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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.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a public magnet elementary school that was established as a small school partnership with the University of South Carolina. It opened in 1996 with this mission statement: The students, parents, and staff of the Center for Inquiry are responsible for developing ourselves as more thoughtful, caring, and intelligent people who delight in learning and are committed to creating a more compassionate, equitable, knowledgeable and democratic world!

This mission combines academic rigor with caring, compassion, and equity, and an emphasis on individual and collective responsibility for students, parents, and staff alike. Whereas most mission statements reflect such admirable qualities, this one actively serves as a philosophical touchstone; the faculty continually refer back to it as they work to bring these beliefs to life within classrooms and across the school. This is so because the CFI was founded on the principles inherent in the mission statement. As founding members, university partners, classroom teachers, parents, and district office leadership deliberately wrote a proposal to create a school with a shared philosophy grounded in the principles of inquiry and democracy in an ethnically diverse community. They constructed this mission statement and access it regularly to institutionalize the original vision and integrity of the schools philosophy.

What is the nature of the CFIs inquiry-based pedagogy? According to one longstanding perspective, inquiry engages learners in the scientific method and related set of procedures, such as stating a hypothesis and collecting and analyzing data (e.g., Tchudi, 1993). More recently, inquiry has also been located, across the content areas, in the talk of teachers and learners who engage in grand conversations (Peterson & Eeds, 1990; Wells, 1995) and in both wondering and information-seeking forms of dialogue (Lindfors, 1999). These studies of dialogic inquiry (Wells, 1999) often consider 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. We build on this recent work to examine how a discourse of inquiry was constructed across the curriculum at the CFI. We found that this discourse of inquiry supports opportunities for learning, doing, and being that are in line with the academic and social goals sought in the mission statement.

In an age of test-driven accountability, many schools are returning to banking pedagogies (Freire, 1970/1995) in which students passively take in content, leaving little room for fully engaging academically or socially. More and more, children learn about respect, responsibility, and related qualities through isolated lessons in character education. Again, many of these lessons require students to take in content through fables or simulated activities rather than authentically engage in character-building experiences across the school day. This study examines how particular practices of inquiry seek to fully engage learners, supporting social learning through their academic work.

The CFI is located in a diverse suburban district of largely European American and African American families who represent middle- and low-middle-income groups. As university partners, we collaborated with teachers, staff, and families at the CFI for 5 years to gather the data used in this study. Heidi Mills, the schools curriculum and development specialist, collected videotaped records and field notes across all classrooms, and Louise Jennings, the school ethnographer, followed the first kindergarten cohort from one grade to the next. As the first months of school unfolded, we noted that inquiry was clearly central to the curriculum, but it also pervaded classroom life and interaction patterns in ways that were more powerful than we anticipated, creating what we called a culture of inquiry (Mills & Donnelly, 2001). In the past, we had witnessed firsthand the power and potential of individual teachers who embraced an inquiry stance (Mills & Clyde 1990; Mills, OKeefe, & Whitin, 1996),.   Creating a school with a shared philosophy offered even greater opportunities to examine the impact of an inquiry stance on learning and learners. We joined these two longitudinal data sets to analyze how inquiry was being constructed and practiced in this school. We investigated the ways in which inquiry engaged children academically and its role in promoting particular social practices, seeking to tease out how academic and social practices were interwoven within this discourse of inquiry. Because studies that examine social learning practices tend to be concentrated in the language arts (e.g., Peterson & Eeds, 1990) and social sciences (e.g., Tuyay, Yeager, Floriani, Dixon, & Green, 1995), we decided to focus on classroom discussions of life science.

In the next two sections, we describe our conceptual framework and methodology, which combines methods of ethnographic and discourse analysis. We then examine six interrelated practices that make up the discourse of inquiry found across both data sets. We illustrate how these practices support academic and social learning through an analysis of transcripts of whole-class science conversations about living and nonliving things from one cohort of students from kindergarten through fourth grade, and a later cohort of students during their second-grade year.


From the time of Dewey (1916, 1938), educators have sought to uncover fundamental principles of inquiry-based learning. Although many educators continue to equate inquiry with scientific method, recent work has expanded this view in two ways. First, inquiry has been conceptualized as a set of interrelated processes that weaves together content areas in an interdisciplinary curriculum that grows out of students questions and interests (Mills & Donnelly, 2001; Mills, OKeefe, & Whitin 1996; Mills & Stephens, 2004; Short, Harste, & Burke, 1996; Whitin & Whitin, 1997). This work has revealed processes, practices, and curricular structures that are central to inquiry-based learning. Second, several researchers have examined inquiry as a process grounded in dialogue (Kelly & Crawford, 1997; Lemke, 1990; Lindfors, 1999; Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1993; Wells, 1999). These researchers have made visible how teachers and learners construct knowledge together through their moment-to-moment talk and interactions while engaged in pursuits of inquiry.

Our research builds on these perspectives and is grounded in a sociocultural perspective, which posits that inquiry practices are constructed in classrooms as teachers and learners interact. We examine how teachers and learners, through their everyday talk and interactions (Halliday, 1975; Lindfors, 1999; Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1993; Wells, 1999), construct and reconstruct inquiry practices over time (Jennings & Green, 1999; Jennings, OKeefe, & Shamlin, 1999; Tuyay, Yeager, Floriani, Dixon, & Green, 1995). These practices are patterned ways of seeing, perceiving, and acting (Bloome & Bailey, 1992; Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group) that shape what counts as knowledge and learning in a class community (Heap, 1992). This reiterative process creates a larger sociocultural context, or discourse, that class members draw on when engaging with each other. In this study, we sought to describe a larger discourse of inquiry and how that discourse afforded particular opportunities for learning, acting, and being in a school that conscientiously develops inquiry-based pedagogies.

In this article, we first describe the discourse of inquiry at the CFI made visible by analysis of the two 5-year data sets. Then we seek to illustrate processes by which this discourse was constructed and reconstructed by students and teachers within and across classrooms during that 5-year period. This second phase of analysis is focused on whole-class conversations regarding scientific topics for two reasons. First, we recognize that a significant amount of classroom time is spent in whole-class discussion. When teachers orchestrate discussion among 20 or more students, they tend to play a very active role, what many refer to as teacher centered or teacher directed. In the eyes of many educators, teacher-directed instruction is anathema to inquiry-based pedagogies. To be sure, students at the CFI had many opportunities to work alone or in small groups to explore, conjecture, and make meaning in student-centered structures. However, we sought to examine the role of the teacher in deliberately orchestrating a complex discourse of inquiry with young learners.

