method, but not, as Josss experience shows, to challenge these assumptions or to inquire deeply into their own practices. Although modeling of pedagogical practice is not problematic and can in fact be an instructive component of teacher education programs, such modeling must support rather than suppress student-teacher agency and individuality. Josss critical response to ETPPs definition of inquiry illustrates one important way in which the new teachers in our studies were engaged in negotiating an inquiry-based structure: They raised questions, within large group settings, about the nature of inquiryin this case, the extent to which it is a meaningful process in which the inquirer engages in critical self-reflexivity. The ways in which inquiry was practiced in CTN further illustrate the limitations of false inquiry.

Inquiry as method in the new teacher network

CTN was not intended to operate solely as a support system for new teachers, but throughout the over 30-year history of the group, new teachers who were interested in engaging problems of practice through inquiry sought support for developing this kind of practice with the group. Although the term inquiry is hardly ever used at CTN meetings by members to describe the network activities, many of the hallmarks of reflective practice, inquiry, and teacher research were evident in the weekly meetings, including the use of guiding questions, the importance of local or teacher knowledge, and the practice of observing and describing as a precursor to analysis (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993). The method of inquiry as enacted by CTN involved two main areas: the formats of collaboration in place in this longstanding network, and the structures of the descriptive processes that were used to conduct inquiry. Some examples of the formats that grew out of CTNs history with the descriptive processes include participants taking turns asking questions and offering suggestions, only after being recognized by the chair of the meeting; the independent nature of responses, seen in the way that participants were discouraged from responding to another participants suggestion; and the use of highly descriptive language, which is as free as possible of educational jargon (Carini, 2001; Himley & Carini, 2000). The use of a set of descriptive processes developed by Patricia Carini and others at the Prospect School in Vermont (Himley & Carini) stands at the center of all CTN activities. These processes clearly promote inquiry through a reliance on observation and close description. In a similarly thoughtful way, the structure of the descriptive processes is intended to be a guide toward making sense of all the daily observations and data gathered by classroom teachers. Given the ways in which CTNs structures and formats were meant to support the individual teachers voice and agency, the feelings of silencing and frustration experienced by the new teachers in this study are striking.

For a new teacher coming to a CTN meeting for the first time, the structure of inquiry was at once visible and difficult to grasp and could seem highly formalized while allowing for many different interpretations. Meetings were held at a participants house and conducted with no formal introduction to the descriptive processes in use, which could mean that a new participant would have no clear guide for when and how to enter the inquiry. However visible the structures and processes were to new teachers, they operated during every meeting and can clearly be seen as being thought of as a method, or the CTN way. The three other new teachers and [the second author] had been participating in CTN meetings for at least one year before this study began, but we discussed our entrances into the group regularly, referring to our first meetings as hard and intimidating and thinking that we were being judged. Participating in meetings that follow a set method without being versed in that method left new teachers in a position of weakness, and it was only by learning the CTN method of inquiryboth the formats and the descriptive processesthat the new teachers were able to participate in the inquiry. As marginalized participants, the new teachers were rarely in a position of influence in setting the meetings direction and were more regularly positioned as more passive participants. In the following section, I discuss the ways in which this lack of power silenced the new teachers perspectives and limited their agency related to school reform.

During the year of this study, the local city school district was undergoing an unprecedented level of reform, which included proposed privatization of the district and many schools. Members of CTN, often concerned with issues of schooling and social justice, were determined to engage in inquiry around this troubling context. The group used the two-meeting planning process to set aside numerous meetings during the 20012002 schedule intended to look at the proposed reforms and identify strategies for action. In the first step of planning, teachers share classroom stories to capture the most relevant concerns in each teachers experience. In the second step, they look for themes across these experiences and ways to address concerns using the descriptive processes. This two-step process results in a 1015-week schedule of meetings that CTN will undertake. Following the announcement of the school reform proposals, the schedule included two meetings designed to specifically address concerns that new teachers had expressed in relation to the reform: taking a stand, a meeting that was intended to explore ways that CTN members could become involved in protesting against privatization, and the kindergarten meeting, designed to explore the ways that kindergarten teachers were being attacked by school and district administrators for including developmentally appropriate activities, such as dramatic play and field trips, in their classrooms. Although the new teachers had suggested the topics for these two meetings, the descriptive process to be used was chosen without their input. More experienced members of CTN decided that both of these meetings would use the recollection process, in which, in response to a framing question, participants share personal stories related to the topic. The chair of the meeting is then charged with gathering themes to broaden the picture relating to the issue at hand.

