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Constructing a Discourse of Inquiry: Findings From a Five-Year Ethnography at One Elementary School

by Louise Jennings & Heidi Mills - 2009

Background/Context: In an age of test-driven accountability, many schools are returning to banking pedagogies in which students passively take in content. Inquiry-based instruction offers one approach for actively involving students in meaningful learning activity, however, research on inquiry pedagogies often focuses on academic accomplishments. Our study examines how inquiry-based dialogue not only supports academic learning but also supports social learning as students and teachers negotiate, share ideas, collaborate, and problem-solve together.

Purpose: This longitudinal study builds on conceptualizations of dialogic inquiry to examine how teachers and students coconstructed a discourse of inquiry in a public magnet school. We examine the processes and practices that make up this discourse of inquiry and study the function of teacher talk in supporting academic and social learning and agency among students.

Setting: The Center for Inquiry is a public magnet elementary school located in an ethnically diverse suburban community that was formed in partnership with the University of South Carolina.

Participants: Participants included teachers and 135 students (65% European American, 30% African American) studied during a 5-year period.

Research Design: The two authors worked collaboratively with school members to collect two related ethnographic data sets. Data Set 1 captured classroom practices across all six classrooms, and Data Set 2 followed one cohort during the same 5-year period.

Findings: Findings are presented in two sections. The first section presents a discourse of inquiry made up of six interacting practices of inquiry constructed by teachers and students across classrooms. This discourse of inquiry integrates academic and social practices that position inquiry as (1) dynamic and dialogic, (2) attentive, probing, and thoughtful, (3) agentive and socially responsible, (4) relational and compassionate, (5) reflective and reflexive, and (6) valuing multiple and interdisciplinary perspectives. The second section makes visible how these practices of inquiry were coconstructed through transcripts of classroom discourse drawn from both data sets that centered on discussions of life science.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This discourse of inquiry supports students as active, thoughtful, engaged learners and community members and underscores the critical role of classroom talk, collaboration, and deliberation in meaningful learning engagements. Although teachers and students alike took multiple roles and responsibilities through inquiry, the teacherís discourse was critical in supporting and extending student learning. We recommend professional development opportunities that equip preservice and in-service teachers with resources, skills, and dispositions to become active inquirers of their own classroom and school practices who recognize the power of classroom talk to shape and limit possibilities.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 7, 2009, p. 1583-1618
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15306, Date Accessed: 8/3/2021 12:50:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Louise Jennings
    University of South Carolina
    E-mail Author
    LOUISE JENNINGS is an associate professor in Department of Educational Studies at the University of South Carolina. Her work focuses on the intersection of inquiry, dialogue, agency, and critical democratic practices in education in the U.S. and Brazil.
  • Heidi Mills
    University of South Carolina
    E-mail Author
    HEIDI MILLS is professor of elementary and language and literacy education at the University of South Carolina. Her research interests include the role of inquiry in literacy learning and professional development through university-school partnerships.
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