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Creating an equitable classroom environment: a case study of a preservice elementary teacher learning what it means to "do inquiry".


It is widely accepted, as attested by the National Science Standards, that inquiry pedagogical methods are most effective in teaching science (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1993; National Research Council [NRC], 1996). Such classroom environments are sites where learners do inquiry as defined by the NRC (1996):
   Inquiry is a multifaceted activity that involves making
   observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources
   of information to see what is already known ... using tools to
   gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers,
   explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results, (p.

Yet, the challenge for most, if not all, science teacher educators is to instill in preservice teachers a conceptual understanding of what it means to do inquiry as a pedagogical method (Bonnstetter, 1998). The motivation for this is to create equitable classroom environments where children can thrive through investigations where they can make sense on their own rather than relying on teacher-directed knowledge. This is especially imperative for minority children, who tend to be in classrooms where the emphasis is on basic skills (Sleeter, 2005) or where a phenotypic appearance may further subject them to discrimination or bias, which may affect their educational experience, as noted in Monroe (2013).

We discuss a case study of a preservice teacher who participated in a two-semester course sequence of elementary science and mathematics methods spanning one academic year. These two courses were taught by the first author and embedded a pedagogical approach grounded in inquiry methods. That is, at the outset of the courses, preservice teachers were asked, "What is inquiry?" Most, if not all of them, were unable to answer the question.

This set into motion the objective in the methods courses for these preservice teachers to actively engage in an investigation of inquiry as a pedagogical method. In this article, we show how the preservice teacher in this case study developed deep conceptual understanding of what it means to do inquiry, especially with special needs children and English Language Learners [ELLs], through social and cultural participation in a process of investigating, analyzing, and synthesizing the meaning of inquiry teaching.

The purpose of this study was to follow the learning trajectory of a preservice teacher in developing her understanding of inquiry as a pedagogical method. The research question driving this study was: What mitigating factors, if any, mediate how a preservice teacher re-shapes her understanding about what it means to be a teacher?

Using Vygotsky's (1986) socio-cultural theory of learning as our theoretical framework, what we found were several components critical to the learning process: (1) Cultural artifacts play a role in mediating learning; these artifacts include commercially produced inquiry materials and children's positive reactions while engaging in scientific inquiry; (2) analysis of and reflection on these cultural artifacts contribute to making sense of what it means do inquiry; and (3) synthesis of meaningful relationships among the various artifacts contributing to transformational thinking, i.e., learning what it means to do inquiry.

Background: Challenges in Teacher Preparation

Teaching inquiry methods can be a daunting and elusive task for many teacher educators. As aforementioned, we argue the primary challenge may be preservice teachers' embedded conceptions of what a teacher does and how a teacher acts, notions strongly resistant to change. In his sociological study of teachers, Lortie (1975) coined the term "apprenticeship of observation" to describe the close contact of prospective educators with their own teachers and professors during their sixteen plus years of formal schooling (p. 61).

These experiences, with its myriad of social interaction and activity, shape teachers' understanding of what it means to teach and learn. This socialization is further influenced by field experiences while in their undergraduate program of study (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005; Darling-Hammond, Hammerness, Grossman, Rust, & Shulman, 2005; Lortie, 1975; Oakes & Lipton, 2003; Zeichner & Gore, 1989; Zeichner et al., 1998).

Thus, the tendency for preservice teachers is to embody an understanding of teaching as transmitting knowledge from teacher to student through direct instruction rather than creating an environment where learners generate their own knowledge through exploration and investigation. We use the term embodiment to imply a deep understanding of what it means to do inquiry a challenge for pre-service teachers who tend to teach the way they were taught (Lortie, 1975).

This embodiment may explain why teaching inquiry methods can be a struggle, as attested by both Newman et al. (2004) and Hayes (2002) in their studies of elementary preservice teachers learning about and teaching inquiry-based science. Preservice teachers' classroom experiences tend to be teacher-centered, which challenges teacher educators in their effort to overcome this tendency.

This tendency is further evidenced in Windschitl's (2004) study of preservice and in-service teachers of science. Windschitl posited that a prevalence of teachers hold folk theories or spontaneous theories acquired from formal and informal schooling experiences. These theories tend toward pre- and mis-conceptions about pedagogy and content, further contributing to the challenge of teaching authentic inquiry practices in the science classroom vis-a-vis the aforementioned definition.