Teacher-directed instruction is often equated with traditional forms of talk found repeatedly in classroom research, such as I-R-E or triadic patterns in which a teacher initiates with a question, a student responds, and the teacher follows up on that response, often with an evaluative comment (e.g., Mehan, 1979). There is justifiable concern that triadic patterns can stymie students initiative, curiosity, and creativity. However, close analyses of teacher-student conversations in diverse situations have shown that although a conversation may mimic an I-R-E structure, the discourse itself may produce varying effects (Nassaji & Wells, 2000; Wells, 1999). As Bloome and his colleagues argued, it is critical to examine the function as well as the form of talk: Arguments about the social function and meaning of a participation structure(s) must be built on how the people within a particular event act and react to each other (Bloome, Carter, Christian, Otto, & Shuart-Faris, 2005, p. 33). Nassaji and Wells added that the I-R-E structure can take a variety of forms and be recruited by teachers for a wide variety of functions, depending on the goal of the activity that the discourse serves to mediate and, in particular, on the use that is made of the follow-up move (p. 376). Thus, while examining the conversational turn-taking among teachers and students, we focused on the role of the teacher to make visible the work of her contributions in constructing a discourse of inquiry.

We also examined whole-class dialogue regarding life science because much of the research on science talk (Lemke, 1990) focuses on student engagement in the scientific method, often through small-group laboratory work or problem solving with a focus on academic knowledge building (e.g., Crawford, Kelly, & Brown, 2000; Wells, 1999). Science talk also includes more informal conversations in which scientists share and construct knowledge together. As Ben Brabson, a physicist at Indiana University, remarked, Our most productive efforts are always collaborative. We stimulate in each other thoughts that dont occur in ourselves and then try to get a perspective that is broader. You get feedback and fine tune your ideas with the knowledge of the group (leading to) an extended mind (personal communication, October 15, 1995). Thus, we examined the discursive work of constructing academic and social practices of inquiry through whole-class science discussions.

These whole-class conversations occurred within units of study referred to at the CFI as focused studies. Focused studies involve the class inquiring into a topic, such as sea life, through various disciplinary perspectives (e.g., as scientist, artist, mathematician; Short et al., 1996). Some of the focused studies reflect required state standards, whereas others emerge from the students needs and interests. Focused studies often contain a wide range of activities, including lab work, mini-lessons, group and individual readings, interviews with guest speakers, and many other possible learning engagements. To examine what can be accomplished when students and teachers inquire together, we investigate several whole-class conversations that occurred across grade levels during focused studies on living and nonliving things.    



The CFI serves 135 students with one classroom per grade. During the 5 years of study, 65% of the students were European American, 30% were African American, and 5% came from other racial and ethnic groups. The cohort followed by Louise for 5 years reflected this demographic. Students were selected from a random lottery open to all residents in the district. Seeking to create a diverse pool of applicants that represents the districts overall demographics in terms of race and social class, efforts were made to attract applicants from underrepresented groups. These efforts were hampered in part by the lack of public transportation to the school.1 Approximately 5%10% of students received free/reduced lunch. Each cohort of students had three teachers from kindergarten through fifth grade because the students stay with one teacher for two successive years in a looping arrangement. Teachers worked  in grades K1, 23, and 45 loops housed in a village of portable classrooms. The schools class size and resources were comparable with other schools in the district, and the CFI was held accountable using the same standardized measures, with the expectation that test scores reflect or exceed district averages.

CFI faculty and university partners seek teachers who have an understanding of and commitment to inquiry-based instruction and have an interest in growing and changing through ongoing inquiry-based professional development (Darling-Hammond, 1997; Harwayne, 1999; Meier, 1995.) The teacher researchers and university researchers collect and analyze classroom data in the form of videotapes, audiotapes, notes, and student products. Weekly curricular conversations grow out of this collaborative research and provide a foundation for faculty to investigate their own practices (Mills, 2001.) The three teachers featured in this study were experienced elementary teachers with graduate degrees. However, first-year teachers have been welcomed to the CFI faculty as well.


Collaborating with the schools faculty and principal as researchers, we sought to develop a research design that could capture the discourse of inquiry that has continually evolved since the schools opening. This research design integrates two simultaneous data sets to gain both a broad and an in-depth perspective on the construction of inquiry practices across 5 years. To gain a broader perspective across the school community, Heidi documented the evolution of classroom practices across all six classrooms from 1996 to 2002 (Mills & Donnelly, 2001; Mills, OKeefe, & Jennings, 2004.) As the schools curriculum and development specialist, she visited classrooms one day per week and on an invited basis, and created Data Set 1 (over 300 hours of videotapes of classroom instruction, student artifacts, and audiotapes). These data also informed the schools ongoing teacher study group sessions through weekly curricular conversations described earlier. For an in-depth view, Louise was a participant-observer documenting the learning activities of the CFIs first kindergarten class in their educational journey from kindergarten through fourth grade (19962001). This cohort of students were in kindergarten and then first grade with Michele Shamlin from 1996 to 1998, in second and then third grade with Tim OKeefe in 19982000, and in fourth grade with Julie Waugh from 2000 to 2001 (Jennings et al., 1999; Jennings, 2002). Data Set 2 includes over 500 hours of field notes, videotapes, and student artifacts. Each year, Louise documented the first 3 weeks of school, plus numerous series of classroom events throughout the year (e.g., a 2-week science investigation or 3-week literature study).


To systematically examine this complex and comprehensive data set, we drew on practices of interactional ethnography (Castanheira , Crawford, Green, & Dixon, 2001) through a multi-tier approach of data analysis. Interactional ethnography combines analysis of ethnographic data over time to locate larger patterns of interaction with analysis of discourse to make visible how these larger patterns were constructed in the moment. This methodology is optimal for examining how practices of a discourse of inquiry both shaped and were shaped by the moment-to-moment interactions of students and teachers. We involved the principal and 6 teachers in periodic review of our analysis and findings to gain their insights and suggested modifications.

First, maps of classroom events or curricular structures (e.g., writing workshop, math workshop, read aloud, literature study, focused studies) encompassing data collected throughout all six classes were constructed to analyze patterns of inquiry-based practices within and across events and classrooms (e.g., Jennings et al., 1999). The combined data sets yielded 384 events that were analyzed for markers of inquiry processes. The question driving our analysis was, What are main processes of teaching and learning across these six classrooms? The inquiry codes were inductively interpreted from the data and evolved over a period of several months. A team of five researchers, including the two authors, worked in pairs to code sections of data. The team then met regularly to discuss and revise the codes, arriving at a final set of 18 different coded processes, including observing, posing questions, collaborating, and reflecting (see Table 1).2 The table reflects the coded processes in the order that we constructed them. A detailed decision log reflected our ongoing revisions of the definitions of each code.

Table 1. Codes and Definitions






Learning about oneself (self) as a learner, and within a community (com)


Build or Democratic

Using language to develop the classroom community by creating and negotiating rules, rituals, structures, and boundaries

Democratic: Teachers involving students in decision-making process


Personal connection

Learners using language to make a connection between a classroom event (typically the discussion topic) and a personal meaning, characteristic, or event


Intertextual tie

Using language to make a connection from text to text or text to world.