In theory, the classroom stories would ground meetings in the particulars of classroom life, focusing inquiry exactly where the new teachers had concerns. In practice, the groups insistence on using a predetermined process and the often overwhelming weight of tradition stifled inquiry. In particular, the taking a stand and kindergarten meetings, both planned as a response to teachers real concerns about district reform efforts, left the new teachers feeling disappointed by CTNs inquiry method. As clear as the intent had been to engage in inquiry into ways that each teacher could respond politically and professionally to the proposed reforms, using recollection as the descriptive process seemed to encourage less focused conversation. For example, at the taking a stand meeting, the framing question asked each participant to name what is valuable and worth keeping in schools. This overly broad framing, coupled with the lack of direct questioning or redirection that is characteristic of CTN formats, produced a discussion that strayed far from both the intent of the meeting and current context of the district. Meeting participants shared their belief in everything from well-equipped play yards to school-based governance to fully stocked libraries in every school; it was not until the meeting was nearly over that anyone mentioned the importance of keeping our public schools public ventures. The reflective conversation succeeded in encouraging teachers to share personal beliefs and to dream out loud about what schools should be, but it failed in the more important task of inciting inquiry and taking a stand among this potentially powerful group of teachers.

During the meeting, each teacher shared ideas about what should be preserved in the manner suggested by the chair while putting a unique spin on the situation that reflected personal beliefs and experiences. Caroline, as a new teacher with a small multiage class, listed each of her students and what she would like to see preserved for them. She said,

Other kids and 100 Book Challenge for Felix. Friends and books and math for Melissa. Alphabet charts and word walls and story time for Joshua. Singing, drama, and chalkboards for Jaylene. Pet shows (every Friday by the way, weve been doing pet shows), books, and math for Raquel. Choice and computer and One Blue Books for Josh. Reading partners, and snack, and the books Three Little Bears and Red Riding Hood for Iesha. Author of the Month, skip counting, and singing for Jessica Sanchez. Mr. Paschal, and pencil sharpeners, and speech for Shaquille. Chapter books, jokes, and quiet time for Andrew.

Caroline clearly knew her students well and could name various aspects of the school day that were important for each of them. This focus on the individual student that is central to the descriptive processes helps to illuminate her creative teaching style and her care for each child. There is great power in the vision that Caroline articulated, and there are certainly questions that emerge from her descriptions. However, this power goes largely untapped because of the nature of CTNs descriptive process. By encouraging highly personal responses to a question of value in our schools, the recollection format did not address the ways that the group might harness its considerable talent and insight for collective action to protest the districts reforms. The meeting progressed with similar statements from each teacher, reflecting personal concerns and interests. But where was the inquiry? The questions that were raised by each persons individual statement of beliefs were not connected with one another or interrogated; the ideas seemed to be laid on a table one by one with no attempt to pick them up or look more closely at them. In this way, the intent of the inquiry process as advocated by CTN members through the use of descriptive processes was undermined by the method that CTN implemented.

Kim and I struggled to engage with this topic during our turns; we sat next to each other at the meeting and wrote notes back and forth on my notebook about how we might redirect the conversation toward a more action-oriented question. When I spoke, the conflict between participating as a new teacher unsure of how far I would be allowed to stray outside the CTN structure and my own thoughts about the potential value of such a meeting was clear in the hesitation and hedging in my response. The following excerpt from my first response to this question reflected a sense of unease at the meeting frame, coupled with insecurity about speaking back to the process:

Um, I think that, you know, all of the ideas that Ive been hearing are very, you know, wonderful and I dont know whether its some part of me that is pessimistic or but I keep, I keep thinking that its not&um, that I feel like its disconnected from what the stand could be about. Like the ideas are disconnected from what our reality might be in some way.

As a new teacher still learning my way among the CTN processes, I felt fairly powerless to redirect the process and suggest ways of engaging in inquiry that were not a part of the CTN way. This disconnect was ironic; I was attending CTN meetings because I had been attracted to what I believed was their commitment to inquiry.