Despite studies claiming preservice teachers' learning of inquiry methods (Fernandez, 2002; Smith, 2007), other studies show the strong tendency of preservice and novice teachers to revert to traditional ways of teaching in spite of their preservice teacher educational practices to do otherwise (Crawford, 2004; Flores, 2006; Rosenholtz, 1989). Furthermore, many studies focus on preservice teachers and methods to counter direct instruction (Cochran-Smith, 1991; Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Loughran, 2002; Newman et al., 2004; Singer & Moscovici, 2008), yet do not address if and how preservice teachers' reify what it means to facilitate learning where students generate their own knowledge rather than be the source of knowledge for their students.

Theoretical Framework

Vygotsky (1978; 1986) recognized the significance of social and cultural experiences in constructing knowledge in the process of learning, and postulated learning as a heuristic and developmental process in which individuals make sense of phenomena, i.e., develop conceptual understanding through investigation about the relationship of objects, events, and experiences. The learner makes meaningful connections among and between these seemingly disparate objects, events, and experiences through critical reflection and discourse or, as Vygotsky (1986) stated, "[the act of] studying real concepts in depth" (italics in original, p. 161).

This developmental process is nonlinear and spiral in nature as the learner re-visits familiar spaces with new understandings that result in transforming their interpretation of those spaces. Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) describe this process in the following:
   A concept will continually evolve with
   each new occasion of use, because new
   situations, negotiations, and activities
   inevitably recast it in a new, more densely
   textured form. So a concept ... is always
   under construction, (p. 33)

Thus, learning occurs in phases where at first the learner is exposed to a seemingly disparate array of objects; and, through investigation of the interconnectedness of these objects and mediation of cultural artifacts and discourse, finds strands of commonality among them that initially results in pre-concepts. As more meaningful connections are made about the relationship of these objects, "germinating seed[s] of a concept" are formed (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 123).

Teaching methods courses to preservice teachers should be informed by this theory so as to (1) transform belief systems from ones tending toward teacher-centered classrooms; and (2) develop an understanding of how children learn to inform instructional decisions. Thus, if children are struggling to understand concepts, an informed teacher can make necessary adjustments in their instructional delivery and classroom experiences.

Once a learner has made meaningful connections, Vygotsky posited these connections contribute to deeper understanding when learners engage in critical reflection and discourse with peers and experts to scaffold what is known with what needs to be known. Deep understanding occurs when the learner synthesizes relationships among the objects through abstractive reflection and sees this relationship as a unified concept without any direct reference to a single object.

Vygotsky (1986) stated, "in genuine concept formation, it is equally important to unite and to separate: Synthesis and analysis presuppose each other as inhalation presupposes exhalation" (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. 135-136). In this paper we will see how our case study subject engaged in critical reflection and came to understand what it means to teach and learn.

Motivation for Study

The four-year, public institution in which this study took place is located in a predominantly Hispanic community on the U.S./Mexico border. At the time of the study, preservice elementary teachers would enroll in their mandatory elementary mathematics and science methods courses during their last two semesters of undergraduate study while contemporaneously in their field experience in these two semesters, i.e., student teaching. During the mathematics methods course semester, preservice teachers spend nine hours in the field; during their last semester, they spend 18 hours in the field.

The first author had been teaching these mathematics and science methods courses for several years, and specifically focused on inquiry as a pedagogical approach. Typically the same cohort would enroll into these courses for two consecutive semesters. After the first couple of years of teaching these courses, first author realized that between 15 and 20 percent of the preservice teachers in her science methods classes seemed to transform their thinking of what it means to teach and learn, as evidenced by their comments during classroom discussion and in their final written reflections for the course. This study was conducted then to understand if indeed transformational thinking was occurring and, if so, to identify contributing factors causing this transformation.

The pedagogical approach used in each method course consisted of several components:

1. Self-selected teams of two to four students taught a series of four consecutive lessons from commercially-produced kits such as Investigations in Number, Data, and Space ( for the mathematics methods course, and FOSS ( for the science methods course.

2. Teams engaged in a lesson study process following each lesson, a process originating in Japan in which peers observe each other teach in turn and debrief each lesson soon after it is taught (Wiburg & Brown, 2007).

3. Students read scholarly papers, such as How People Leant: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999), Shifting from Activitymania to Inquiry (Moscovici & Nelson, 1998), and Situated Learning and the Culture of Learning (Brown, Colhns, & Duguid, 1989).