Social Action

Taking deliberate action to make the world a better place



Thinking back and talking about an activity



Class members acknowledging an accomplishment or product of one of their classmates, and that accomplishment or product becoming part of the learning



Students taking responsibility to initiate or negotiate curriculum and/or relationships and/or social norms


Pose Questions

Asking questions of teachers or students to drive inquiry

Including questions to clarify, satisfy curiosity, gain depth of knowledge, or initiate inquiry



Students intentionally attending to, noticing, or looking closely at the community (each other) or the curriculum (e.g., written text, lesson)



Making sense of experience through ones own understanding or stance


Shifting perspectives

Students viewing the world through a different lens

Putting self in the perspective of an academic discipline or in any other perspective



Class members constructing knowledge through group activities


Skillfulness of Inquiry

Explicit reference to strategies of inquiry or tools used to inquire


Strategy sharing

Students and/or teacher sharing strategies they use for specific activities


Knowledge sharing

Students sharing information or knowledge relevant to the discussion topic from outside the classroom


Extending knowledge

A student or teacher adding to the knowledge shared by another member of the class



Students offering or proposing a new way of doing something or a way to approach an activity initiated by the teacher

From these findings, we developed vignettes of events to carefully examine these coded processes in context. Vignettes were developed from both data sets for 110 events in reading, writing, science, mathematics, field studies (i.e., field trips), and focused studies (units of study in the social and physical sciences). Whereas transcripts typically reflect verbatim discourse, vignettes are more generalized narrative accounts of an event (see Appendix I). We constructed each vignette to describe the event and to highlight how the coded processes marked for that event were constructed through the interactions of the teachers and students. Through this analysis, we examined how processes of inquiry evolved and related to one another over time.

At this point, we examined the relationship of the coded processes to each other and synthesized them into a taxonomy of practices of inquiry. This synthesis tied together the various inquiry processes in ways that captured the complex nature of teaching and learning. The final stage in analysis involved theoretically sampling events for transcription to closely examine these practices in action. These events represent telling cases (Mitchell, 1984) that do not seek to represent the larger data set but instead represent the theoretical and practical constructs of inquiry practices that we found to be significant.3 After locating common patterns of inquiry processes and practices in classrooms as described, we used the event maps to trace the history of their construction in a set of focused studies on living and nonliving things.


As described previously, we examined vignettes of classroom events across disciplines and grades to study how each of the coded inquiry processes interacted in a more holistic manner. By examining these processes in action over time, we were able to develop a more coherent framework of a discourse of inquiry that includes interacting practices that blend academic and social practices. Table 2 illustrates how the coded processes work together to form six larger inquiry practices. Class members consistently constructed practices of inquiry that were dynamic and dialogic (personal and interpersonal); attentive, probing, and thoughtful; agentive and socially responsible; relational/compassionate; reflective and reflexive; and valuing of multiple perspectives, including multi- and interdisciplinary perspectives.

Table 2. Six Interacting Practices of Inquiry


Coded Processes

Dynamic & Dialogic (Personal & Interpersonal)

Making personal connections*

Interpersonal: Posing questions***

      Making intertextual ties**

      (Knowledge sharing)

      (Strategy sharing)

      (Extending knowledge)

Attentive, Probing, Thoughtful



Skillfulness of inquiry**

Posing questions***


Agentive & Socially Responsible



Building community**

Social action

Relational & Compassionate

Observing (each other as learners)



Building community**

Reflective & Reflexive



Values Multiple & Multidisciplinary Perspectives

Shifting perspectives*

Note. A total of 384 classroom events were coded across the two data sets.

* = a process that was coded 100149 times; **  = a process that was coded 150199 times; ***  =  a process that was coded 200315 times. (The 3 codes marked in parentheses were added after the second phase of analysis and thus were not enumerated.)

These practices work together within this discourse of inquiry. However, to examine each practice more carefully, we introduce them separately, illustrating them through telling cases of focused studies on living and nonliving things drawn from a single cohort of students from kindergarten through Grade 4. We then examine how these practices work together through conversations around the reconstruction of a bat skeleton in a second-grade classroom from a later cohort. For each telling case, we examine first the coded inquiry processes present and then the role of the teacher in the discursive structure, highlighting the teachers work in constructing with students a discourse of inquiry.


The extensive dialogue in all six classrooms marks this discourse of inquiry as dynamic and dialogic. The dialogue was personal because it was grounded in the participants personal experiences, understandings, and questions. Participants also shared, referred to, and built on these personal perspectives, making this dialogue interpersonal. This form of distributed thinking invites multiple perspectives and becomes a resource for all to draw on in making meaning (Edwards & Mercer, 1987; Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1993).

Findings from coding the two data sets illustrate that, throughout the day and across time, children and teachers were able to contribute ideas, strategies, observations and questions; to extend each others thinking; and to make connections to other parts of the curriculum or to their own lives as they sought to make meaning through dialogue in small and large groups. Although teachers and children constructed knowledge together, the childrens individual insights often became central to the knowledge base of the class.

We focus on the dialogic practice of inquiry in our first telling case. The CFIs first kindergarten class immediately engaged in all aspects of inquiry from the first days of school, including focused studies on topics such as mammals and friendship. They continued with their kindergarten teacher, Ms. Shamlin, into first grade, where their focused study in early spring addressed living and nonliving things.

Telling Case: Living and Nonliving Things

In March, Ms. Shamlin noted that they had been studying animals and living things, and then she asked what the opposite of living things might be. Children posed possibilities such as not living things, stay there things, and nonliving things. Ms. Shamlin pointed out how their contributions mimicked prefixes used by scientists, thus using the perspective of language arts to deepen their understanding of scientific terms. The class shifted from focusing on the words themselves to exploring the concept of living and nonliving things. Ms. Shamlin offered them some strategies for thinking about the characteristics of nonliving things by posing questions and encouraging them to compare and contrast:

Ms. Shamlin:

Instead of thinking of what nonliving things do not do, think about what living things can do.



Ms. Shamlin:

Do all living things breathe?

Several students: Yes.

Ms. Shamlin:

Talk about different ways of breathing

(Several students talk at once)


Fish breath through their gills.


Leaves breath.

Ms. Shamlin:

 I dont think we need to raise our hands, lets just talk.


 Living things can walk

Ms. Shamlin:

I think that Victoria is onto something.


Plants are living things, but they dont move.

Ms. Shamlin:

 Im so glad that you said that.

Ms. Shamlin described the scenario of plants leaning toward the window and posed the question: How do they do that? The class discussed how this leaning is a form of moving. Ms. Shamlin asked the students to move their arms and then explain how you do not have to go from one place to another to move. She drew on the board a tulip and arrow, explaining how stems of plants have things inside that make them grow taller when exposed to light. She used arrows to explain how one side in the shade was getting smaller. Elaina observed that when the plant moved around to face the sun, the other side would then grow. Ms. Shamlin responded that this kind of movement is called phototropism. Jonathan S. posed the question, What if the sun is on both sides? Ms. Shamlin replied that it would be a nice experiment to try, and that if Jonathan was willing to think about that, she would be glad to bring plants.