Similarly, Allie struggled with the ways she saw inquiry into her practice as a kindergarten teacher thwarted by a reliance on CTN process and structure during the kindergarten meeting. During the early months of the school year, Allies principal routinely criticized and attacked her for including play in the classroom schedule. During meetings in early October, her descriptions of the ways she was being treated and the expectations that her principal had for kindergarten students moved CTN members to plan a meeting to address her concerns. However, by framing the meeting as a recollection, in which members were to share personal early childhood experiences, Allie believed that the chair had undercut the potential power of the inquiry.

Allie wanted to engage in the hard work of inquiry into a problem of practice that she felt was damaging to her students. She was willing to describe the ways in which she was structuring her classroom and the challenges that her principal was registering, challenges that pointed toward more regimented, drill-oriented instruction for her urban kindergarten students. Instead of pushing Allie to examine the underbelly of the problem that she was confronting, including the roots of race and class that were all too present, the CTN recollection method produced a meeting full of stories about what it was like to be in kindergarten 20 years ago. In a meeting that was a near rerun of the taking a stand meeting, participants in the kindergarten meetings shared idealistic visions of what school for young children should be like, without addressing Allies reality or providing insight about how she could change her situation. She shared,

that whole thing made me really uncomfortable. And I didnt feel like the meeting helped, I mean, it didnt do anything. It was so unproductive. Whether it was just the angle . . . but I just felt like that meeting could have been much different if it had been framed differently and it could have been much more productive. As it was, it just felt like a nothing meeting . . . I feel like Hmm . . . I didnt really get anything out of that meeting, why did I come? I could have been at home for 2 hours with my dog and it would have been just as productive.

Allie further commented about the ways in which CTN members were limiting the inquiry of new teachers:

I just think that its interesting, I mean the politics of it [CTN] have definitely changed with whatever is going on with that group of, like whatever you want to call that group, like the old guard. Im sure there is some of that, like wanting to hold on or being fearful about it, but I guess, if I were them, I would be more worried about like how, if they want to keep it going and keep it as an entity that is ongoing that lives beyond them. I dont feel like they are acting in such a way that would promote that, like at all.

Allies question about the old guard of CTN points to the ways in which this teacher network was marked by the use of descriptive processes and formats that were specific to this groups long history. The new teachers were in a position of relative weakness because of their short tenure in the profession and lack of experience with the structures of CTN. Although the group intended to be a collective, with shared responsibility and collaborative inquiry, the formats and structures favored some of the more experienced teachers preferences, such as avoiding conflict (by always taking turns and not directly responding to comments) and remaining positive (by framing difficult subjects through an indirect, personal narrative descriptive process). Allie was not supported to ask the difficult questions about her situation but instead was forced into a method of false inquiry that ignored her true needs.

Programs of support that aim to be progressive often center their efforts to support new teachers on the concept of inquiry. In our two studies, we have seen the ways that inquiry intended to be based in organic, community-based understandings can be coopted, through the unwitting influence of tradition or personality, as a method that is frozen in time, passive, and inquiry in name only. We understand such approaches to be emblematic of false inquiry, and our data suggest that false inquiry practices include ignoring questions and silencing critique. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) asserted that an inquiry-based understanding of teaching and teacher learning is centrally about forming and re-forming frameworks for understanding practice (p. 290), and so we argue that when programs engage in false inquirythat is, when inquiry becomes a fixed methodthe framework for understanding practice is narrowed, and the potential for teacher change is limited.


The structures of support that were intended to encourage new teachers to engage in inquiry inadvertently became as rigid a model as those that intentionally adopt a much more directive approach. Macedo (1997) labeled this kind of occurrence as a fetish for method that often plagues interpretations of Freirean pedagogy and argued instead for an anti-method pedagogy that refuses the rigidity of models and methodological paradigms and forces us to view dialogue as a form of social praxis so that the sharing of experiences is informed by reflection and political action . . . [and] rejects the mechanization of intellectualism (p. 8). When the new teachers in our studies worked together to turn the spotlight of inquiry onto these one-size-fits-all top-down methods, they demonstrated the spirit of antimethod pedagogy. In doing so, they took important steps toward positioning themselves as actors and as critically thoughtful members of the teaching profession. In both of our studies, the methodical forms of inquiry that were prescribed by more experienced educators combined with the subgroup format for our research to lead to dialectic inquiry.

Dialectic inquiry is a form of inquiry that, we argue, is characterized by the individualized pursuit of the inquirers own questions via methods and toward objectives that he or she designates. Dialectic inquiry is local in scope; it requires a degree of self-reflexivity, a kind of critical thinking about ones own circumstances and ones own role in those circumstances. Likewise, dialectic inquiry embraces tension; it is motivated by the experience and identification of tension and is oriented toward changing the circumstances that cause this tension.