4. Students wrote reflections on these aforementioned scholarly readings and were expected to connect these readings to what they were experiencing as student teachers and as teachers of inquiry, which often were dichotomous.

5. Informal classroom discussions led by the instructor centered on the aforementioned scholarly readings. It is important to note here that this particular pedagogical approach does not presume this approach is exemplary, or the only mechanism for teaching inquiry methods.

To clarify why commercially produced materials were chosen as a major pedagogical component, the next section provides contextual background.

Contextual Background

This section provides a brief background on the historical perspective of the commercially produced elementary inquiry materials used as the source of teaching materials for the study.

Inquiry-Based Materials

For more than 50 years, science and mathematics educators have focused on reforming how these subjects are taught and have ascribed to an inquiry-based approach as the most viable means for teaching and learning science and mathematics (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996). In the late 1950s, psychologist Jerome Bruner and other distinguished scholars in education, mathematics, science, and history came together to examine science education to create a vision for improvement.

Bruner (1960) summarized his impressions of this summit in The Process of Education: A Landmark in Educational Theory in which he theorized education as a process rather than a collection of disconnected facts. He characterized curriculum as spiral, i.e., building on learners' ways of knowing about the world using naturalistic ways of thinking. This is reminiscent of Vygotsky's (1986) theory of learning whereby learning happens through a non-linear and spiral process of cognitive development.

Throughout the decade of the 1960s, many scholars in science and education collaborated to develop hands-on, inquiry-based curriculum with support from a variety of public and private sources. One notable scholar of that era Robert Karplus recognized the significant role of the learner, as attested by Bruner's (1996) description of Karplus as someone
   ... who knew that science is not something
   that exists out there in nature,
   but that it is a tool in the mind of the
   knower--teacher and student alike ...
   There are lots of different ways of getting
   to that point, and you don't really ever get
   there unless you do it, as a learner, on your
   own terms, (p. 116)

Karplus recognized the vital role of the learner as one who actively engages in the process of learning and generating conceptual understanding.

As a result of these early efforts, various organizations produced high quality inquiry science and mathematics curricula for elementary schools, and continue to do so. These include the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California at Berkeley and its Full Option Science System [FOSS], the National Sciences Resource Center [NSRC] at the Smithsonian Institution and its Science & Technology for Children [STC], and TERC and its Investigations in Number, Data, and Space for inquiry mathematics ( ath.html).

Yet, in spite of these exemplars and wide support for implementation, many, if not most, school districts adopting these materials quickly abandon them through either one or a combination of the following: neglect of materials management, paucity of continuous and ongoing professional development, and/or lack of administrative support (Bonnstetter, 1998; NSRC, 1997).

We argue that another factor may be the ingrained ways of knowing what it means to teach--teaching as direct instruction and learning as the consumption of teacher-delivered knowledge rather than teacher as a facilitator of learning and learner as a generator of knowledge (Apple, 1979; Eggen & Kauchak, 2006; Freire, 1970, 1998; Van de Walle, 2004).


Our investigation used the naturalistic approach of qualitative research, as such research seeks to better understand, illuminate, and interpret the multiple realities of research participants through its acquisition of rich descriptions of their experiences (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Merriam, 2009). Our study was phenomenological in nature as we focused on the essence of the experiences of preservice teachers who were making sense of inquiry pedagogical methods (Merriam, 2001).

Because we were interested in understanding the process of learning, we chose case study method since "case study is a particularly suitable design if you are interested in process" (p. 33). Moreover, case study is a method employed to gain more information about a particular phenomenon because it provides vivid material to chronicle the events leading to transformative thinking.

For this article we selected one case from a larger study of 19 participants. All 19 participants in the larger study were female: Eight were Hispanic Americans, one was African American, one was Japanese, one was Mexican, and one was Irish. Purposeful sampling was the technique to select participants (Merriam, 1988; 2009), and the criteria for selection was evidence of interrupted thinking derived from what was said during class discussions and what was written in scholarly paper and personal reflections.

Of these 19 participants, five had taken only one course (mathematics methods) with first author, and analysis of data derived from these five indicated that their thinking was interrupted rather than transformed. That is, these students were experiencing a difference between how children reacted when the preservice teachers taught their inquiry lessons and how children reacted during regular instruction by the lead teacher in their field classroom.