This telling case illustrates inquiry as a dialogic process that builds on personal and interpersonal connections. Rather than the teacher providing students with a list of predetermined characteristics of living and nonliving things, the students and teacher constructed this knowledge together, through discussion that drew on their personal experiences and understandings. For example, Thomas, Melissa, and Victoria shared their personal knowledge of how living beings breathe, and Elaina extended Victorias contribution by offering a counter-example that became the basis of Ms. Shamlins exploration of phototropism. The class also connected this knowledge to what they had learned during their focused study on growth and change the previous year. Class members often made intertextual ties to previous years work together as they sought to make meaning and extend their current knowledge.

Clearly, the teacher had an idea of characteristics that she wanted students to be familiar with, and she used questions to help them build toward that knowledge. The turn-taking structure alternating student and teacher talk appears to be an I-R-E structure on the surface. However, Ms. Shamlins responses to students do not function as evaluations of student input. Instead, her questions encouraged the students to compare and contrast, to wonder about words and consider how scientific terms are constructed, and to explore ideas more fully. Specifically, Ms. Shamlins questions led students into comparing and contrasting the characteristics of living and nonliving things. She encouraged them to probe what they know by asking them to talk about breathing. She used graphic displays and the childrens own arm movements to demonstrate varying concepts of movement, opening the way for students to extend these explanations through their own observations, understandings, and questions. She demonstrated how questions such as Jonathans can be pursued through intentional inquiry. Her contributions also demonstrated how questions can guide our inquiry (do all living things breathe?) while challenging students thinking beyond their original comments.

Over the next several days, the class continued to inquire into living and nonliving things. They added characteristics of living things to their class list (e.g., move, respond to stimuli, inhale, exhale), then delved into a study on plant life through small-group and whole-class activities. They took up the idea of experimenting with plants facing the sun and wrote down what they observed, and then used their observational data to draw some conclusions about phototropism. As young scientists, they were learning to make and document careful observations in the world, an important feature of this discourse of inquiry addressed next.


In this discourse of inquiry, learners were purposefully attentive both in the sense of being thoughtful of others and being keen, probing observers. Observation and interpretation and student-posed questions made up the most frequently marked coded processes in the combined data set. Analysis of the vignettes indicated that students called attention to their interests and wonders by posing questions, and they were provided with numerous and varied opportunities to carefully observe and attend to data and events that could inform these queries. Teachers across grades invited students to observe their world through a range of activities across the disciplines, using tools to support careful observation (e.g., observation notebooks and class journals for recording observations about science, mathematics, and language).

In addition to seeing themselves in relation to others, in this discourse of inquiry, children also are agents who have a right and responsibility to contribute to the development and maintenance of their class communities (e.g., Shor, 1992). Peter Johnston (2004) described how, through their talk, teachers can foster a sense of agency, a sense of being strategic to accomplish goals. He emphasized, Teachers conversations with children . . . [can] show children how, by acting strategically, they accomplish things, and at the same time, that they are the kind of person who accomplishes things (p. 30). At the CFI, children had many opportunities to be strategic toward both individual and community goals. Findings indicate how, across years, students played an active role in creating and negotiating rules, rituals, structures, and boundaries for living and working together, and frequently took initiative to negotiate the curriculum, relationships, or social norms.

The following telling cases illuminate the ways in which Mr. OKeefe and his second graders continued to probe concepts of living and nonliving things. They demonstrate how Mr. OKeefe paid attention to the insights and ideas that emerged through conversation and used them to build curriculum with the students.

Telling case: Probing students observations and interpretations

It was not unusual for children at the CFI to bring an inquiry stance with them in nonacademic activities. On the second day of school, Mr. OKeefe realized that several students were observing natural life while on the playground during recess. Several girls excitedly showed him some plants, mushrooms, and leaves they had discovered and recorded in the class science journal (an oversized notebook in which class members recorded their observations and questions regarding specimens in the classs science center).

Mr. OKeefe saw this as an excellent opportunity to follow their lead by introducing an inquiry into cycles of life. While the students gathered on the carpet, Lora, Melissa, and Elise stood at the front of the room. Mr. OKeefe announced, These guys were looking around the world, writing it down and putting it in the (class) science journal, and Im so glad you did that. Say you are at home and notice something neat, write it on a slip of paper and when you get to school, write it in the science journal. I never thought about that until this year, thanks for the idea. He then opened the floor for the girls to share their specimens and observations. The girls talked about the mushrooms that they passed around, then turned to some leaves:


And we found these leaves. Well, one is green, that means its good.

Mr. OKeefe:

Good means what?





Mr. OKeefe:

Its healthy if its green.


And this one has a little brown tip on the top and its green so that would mean its going to die.

Mr. OKeefe:

So do you think that thing in your hand is still living?



Mr. OKeefe:

Well, let me ask everyone, I have heard a lot of stuff and maybe its just because Ive been thinking a lot about this in the last few daysbut what is living, what is dying, what is dead and what is never alive?[Mr. OKeefe gets up to write life and death on the white board while students talk about the different definitions.] We have so many differentthe mushroom thats dead and the mushroom thats dying. The leaf that someone said is dead or maybe was still alive. Theres all this stuff about living and dying and dead and almost dead. Alright, we are going to be coming back to that.

It didnt take long for students to take initiative in creating new classroom practices, as Lora, Melissa, and Elise did when transferring recorded observations from their inquiry on the playground into the class science journal. Mr. OKeefe applauded their agency and initiative, positioning it as an important social contribution when he encouraged the class to follow their lead. The girls had spontaneously engaged in observing and interpreting plant life during recessbringing the skillfulness of inquiry from the classroom onto the playground then back to the classroom againcontributing to building a community of inquirers with fluid boundaries between formal and informal learning. The class discussion of the specimens led the girls to extend their observations and knowledge into a scientific assessment of the plants state of life.

Mr. OKeefe connected the childrens observations with concepts of life and death as a way of opening the door to a focused study on life cycles. When examining the turn-taking structure and the length of Mr. OKeefes contributions, his role in the dialogue is dominant. However, up close, we see the work of his discourse accomplishing two larger goals. First, by underscoring the girls strategies of observing and recording, Mr. OKeefe validated these girls agency, made these strategies available as a resource to the rest of the class (strategy sharing), and emphasized the values of thoughtful attentiveness to the world and taking initiative as learners. Second, Mr. OKeefe guided students through a probing inquiry into the study of living and nonliving things. He posed questions that clarified childrens comments (good means what?), summarized their observations to clarify their understanding (its healthy if its green), and extended their observations through questions (do you think that thing in your hand is still living?). In this way, he helped them grow more attentive to details and distinctions. Mr. OKeefe also extended the prior years inquiry into life and death by presenting additional concepts, such as still living, dying, and never aliveconcepts that he introduced through personal connections to his own careful observations of a dying dragonfly. The next telling case examines this probing practice of inquiry more fully.