Though both of us considered ourselves new teachers at the times of our studies, we played a slightly different role than the other new teachers in our subgroups. Both of us, in our roles as teacher researchers, were instrumental in helping to shape the culture within our respective subgroups because we were observing, documenting, and questioning our interactions. Through this intentional engagement, we were a kind of mirror for our groups, making it easier for all members of the subgroups, including ourselves, to see the potential for change and for us to have a role in such change. In this sense, our subgroups provided not only distance from, and space in which to critique, silencing structures, but also a stage on which to rehearse possible responses to acts of silencing.

Dialectic inquiry in the teacher preparation program

The approach of ETPPs portfolio due date caused an increasing amount of unease among the members of Deborahs small group. In fact, at some point during every weekly small-group meeting throughout the spring semester, our conversation inevitably turned to frustrations about portfolio requirements and assessment. These concerns, expressed variously by all 4 group members, were at times the sole focus of our meetings and often spilled over into the weekly one-on-one meetings that I had with the student teachers at their schools. One example occurred when Walt wanted to devote his weekly meeting time with me to discussing a philosophy of education draft that he had e-mailed me the previous night. This piece of Walts writing turned out to be a lightning rod for our questions about and critique of the portfolio requirement and provides an illustration of the positive tension and the redirection that can result when new teachers are prescribed inquiry as a method.

As Walt and I took a critical look at the portfolio requirementa requirement that was certainly intended to support his development as an educatorwe found obstacles rather than invitations to the development of teacher inquiry. In our conversation, Walt and I quickly found that we shared feelings of voicelessness as we were involved in an assignment in which neither I as assessor nor he as assessed felt any sense of control. In the first minutes of our meeting and with noticeable irritation, Walt analyzed ETPPs administrators rhetoric with regard to the portfolios. He explained his difficulty reconciling ETPPs intent for the portfolio to be an individual thing with its strict, formulaic requirements. I agreed, noting the contradiction in the dual expectations for the portfolio to serve both as a summative assessment and as a personally meaningful activity. The following conversation excerpt demonstrates how false inquiry can feel to those of whom it is required. It also provides an important illustration of the struggle of a student teacher and mentor to explore what power individuals might have in a situation that appears to render them powerless.


So when I read your paper, I thought that it didnt sound like you since I know what you feel about the way you dont want to be frozenand this seems frozen. When I read the phrase when I figured it out, I said What?? aloud, since I know if I asked you, you would say, No, I havent figured it out. My sense is that you have done some figuring out, but that doesnt mean that its donewhich is what your use of the past tense implies here.


And, for the purposes of the portfolio, it is.


No, it doesnt have to be. That is totally. The fact that there is a portfolio can engender that feeling, but I dont think that its about that, at all. I think it has to be a snapshot and a way of looking back and looking forward. I think its a moment in time. . .  


I think thats how theyre approaching it. . . .


So I guess what Im saying is you dont have to approach this with a paranoia that


It isnt paranoia, its this is what you want; Ill give you what you want.


But it doesnt have to be that way. You dont have to approach it that way, Walt.


Such an artifice.

Here, we considered several interrelated questions: What is the primary purpose of the portfolio? To what extent was either of us able to determine the purpose of Walts portfolio? What might we be risking if we veered from the requirements? In our conversation, we subjected an inquiry method to inquiry and ironically seemed to have realized the intent of the inquiry stance more than a method could ever prescribe. Through our inquiry, we created the space for raising our voices that we had so greatly desired. Within this space, we struggled with questions of power and agency, and it is this struggle, this willingness to reflect carefully on felt areas of tension, that marks the presence of dialectic inquiry and the germination of change. At this point, although we had successfully turned the lens of inquiry onto itself, we concerned ourselves only with a critique of our circumstances; we had not yet moved beyond reacting to acting. As we shifted our considerations from what is to what could be, we created possibilities for change and agentive roles for ourselves in such possibilities. These acts of creation, we argue, are distinctive features of dialectic inquiry.


So what could I possibly say to make you believe that you dont have to approach it that way?


Write me a pass out of seminar.


[small laugh] A get out of seminar free card? . . . Okay. So. I dont know. I mean, I can say more about like the smaller things that I noticed and was thinking about, but it feels like the more important issue is what you feel like your role is in this process, and that needs to be discussed first.


I think Im churning out a product so that theyll give me a diploma.


But by saying that, youre reinscribing that. [pause] And you dont have to.


But it seems like the options that have been established . . . are either conform to it, and write it off and it doesnt mean anything and sort of make it impotent that way, or attempt to go against it and get framed in.


So if you would reimagine it as something meaningful for you, what would it look like?


Well, no artifacts, first of all. I think the whole artifact thing is largely a waste of time.




Well, I mean, first of all, its artificial, its saying okay, now Ive got this essential question, now Ill go figure out how I can make these square pegs fit round holes.


Im saying if you were to make it totally what you want to make it, how would you remake it?


I dont know. It definitely wouldnt be this. I would probably do between a 20- and 30-page paper on a very, very, very open-ended prompt of what I got out of this. Thats it. Because anything else is totally reductive, and it edits everything thats happened.


But every time weve been talking, you are the one who has been going back to what has been said or . . . what seems to be required, and I am saying you do not have to do that.


But I dont think youre the final arbiter of that.

Though neither Walt nor I had yet determined possible courses of action, it is clear that Walt initially resisted the invitation to imagine a different kind of portfolio, to invent an alternative. This resistance is likely a result of Walts inexperience in this arena; although he had easily assumed an inquiry stance in spite of characterizing inquiry as a sieve, it appears to have been more difficult for him (as it is, perhaps, for all of us) not only to enact his agency in an environment perceived to be unwelcoming but also to take what he learned from inquiring in the subgroup and act on it. When Walt responded to my promptings and suggested writing a 2030-page paper about his experiences, he made what I argue is a critical move in positioning himself differently in relation to knowledge, to the program, and to the profession. As Walt settled into this new position of agency, he vacillated between the language of uncertainty (Im probably not gonna) and certainty (then I would; Im the one who decides). The consideration of risk and reimagining that Walt demonstrates below are hallmarks of the kind of change-oriented thinking that dialectic inquiry involves.


Well, this whole idea of final arbiter, I dont know what that means.


Well, there has to be someone that says, This is passing; he gets his degree or This is failing; he doesnt.


So if its for you, then what say do you have in, like is it one of those things . . . that if you were setting up for yourself what the goals are . . . and what are going to be the criteria that you think you want to be judged by? Whether you think that youre meeting them?


Well, I think if its for me, then, yeah, Im the one who decides whether I did it or not, or whether its an important thing to do or not. Because if its strictly for me, then Im probably not gonna [follow the ETPP portfolio requirements], because I dont think its an important thing to do. I dont think its valuable.

Although Walt initially held the idea of portfolio-as-meaningful-reflection in opposition to the idea of portfolio-as-summative-assessment, he and I continued to use our one-on-one meetings to reimagine a portfolio that fulfilled both purposes: We eventually designed, wrote, and assessed a 60-page dialogic essay together, guided by an essential question that Walt devised: What [does it mean] to earn a degree in education and never want to set foot in another high school? In many ways, both the process in which Walt created his portfolio and the eventual portfolio itself can be seen as examples of dialectic inquiry, because both were characterized by Walts pursuit of his own questions through methods he devised. In our meetings, Walts self-reflexivity in addressing the tensions surrounding his portfolio creation and willingness to assume risk in the interest of pursuing change were key characteristics of his inquiry stance. Walt reflected later,

Ive become very good at phoning in a paper. Ive learned (not just here) to very quickly and very thoughtlessly write a paper that will receive an A. . . . So if I had done the portfolio ETPP had laid out for me . . ., I would have closed my eyes, put my brain to sleep, and written the damn thing. . . . This alternative has turned about to be really introspective and reflective . . . [and] has been the most meaningful. . . , honest, and earnest example of what education should be.

Walts differentiation between phoning in and honest learning highlights the distinction between false inquiry and dialectic inquiry. When Walt resisted formulaic approaches to the portfolio, he used the small group to create an alternative that allowed him to wrestle with the questions most pressing to him at that moment and that permitted him to determine continually, for himself, whether inquiry was occurring in the process. Through his alternative portfolio, Walt demonstrated his ability to think critically, collaborate, create assessment instruments, and engage in improvisationthe kinds of abilities that new teachers should possess. The small-group environment proved an equally fertile development space for the new teachers of CTN as the networks response to school reform became even more troubling. The four new teachers, including Anne, also created dialectic inquiry when they crafted a response to the silencing they experienced in CTN.