Telling case: Differentiating characteristics of living things

Soon after this discussion, the class brainstormed ideas about the characteristics of living and nonliving things, which Mr. OKeefe recorded on chart paper. The following day, they returned to the chart paper as a class. Looking over their ideas, Mr. OKeefe summarized their work: The big questions seem to bewhen is something alive, when is something living, when is something dead?


Some things that arent alive now were once alive.

Mr. OKeefe:

Okay, give us an example.


Like, a pencil, its not alive, but some parts of it are made of wood, and where does wood come fromtrees! And trees are alive.

Mr. OKeefe:

Good point, so if you go back far enough nearly everything was alive at one point. Because a pencil is made of wood, which comes from trees, the graphite comes from carbon which comes from coal which was alive a long time ago. If something is dead, what is it thats different about it from when it was alive? Thats a big question for me.


Its heart stops beating.

Mr. OKeefe:

So what about a tree?


It doesnt have a heart.

Mr. OKeefe:

So youre thinking about animals. Im going to write that down, heart stops, I guess we are thinking of humans, not breathing. How about, what are some characteristics of things that are living, that may help us come up with a definition. Think of some things that are alive  . . . what do they do?


They move?  

Mr. OKeefe:

Think of characteristics of what all living things have in common, its very hard to think of plants and animals together.


Plants can move.

Mr. OKeefe:

So somebody said all living things move, it seems that everyone agreed with that, and all living things need water. What else are characteristics of living things?


I have two. My first thing is breathing. All living things breathe.

Mr. OKeefe:

Good, does anybody disagree? (Pause) How about plants?


Plants breathe out carbon dioxide.

Mr. OKeefe:

[They breathe in carbon dioxide.]


[No plants dont breathe out carbon] dioxide, they breathe out oxygen.

Mr. OKeefe:

They dont breathe exactly the same way humans do, right, we use lungs, we breathe in oxygen, but maybe they all exchange gases. (Long pause.) Nobody is disagreeing, so well put that down (writing on paper).


My other one is that everything thats living has a certain kind of skin, like plants have skin and everybody has skin.

Mr. OKeefe:

Some kind of skin, yeah, so I see what you mean. You wouldnt say plants have skin, they have some sort of covering.


Tissue . . . for their bodies.

Mr. OKeefe:

I like that word, tissue, a scientific word. Some kind of thing that holds everything together, right? Ill put covering, does that sound right? And Ill put skin in parentheses, like animals have skin, trees have bark [writing]. This is really good. Jack?


Plants need animals and animals need plants. Because animals breath out carbon dioxide and plants inhale it and the other way around too.

Mr. OKeefe:

Okay, so there is a relationship between plants and animals. Im going to put an arrow that goes both ways because they need each other.

This excerpt exemplifies critical engagement as the class probed and dissected constructs of living and nonliving things, thereby opening the door to deeper understandings and questions about the nature of life and death, living and dying. Students drew on their own personal knowledge and built on each others ideas, which were valued by Mr. OKeefe in his comments and actions (writing students contributions on chart paper). They focused on physical differences between living things and dead things while paying attention to words and how they could signal subtle but important differences (e.g., dead vs. not alive).

The turn-taking structure indicates a teacher-directed form, but the teacher contributions functioned to support students in a probing inquiry. Mr. OKeefe continued to help students tease out their ideas by asking for examples (Hutton), offering counter-examples (Jack), and clarifying Huttons contribution and extending it into an additional question about the very nature of deadness. He also pointed out contradictions and differentiations (Jack and Lora), thereby clarifying distinctions among terms and concepts. He helped the class engage in critical analysis by considering more carefully the similarities and differences between plants and animals in terms of breathing, protective tissue, and other characteristics. Mr. OKeefe also asked the students to focus on characteristics of living things both toward the construction of a formal definition and in their attempts to discern differences between living and nonliving things. Finally, he demonstrated how to further conceptualize observations like Jacks by noting that there was a relationship between plants and animals, a construct they would come to name as symbiosis in fourth grade.

Following this class discussion, students worked in table teams to develop their thoughts about what constitutes life, recording their ideas and questions on chart paper. One group created a long list of animals that are alive, another created a list of dead things, and two groups developed lists of living things divided into subcategories, such as plants and animals. The class discussed their processes of categorization, building on this knowledge over the next few days as they developed scientific classifications of living things. Mr. OKeefe was uncovering the science standards (identify patterns, observe, classify, infer, and communicate) intentionally and systematically by responding to childrens contributions.


Not only were students asked to critically observe their world to build academic knowledge, but they were also encouraged to observe and support each other as learners and to pay careful attention to and contribute to their own learning community. This attention to each other contributes to this discourse of inquiry as relational and compassionate. Relating to Carol Gilligans (1982) work on an ethic of care, Nel Noddings (1992, 2003) has argued for the importance of developing a capacity for caring as much as a capacity for thinking in schools. In these classrooms, caring was manifested in part by developing the childrens capacity to see themselves in relation to others; to be attentive to, and respectful of, each others differing perspectives; and to collaborate. A frequent code in our combined data sets was community building, which indicates the importance of building supportive relationships across these classrooms. Community building was anchored more in the moment-to-moment interactions of class members than in specific community-building activities.

In this discourse of inquiry, learners reflect on their own actions and learning to gain insights into their own learning processes. In the combined data sets, reflection was also a frequently coded inquiry process because teachers constantly engaged children in thinking, talking, and writing about their work, inviting them to reflect on and build on their current insights together. When learners reflect on their own work and that of their classmates, they deepen their understanding of the content and processes under exploration. For example, students reflected on their own learning, formally through the development of portfolios that reflected oneself as a learner, and informally by talking with ones tablemate about what he or she learned through an activity. Reflexivity occurs when we respond to those reflections by developing new actions. As Heidi has put it, Learning is propelled through reflexivity. When learners intentionally and systematically study themselves, they outgrow themselves as learners (Mills & Donnelly, 2001). The next telling case makes visible how the students and their fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Waugh, constructed a discourse of inquiry that is relational and compassionate, reflective and reflexive, through their engagement in a focused study on place.