Dialectic inquiry in the new teacher network

The ways in which the new teachers experienced the method of inquiry in CTN during the 20012002 school year were influenced by both the larger context of school reform in the district and by the subgroup that was formed as part of the research being conducted. The time and space to focus on the nature of inquiry in CTN worked in conjunction with the four new teachers similar backgrounds to promote a shared understanding of the importance of action in the inquiry process. In this way, the new teachers engaged in dialectic inquiry that respected and reflected the traditions of CTN while promoting a new vision that was at odds with the rigid definition of inquiry espoused by the network.

In part because the four new teachers met separately, we were able to use this time outside the network to safely articulate aspects of the group process that were troubling and to propose alternatives that we would support each other in enacting. This was particularly true after two meetings (described in the previous section) about the impact of proposed school reforms in City School District that year. The kindergarten meeting and the taking a stand meeting highlighted the ways in which the processes of CTN were being used to limit the nature of questioning, reflection, and action that the new teachers had come to believe were central to inquiry. In our subgroup, the four new teachers began to ask questions about the ways in which inquiry was framed, to provide detailed descriptions about the ways in which our experience was being ignored, and to propose actions to override the feelings of tension and helplessness in CTN that year. In moves that we argue are characteristic of dialectic inquiry, the new teachers were able to use the subgroup space to rehearse a response to the CTN method.

During the subgroup meetings and through a series of informal phone calls, the new teachers identified a major area of concern about the use of CTN processes to address the issues of school reform. The CTN method of inquiry was being used to frame the harsh circumstances facing students and teachers in City School District in a positive light; the more experienced members of the group seemed to use descriptive processes to avoid facing the issues of standardization and privatization head-on. Major themes identified through the two-part planning process guided the schedule; however, whenever teachers expressed frustrations with the school district reforms, these concerns were sanitized during the planning meeting as the schedule was organized. In the subgroup, Kim called attention to this:

The planning meeting sort of set the tone for that in a lot of ways . . . I mean what do you do when that planning meeting sort of really affects the way that the next 3 months. . . .  We missed a whole lot and I was just hoping that we could get at some things. I was holding out a lot of hope that some of the topics that we said would be addressed would really be addressed . . . and that so far hasnt happened.

Kims hope that the reform would be taken up was echoed by the other new teachers. Reflecting our willingness to experience tension and to pursue a difficult agenda, the new teachers decided to act, using other CTN traditions to affect the upcoming schedule and include issues related to the school reforms.

The first step in the new teachers plan was to have Kim appointed chairperson of the next planning meeting. From this position of authority, she could call attention to the new teachers concerns about the schedule. Evidence that the new teachers had used the subgroup space to develop a response to silencing can be found in comments from that meeting:


I am noticing that there is a lack of issues of power being reflected in the schedule, and that was what so many of the classroom stories were about.

Caroline: I think that we may want to have a meeting about some proposed changes to the processes because of all the problems. Once we see what changes there are to the processes so that we can have a meaningful conversation about it [power as it emerged from the classroom stories meeting]. . .


Throughout the planning meeting that Kim chaired and others during the spring of 2002, the more experienced members of CTN expressed the belief that changing the descriptive processes was uncalled for because an action element was already built into the formal process description. One of the founding members comments solidly reflect the more experienced members reaction to proposed changes to the descriptive processes; she appeared interested in supporting the new teachers in their concerns about the processes by explaining how these concerns were unfounded. Understandably, teachers who had participated in CTN for over 20 years felt strongly about the integrity of the processes and moved to reinforce or clarify the value of the processes rather than question alternative forms that might support deeper inquiry. However, equally understandable was the new teachers desire to take action, to reclaim the agency that the districts reforms were proposing to strip away. Through dialectic inquiry working at once within and against the structures and traditions of CTN, the new teachers were able to focus on the ways that they were being silencedboth by the school district and their network membership. The dialectic inquiry that the new teachers engaged in, supported by the foundations of CTN, enabled us to include more personally directed, complicated questions in the descriptive processes.

The four new teachers pushed to schedule a meeting that would build on the structures and traditions of the group in order to inquire into the silencing and restraint that the new teachers were experiencing. As chair of that meeting, I asked each participant to share the ways that involvement in CTN and use of the processes provided or did not provide a sense of being heard during challenging times. As the round of turns began, a familiar pattern emerged. Mary and Sharon, more experienced members of CTN, shared times when the processes had worked and succeeded in making them feel powerful, whereas Caroline, on the very next turn, was forced to look outside her experiences in CTN to find a worthy example. Notes summarizing these first three speakers point out the stark contrast:

Mary: Times when the Descriptive Processes felt helpful for me in dealing with reform issues were when we did the reflection on the word achieve during the [previous administrations] reforms. Also, our meetings with [district administrators] to share our concerns were powerful.

Sharon: During our Summer Institute, we had a discussion about principals and the demands on a new teacher. We each wrote a letter to a principal about what we needed as a new teacher but we didnt send the letters. That was satisfying and helped us to reaffirm each other.

Caroline: Im wondering about how those who are powerless speak back to power. We need to have something shared to speak back to, so that we can ask ourselves questions about our powerlessness. Sometimes it requires action; it requires you to think, How am I complicit in the face of this injustice?

The contrast between the more experienced members comments about what had worked in the past and Carolines questions about the ways that she was feeling powerless in the present climate of reform point to the larger trend of inquiry in CTN. Carolines nonresponse highlighted her inability to pinpoint ways that the processes were helping her to inquire, to develop a critical practice as an urban teacher. The new teachers engaged in inquiry that was self-reflexive and called into question their practice (defined broadly to include work in the network), whereas the more experienced members used a prescriptive, methodical form of inquiry that framed difficult conditions in the district in a falsely positive light. In part because of the subgroup experience, the new teachers were pushing for inquiry that included an examination of network processes and that resisted the fixed, methodical approach to inquiry being practiced in CTN that year.

The moves made by the four new teachers to expand the focus of inquiry and include CTN practices and processes seemed at once to make little difference and to promote important changes. At the end of the meetings about possible changes to the processes, no agreement was reached, and there continued to be a gap between the newer members and the more experienced members regarding the forms that CTN inquiry could take. However, the new teachers were unwilling to avoid the tension caused by their positions in a school district that was proposing radical change to their profession with little or no input from them. Not content to simply be positioned against the school through discussion and the use of the descriptive processes, the new teachers pushed for more agentive inquiry practices. This move underscored the new teachers approach to the climate of school reform, which from this point on centered on creating an activist event to celebrate the valuable work of students and teachers. Dialectic inquiry is critical for new teachers as they develop a conception of practice that promotes local questions and encourages self-reflexivity.


It remains a matter, for men and women both, to establish a place for freedom in the world of the givenand to do so in concern and with care, so that what is indecent can be transformed and what is unendurable may be overcome. (Greene, 1988, p. 86)

Teacher preparation programs and professional development networks that stress inquiry as an important ingredient in learning to teach intend to do a great service to future generations of teachers who are faced with immense challenges. As vital and exciting as the inclusion of inquiry can be for these structures of support, however, the danger of inquiry becoming methodical, rigid, and silencing for new teachers should not be overlooked. Although there is potential for inquiry-based experiences to shape teacher identity and practice in significant, positive ways, these experiences can fall short by assuming that one size fits all and thus narrowing the range and methods of inquiry that are deemed valuable. When programs of support require new teachers to engage in false inquiry, new teachers can be faced with frustrations equal to those in non-inquiry-based structures as their voices are silenced and their agency, which is so important for change to occur, is limited. In an environment of increasingly standardized teaching manifested through tightly controlled curricula and scripted lesson plans, programs of support that are based on false inquiry can serve to reinforce this remarkably narrow conception of teaching. Inquiry-based teacher preparation programs and programs of support that inadvertently limit new teachers agency can further weaken the profession of teaching through the perpetuation of flawed inquiry practices.

Using dialectic inquiry, new teachers engage in questioning that is individualized, self-reflexive, and embracing of the tension that so often characterizes the educational climate. As we found in our studies, new teachers who used dialectic inquiry were able to claim a powerful, important sense of agency. Research (i.e., Ingersoll, 2004) has demonstrated that many new teachers who leave the profession point to a lack of decision-making power and frustration with administrators as causes for turnover. Given the findings about the role of support in teacher retention, we understand dialectic inquiry as critical because of its emphasis on managing tension through pursuit of an individualized inquiry process. When new teachers are critically engaged in improving their work in schools through a process of questioning and advocating for change, they can begin to develop skills and attributes that sustain a long career in challenging schools and a challenging profession.