Telling case: Mutualism and symbiosis

After inquiring into the desert, the class engaged in a similar process to study jungle environments: They recorded notes from a video, shared their notes, then created models of living things that portrayed jungle adaptations as well as characteristics of mutualism and symbiosis, processes they had studied that week. The children brought from home their creatures developed in different mediadrawings, clay figures, shadow boxes, glitter and glue on construction paperand displayed them about the room. Each creation included a description, the name of the creatures, the adaptations, and instances of mutualism/symbiosis. Class members recorded in their science journals notes about the different creations, paying attention to characteristics of adaptations, mutualism, and symbiosis. Many students spontaneously began leaving compliments on torn bits of paper, such as nice description! The class gathered on the carpet to discuss the projects:

Mrs. Waugh:

Okay my friends, first of all, lets start by sharing the first thing we talked aboutparticularly good examples of mutualism, symbiosis or a jungle adaptation. Tom, you can get us started and then call on the next person.


Um, let me look back at my notes. Scott did the Waupin tree and the pampaflight. The tree is very creative, it has a curvey trunk and polka dots, well, holes, all over it and the pampaflight is the animal who can get in the holes, so he has a house. And the curvey trunk is so the monkeys cannot get on it. Very creative.

Mrs. Waugh:

Very creative. All right, good example. You want to call on the next person?




I think Ryans was really neat. It was symbiotic. It was like a rhino, but it swam through swamps and there was a bird who got a ride when it swam across and the bird ate the particles off the rhino and kept it clean.

Mrs. Waugh:

Are there any particularly good jungle adaptations that you saw?


Camerons was very good. He had one which was like a bird with a nose that could smell predators from a mile away.


Two miles away!


The other one was, he could make himself flat so he could fly through trees and I thought that was neat. Elaina.


Umm, I think that, Camerons is very good because he, he mixed up two animals that could protect themselves even if they werent together, like he did a tiger and a rhino together and they could protect themselves, like the tiger had sharp claws and stuff so that was really good mutualism.

Mrs. Waugh:

I love how Cameron is present even though hes not here.

Students continued to discuss creations by Elise and Gracie.

Mrs. Waugh:

I love how a lot of you showed living things, not just animals and thats really neat, because mutualism and symbiosis doesnt just happen animal to animal but also animal to plant and plant to plant just like Mrs. Cochrans (MAT intern) orchid and the orchid bark that grows on it. Any other things to share that you saw about these jungle creatures?


I like how people tore out a piece of paper and were making little notes.


Like presents.


Yeah like little presents, they wrote what they liked and some people made little jokes.

Mrs. Waugh:

I was wondering when those would come up. And its interesting, I was sitting near Tom and I remember when Tom did that and I had wanted to do the same thing. So thats something to think about processwise, for the next time we do something like this.

This form of sharing, observing, and collaboratively learning from each others work is common at the CFI. This class community had evolved in its way of celebrating their work in ways that underscore the relational and compassionate nature of their classroom interactions. Their careful observation and appreciation of each others creations is also evident in their thoughtful verbal attributions: Ryans was neat, it was symbiotic, very creative, that was really good mutualism. These were not empty appreciations, but opportunities to notice and value what could be learned about life science and creative expression from each others work.

Students often built on each others talk to extend their thinking, as when Elaina added to Alis observations of Camerons creature, or when Elise and Lora collaborated to develop the notion of the spontaneous notes serving as presents. Although Mrs. Waugh did frame the discussion and make comments following student turns, they were often community-building moves, such as supporting a students contribution (Tom), valuing the classs appreciation of the work of an absent student (Cameron), and supporting the spontaneous practice of leaving written compliments. The teachers talk also sharpened the academic discourse by valuing students examples of plant-to-plant mutualism and connecting it to a prior class project, and by using questions to focus student attention on particular topics under study, as when, after hearing several examples of mutualism, she asked for examples of jungle adaptations.

Through processes of developing written explanations of the projects, carefully attending to those projects by observing and thinking about them, and spontaneously writing notes of appreciation and then discussing the projects, class members could extend their thinking, build on each others knowledge, and reflexively develop both their thinking and the curriculum itself (deliberately adding the practice of attaching written appreciations to share fair projects). The students played a vital role in this process, not merely as recipients of the curriculum, but as active creators of it. Further, this form of community building, celebration, and appreciation is an often overlooked in  inquiry-based learning, yet it is central to professional inquiry pursuits, as described by physicist Ben Brabson earlier.

We sought to make visible five of the interacting practices of inquiry through these telling cases. Also evident, albeit more subtly, was a sixth practice of valuing multiple perspectives, including multidisciplinary perspectives. Although the focused study centered on a science topic, the class delved more deeply into the complexity of living and nonliving things through integration of the language and visual arts. Importantly, class members could share their own multiple perspectives, questions, and experiences through class dialogue. We consider this practice more fully in relation to the other five inquiry practices through our final telling case.


Whereas the discussed telling cases were all drawn from Data Set 2, which followed a single cohort from kindergarten through fifth grade, the following telling case is drawn from Data Set 1 and a different set of second-grade students in late fall. We selected this telling case because it relates to the theme of living and nonliving things and also illustrates inquiry constructed within both small-group and whole-class discussion.

Telling case: Excavating a bat skeleton

Mr. OKeefe was in the midst of a unit of study organized around the broad concept of diversity. Having found a dead bat in his pool, he and his class buried it in order to excavate and examine it 5 months later. Several children responded to Mr. OKeefes invitation to examine the bats remains one morning during exploration time, a predictable structure for students to make self-selected choices as they settle in for the day. Children may, for example, read, write, play chess, conduct surveys, or gather information from the Internet. A small group of students joined their teacher at a table to begin reconstructing the bat skeleton..

Mr. OKeefe:

I have a feeling these are the stronger bones that go across the top [of the wing].


These should be smaller joints.


Are you trying to put those together? That looks like an alligator model.


Is this the claw?

Mr. OKeefe:

It could be. Id say if you have any questions about it put it down here (gestures to the Class Science Journal) and we can sort of sort it out.


This looks like another part of the wing or something.

Mr. OKeefe:

 I think that might be the lower part of the leg.


(who had just stopped at the table to see what we were doing) I am so impressed.


I wonder if we should get William. William? Do you think this one is a female or a male? (William was considered the class expert having completed an expert project on bats in first grade.)


[looking over from his chess game] I have no idea.

Mr. OKeefe:

[spreading glue on a piece of construction paper] Here Anastasia, can you put those little leg bones down? Sort of next to the big ones?



Mr. OKeefe:

Im not exactly sure that this is the way they go. It just sort of seems like it.


Hey! Why dont we try to find a bat book? There might be a bat book.


(who has joined the group) Mr. OKeefe is there a bone for the throat? Because the peep noise they make is produced from their throat.

Mr. OKeefe:

Im sure there are some bones in the throat.


 I wonder if its a female or a male.

Mr. OKeefe:

I personally dont know but Im pretty sure that bat experts can tell . . . Oh look! (Tucker brings a book open to the page of a bat skeleton.) Perfect! Set this up here. I think you can tell the difference between a male and a female by the way their pelvis is shaped. Because a females is more shaped for having babies and the males is probably more narrow.


Theres another leg bone right about there, cause look [points to the book].

Mr. OKeefe:

Oh, I think we had that right. Youre right, there are two leg bones on the bottom.


We need to put these together.

This exploratory conversation continued until it was time to clean up in preparation for morning meeting. The class formed a circle and Tucker began the conversation by reading his bat observation entry in the class science journal The bats bones are skinny. There is hairand he shows his diagram, adding, Theres the bones and the skull (pointing to his entry). Mr. OKeefe explained how they carefully dug out the remains while Lauren meticulously sorted out the bones, which they glued onto paper with the guidance of the book Tucker located. Anastasia commented on their question about the pelvis.


 Yeah, youre right, that is the pelvis.

Mr. OKeefe:

We confirmed some of the things but had to rearrange some of the bones we had down because we werent exactly sure where they went.


I tried to go on the Internet to see if I could find out any more things about them. Cause we thought that the human body was much similar to the bat body.

 Mr. OKeefe:

 Almost the exact same kinds of bones we noticed. Like in the leg bone, theres one big bone here and two smaller bones down here (pointing to his own leg to demonstrate) just like on humans and the vertebrate and the backbone, very, very similar. Even to the point where they had fingers.


 Is the collar-bone somewhere? (pointing to a diagram in the book).

They talked about comparing the bones to those in their own bodies, which prompted students around the circle to feel their own bones and locate related ones on the bat diagram. Mr. OKeefe exclaimed that they found more bones than hed expected considering how long it was buried, and invited questions and comments.


Well I think that you guys did a great job because I was doing something else but then I thought, Maybe I should go help them too, but then I noticed that you were already done. I noticed how fast you did it.

Mr. OKeefe:

Thanks. Maybe we can do something like this again.


Well, uh, this is sort of like a time capsule because you buried it 5 months ago and you saw how it looked 5 months ahead.

Mr. OKeefe:

Yeah, so it was a time capsule, youre right.


(pointing to the model in the book) The backbone looks like sticks and I dont know, do they eat flies or worms and other stuff?

Mr. OKeefe:

They eat small insects, mosquitoes. Actually, Im glad you asked that. We kept asking William to come over and give us his ideas because we kept having questions like someone said, does a cricket sound like a bat? William, do you want to tell them about that?


Well, um bats are, bats may sound the same but we dont really know because they are so high pitched we cant hear them. Its called ultrasonic sound.

Mr. OKeefe:

So, if you cant hear the bats and you can hear the crickets, they must have a different sound, right?


They have a higher pitch and the frequency is too high for our ears to pick up.

These two conversations, small group and whole class, revealed key patterns found in both data sets. Additionally, they made visible the ways in which Mr. OKeefe worked alongside the children when constructing knowledge during exploration time.  The nature of his discourse remained consistent even when the turn-taking pattern became more formalized during their whole-class reflective conversation. Mr. OKeefe and his second graders used attentive, probing, and agentive language during the reconstruction process and reflective class conversation. Both teacher and children extended one anothers thinking by sharing observations, connections, and questions. Their careful attention to detail and their genuine sense of wonder came through in the tentativeness of their talk. They used stems such as I think, I have a feeling, I wonder, That might be, I dont know, but..., and Im not exactly sure. Such language reflected the deliberate ways that Mr. OKeefe was scaffolding his children into the skillfulness of inquiry. Some of the wonderings were tied directly to the content they were exploring together, but skillful inquiry was also revealed as they demonstrated how they were learning to be strategic inquirers. Their talk illuminated attention to learning strategies and procedures as well as an understanding of the importance of accessing distant teachers and intimate mentors to better understand the primary source of data before them. Asking William questions demonstrated their capacity to access the teacher in the room with the most experience or expertise. In this particular case, it was a small teacher. Mr. OKeefe and his children all shared their insights and strategies, making their personal insights interpersonal. They nurtured each others curiosity and constructed knowledge by sharing hunches, negotiating, searching, describing, listening, and teaching.

The students took social responsibility and action for their own and each others learning by offering information, tools, and strategies that would support their inquiry. The children were learning the skillfulness of inquiry by learning to use primary and secondary sources. As they generated questions when working with the primary source materials, they accessed nonfiction literature and the Internet to attempt to answer them. Thus, they drew on multiple perspectives in their pursuit. Mr. OKeefe also encouraged them to learn from the process as well as the products/artifacts. He reminded them of tools that scientists use, such as magnifying glasses that would help them see more in the soil. They were experiencing the importance of mentors in the learning process and fluidly moved in and out of both roles. At times, Mr. OKeefe, the most experienced learner, assumed the role of mentor, and at other times, a 7- or 8-year-old took the lead. Both the students and Mr. OKeefe demonstrated a strong sense of agency and investment as learners. Young Williams identity as bat expert was established in first grade and contributed to his sense of agency throughout this second-grade engagement.

These participants revealed a discourse of inquiry that is dynamic, fluid, and dialogic. Much like scientists, they were learning to value close, focused observations. They posed probing questions and nurtured each others understanding in relational and compassionate ways. They recognized the contributions that individuals made to their collective understanding and offered formal compliments as well.

Children were learning the skills, strategies, content, and science standards through use. They also reflected on their hunches and connections to grow in their own understanding and to support each other as learners. They moved from reflection to reflexivity when they studied themselves and their strategies and used their reflections to take new action. When confronted with anomalies or when they realized that they could only get so far themselves, they turned to the class expert and secondary sources, books, and the Internet to compare their work with published findings. They also documented their insights and questions in the class science journal, a public journal intended to place-hold thoughts and wonderings from living in the world as inquirers. Often their observations as young scientists occur outside of school, and they are encouraged to bring the outside world into the classroom via the science journal. Other times, they capture and interpret classroom experiences in the science journal. Their entries are used as springboards for exploratory conversations during morning meetings. Throughout both conversations, they were demonstrating the intellectual rigor yet joyful nature of inquiry.


Through a multitiered analysis, we found interrelated practices of a discourse of inquiry that were evident across grades and years that combined academic and social learning. This discourse of inquiry was constantly evolving over time, yet important practices remained consistent, supporting particular opportunities for learning, acting, and being. Learners were provided opportunities for making meaning through dialogue that was grounded in participants personal experiences, understandings, and questions, and by supporting learners in sharing, referring to, and building on these personal perspectives. At the same time, learners drew on multiple disciplinary perspectives, tools, and inquiry skills and strategies as they probed and investigated questions about living and nonliving things. This discourse of inquiry emphasized attentive, critical, and compassionate observation of the world and each other, and careful reflection on academic topics and their own actions as community members. Many times, these reflections became reflexive, promoting conscious change within the learning community.

The patterns highlighted in each classroom were not limited to those teachers rooms. The transcripts illustrated practices that were coded across the two combined 5-year data sets, practices situated in whole-class conversations. This extensive coding analysis revealed that every class celebrated and reflected on their own learning, emphasized skillfulness of inquiry, and provided opportunities for making personal and interpersonal connections. What is clear when looking across these telling cases is the richness of dialogue and the central role that it takes in inquiring and learning. Such opportunities for student talk, collaboration, and deliberation remain rare in many schools across the United States, leaving far too many children behind as active learners and thoughtful, engaged citizens.