Dialectic inquiry is important for new teachers because it supports the development of reflexive, critical practitioners who are willing to tackle questions of power and agency for themselves and for their students. We therefore suggest that teacher development programs support the practice of dialectic inquiry by incorporating a high degree of flexibility and opportunities for small-group work into required activities; specifically, we encourage such programs to support new teachers efforts to inquire into issues that they themselves identify. Additionally, we challenge inquiry-based programs to reevaluate their purpose and design continually because, as our studies show, even the best-intentioned programs can lose their way and become rigid. We believe that it is important to involve new teachers in this reevaluation and to solicit new teachers ideas for program revision.

False inquiry contributes to the deprofessionalization of teaching; it positions teachers as objects, followers of formulas for reflection and action, rather than as subjects, creators of individual paths for reflection and action. Dialectic inquiry practices, however, are poised to strengthen the teaching profession because they resist the automation of teaching and learning and encourage innovative responses to local concerns. Through practicing dialectic inquiry, teachers engage in the revision of occupational identity that Sachs (2003, p. 29) argued is necessary to revitalize the teaching profession. Our distinction between false and dialectic inquiry closely parallels Sachss distinction between an obsolete view of the teaching profession that envisions teachers primary occupation as one of implement[ing] government policy, and a new form of teacher professionalism in which the activist teacher professional creates new spaces for action and debate, and in so doing improves the learning opportunities for all of those who are recipients or providers of education (p. 153).

The trends in teaching and teacher education can well be described as indecent and unendurable (Greene, 1988), especially standardizing measures and the subsequent deprofessionalization of teaching. Dialectic inquiry carves out space from the current constraints and limitations so that teachers and teacher educators can seek opportunities for question, critique, and challenge. Communities concerned with the conditions of teaching cannot be satisfied with good enough inquiry, which may in fact reinscribe the status quo. Instead, they should listen carefully for difficult conversations and push for opportunities for new and experienced teachers to engage together in dialectic inquiry. Although our research has shown that new teachers are eager to engage in dialectic inquiry and suggests that increasing provisions for dialectic inquiry may strengthen the profession as a whole, further research is needed to explore the long-term professional practices and career trajectories of new teachers who engage in dialectic inquiry. Further research is also needed to determine what kinds of change can be effected by teachers who practice dialectic inquiry.


1. All names are pseudonyms.

2. Both authors consider themselves new teachers as well, and had, at the time of their studies, less than 5 years of secondary teaching experience.

3. This notion of false inquiry is intended to be an instance of what Freire (1970/2000) called false generosity (p. 44). We argue that in false inquiry, as in false generosity, someone in a position of power appears to or claims to disrupt injustice but in fact continues to perpetuate it.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 4, 2009, p. 1030-1064
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15230, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 1:27:09 AM

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About the Author
  • Deborah Bieler
    University of Delaware
    E-mail Author
    DEBORAH BIELER is an assistant professor of English and the coordinator of English Education field placements at the University of Delaware. In her research and teaching, she aspires to support new teachers as they develop their agency and engage together in activist, transformative practice, particularly with underserved student populations. Her current projects explore the roles of dialogue in student teacher/teacher educator relationships, the attunement to issues of difference in teacher preparation programs, and the professional experiences of new teachers who are committed to social justice. One recent publication is “Changing the Subject: Building Critical and Compassionate Communities in English and English Education Classrooms” (Perspectives on Urban Education, Vol. 4, Issue 1), available at http://www.urbanedjournal.org/articles/article0024.html.
  • Anne Burns Thomas
    SUNY College at Cortland
    ANNE BURNS THOMAS is an assistant professor in the Foundations and Social Advocacy Department in the School of Education at SUNY College at Cortland. Additionally, she is the coordinator of Cortland’s Urban Recruitment of Educators (C.U.R.E) program, a comprehensive program in urban education to prepare qualified teachers for the challenges of working in high-need urban schools in New York state. A former middle school English teacher in Philadelphia, her research interests include the nature of support for new teachers in urban schools, alternative certification programs, and teacher research. One recent publication is “Envisioning Elementary Literacy Methods Courses: Learning to Teach From Multimedia Images of Practice” with Katherine Schultz, available at http://gallery.carnegiefoundation.org/insideteaching/quest/anne_burns-thomas_&_katherine_schultz.html.
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