We sought to describe a larger discourse of inquiry and how that discourse afforded particular opportunities for learning, acting, and being. These social practices linked childrens experience to academic knowledge and helped learners become conscious about their presence in the world, encouraging children to be aware of how they act and think when they develop all of their capacities both as individuals and as members of their communities (Freire & Betto, 1985, pp. 14, 15). Dialogue moved these learners from passive, consuming objects of education to active, engaged subjects who drew on their own personal and interpersonal connections in ways that elevated the rigor of their inquiry (Freire, 1970/1995). Through their academic work, these teachers and learners were constructing working relationships that supported genuine inquiry and a sound learning community. They constructed together a discourse of inquiry that students could draw on in learning and in life.

Inquiry-based pedagogies are complex and multifaceted, difficult to sum up in any process, practice, or structure. Findings from our combined data sets indicate the need to view inquiry broadly. Inquiry requires teachers and students alike to take up multiple roles and responsibilities within and across classroom activities. In some cases, it is important to support students in posing, developing, and exploring their own questions (e.g., Copenhaver-Johnson, Bowman, & Johnson, 2007). We also sought to show the critical work of the teacher in responding to students questions and comments in ways that support them in deepening their inquiries as collaborative learners, providing a strong foundation for future learning.

In a true spirit of inquiry, we are left with more questions. Although our combined focus on a single school offered an in-depth analysis of teaching and learning processes, it is important to examine how inquiry-based pedagogies operate in other contexts. Any discourse simultaneously supports and constrains such opportunities. This article responds to Maxine Greenes (1988) call to consider how we can empower students to create spaces of dialogue in their classrooms, spaces where they can take initiatives and uncover humanizing possibilities (p. 13). Thus, we focused here on making visible the possibilities created, with a commitment to examining the data anew to consider the limitations and constraints as well. For example, further research should consider how this discourse of inquiry may influence children differently based on ethnicity, gender, class, and other characteristics. We are also examining vignettes that reveal a seventh practice of inquiry that was not dominant in the data but present in various forms across several classroomscritical inquiry practices that engage learners in examining social, cultural, and political subtexts that perpetuate inequities (e.g., Edelsky, 1996; Egawa & Harste, 2001; Freire, 1969/1998; Jennings & Smith, 2002; Shannon, 1993; Vasquez, 2005).

Finally, we are often asked how the CFI might package its curriculum for others to adopt. Clearly, this discourse of inquiry is not a set of activities that can be neatly packaged. Instead, we support 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 (Donnelly, Morgan, DeFord, Long, Mills, & Stephens, 2005; Jennings, 2001; Jennings & Smith, 2002; Mills, 2001). The facultys deliberate attention to their own understandings and practice of an inquiry-based pedagogy was central to their model of professional development. They cultivated their inquiry-based practices and discourse by continually examining their actions as reflections of their beliefs (Short & Burke, 2001) through weekly curricular conversations (Mills, OKeefe, & Jennings, 2004). Sometimes such reflection led to new actions, whereas at other times, it promoted a revision of, or the emergence of, a new belief. Professional development must be conceptualized beyond one-shot in-services toward a comprehensive approach that responds to teachers experiences, questions, and contexts (McAlister & Irvine, 2000; Wilson & Berne, 1999). By closely examining the power of classroom talk to shape possibilities or limit them, teachers can more effectively develop practices that support students as active agents who, in the words of the CFI mission statement, are responsible for developing themselves as more thoughtful, caring, and intelligent people who delight in learning and are committed to creating a more compassionate, equitable, knowledgeable, and democratic world.


Foremost we thank Julie Waugh, Tim OKeefe, and Michele Shamlin for their invaluable insights and contributions as teacher-researchers. We are grateful to the teachers, staff, and families at the Center for Inquiry for their openness and willingness to share. Meagan Karvonen, Tania Kjerfve, and Jane Ness contributed extensively to analysis. This research was supported in part by a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Post-doctoral Research Fellowship and a grant from the National Council for Teachers of English.

All ideas and findings in this article represent the perspective of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Richland School District Two or the University of South Carolina.


1. The district is characterized by school choice, meaning that all schools are available to families across the district. Because of budget constraints, the district can only provide transportation to schools within the students attendance zone. A wide range of magnet programs in elementary, middle, and high school are available within the multiple attendance zones. However, the CFI is an elementary school housed on a middle school campus that requires parents to provide transportation or access carpools for their children.

2. The principal investigators and three graduate researchers coded the data independently and then collaboratively, seeking consistency and agreement through constant comparison (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). We recorded definitions and rationales for revising definitions as we developed codes over time. All discrepancies were discussed and resolved through consensus.

3. Telling cases (Mitchell, 1984) are not selected as representative of the larger data set. Given the size and complexity of the joint data sets, each telling case will inevitably capture practices that can be found across the data.


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Day 4


2:34-2:47 PM

Inquiry on Life

Codes marked for this event













T returns to activity that he had begun two days earlier. T acknowledges that during first days of classes all were getting to know each other better. And that all were sharing something about life. T poses question: what is life? He says that they have not being doing much on that. He writes life in the middle of paper. T retells story of dying dragon fly and of girls bringing leaves to share with class. T poses a wonder question: when is a leave dead? When it changes color or when it falls from a tree. T says that plants are alive. He makes personal connection to plants in the classroom. He adds that animal are also alive, he makes personal connection to Star, the gerbil. T says that plants and Star are alive but seem so different. T poses question to ss about their ideas about life. He calls on Lora to share her thoughts about it. Lora says something that are alive. Students distinguish about dead and never alive and T writes on board two columnsliving and live. T instigates students to think critically about topic and also to compare and contrast different forms of life (general critiquethink critically through topic/compare and contrast). Students start listing different things on board. Elise suggests computer. T writes it on board with interrogation mark, not knowing whether it is alive or not. Elaina makes intertextual ties with a marker drying out and being dead. Someone suggests coral, algae. T asks whether students are sure if plants are living. Several students say yes. Someone says that some parts might be dead. T writes that down. Dani says that an egg that does not hatch will not be alive. All start a discussion about whether humans are animals. [It is not clear how discussion began.] T makes personal connection about his interest on topic because of his fathers death. Elaina makes intertextual ties with her expert project from last year on souls. [PAs announcement interrupts discussion.] T concludes activity by asking students to think about this at night (instigating reflection). T suggests that students need to come up with own definition. T says that dictionary sometimes is not enough. Elaina says that she will look on the Internet (skillfulness of inquirystudentlook for resources).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 7, 2009, p. 1583-1618
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15306, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 1:18:17 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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