We provide the following excerpt to illustrate what we define by interruption: "I just realized how really you got to let the kids manipulate [the numbers]." This quote suggests the importance of allowing children to use various strategies in solving problems. While this is an important element of inquiry methods, this manner of thinking was the closest this particular participant came to providing evidence of an understanding of inquiry methods.

The remaining 14 participants took both methods courses back-to-back with first author, who employed the same pedagogical approach in both courses. Of these remaining participants, two indicated interruption rather than transformation, and analysis of data of the remaining participants indicated transformative thinking. For example, one stated:
   When you teach traditionally, that's all
   that you know. That's your world. [As a
   result of these courses,] you've been, in
   a sense, awakened and you have that
   responsibility now ... You're accountable
   because you have this extra knowledge.
   You have knowledge of social justice issues.
   You have knowledge that go way
   beyond the classroom.

Dani was selected as the case study for this paper because her data provided a more "intensive and holistic description and analysis of a single instance" of the phenomenon under investigation (Merriam, 1988, p. 21), and "a single case or small nonrandom sample is selected precisely because the researcher wishes to understand the particular in depth, not to find out what is generally true of the many" (emphasis in original, p. 208). Further, the single case allows us to closely follow her thinking as she begins to transform her thinking.


The university in this study is a public regional four-year institution located on the U.S./Mexico border with demographics representative of those in the community: Approximately 80 percent are Latina/o. In the undergraduate elementary education program at the university during the time of the study, approximately 99 percent of the students were women. This study focuses on learning as a process of cognitive development of a preservice teacher learning what it means to do inquiry, and also focuses on how this understanding can potentially impact the lives of children who are culturally and linguistically diverse or who may have institutional markers, such as ADHD.

Research Design and Participant

As already mentioned, we used a single case study in this article as this case elucidates the process by which this particular participant transformed her thinking of what it means to do scientific inquiry (Merriam, 2001). Case study allows us to understand an individual's experience from their perspective to "evaluate, summarize, and conclude ... [and to increase] its potential applicability" (p. 31).

The case study participant Dani, a pseudonym for this single woman, was in her early 20s and self-identified as a Latina. She was in a cohort of 30 preservice teachers who took the aforementioned set of methods courses together during the last two semesters of their undergraduate studies. During these two semesters, Dani was a student teacher in a third grade class with the same female teacher in both semesters.

What is interesting to note here is that Dani was not identified as a study participant until the last day of her final semester. Her written reflections and contributions to classroom discussions in both the mathematics and science methods courses were not indicative of what she was apparently experiencing over these two semesters. On the last day of the science methods course, Dani had a lot to share with first author since she had just experienced her transformational moment. It was on this day that she was asked to participate in the study.

Data for the study were collected through focused, in-depth interviews (Seidman, 2006) Seidman's (2006) that consisted of three separate interviews for participants to make meaning of their constructed world and their place in that world. A week separates each interview to allow the interviewee time to reflect and organize their experiences. To analyze the data, salient themes were identified in the coded data using a constant comparative method in which themes are compared and categorized using an iterative process of comparison and reclassification, as needed, to refine the categories in addressing the research question (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Role of the Researcher and Researcher Bias

Because the first author was the individual who conducted this study and was the instructor for these methods courses, this section problematizes her role as it has potential for bias in various aspects of the study. As a Latina, the first author was fully aware of the influence of her values, beliefs, and experiences in her interpretation of what she saw, heard, and read (Peshkin, 2000; Siddle Walker, 1999).

Furthermore, as the former professor of the research participant, the first author was conscious of her own subjectivity and influence of power during interviews, and strived to not influence responses and, for this reason, conducted all interviews after the participant was no longer a student in her course. As Guba and Lincoln (1989) note, participants also contribute to and influence the inquiry since it is their story that evolves from the context of the inquiry

Data Analysis

Using Vygotsky's (1986) theory of learning as a framework, we analyzed data from the case study to identify how cultural tools mediated learning of what it means to do inquiry. Using a constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), we identified the cultural artifacts as the commercially developed inquiry curricula, observation and dialogic interaction using a lesson study process, children's knowledge generation, and children's academic discourse. These were locally positioned factors that contributed to Dani's analysis and eventual synthesis of these seemingly disparate experiences.

Cultural Artifacts for Mediating Learning

Inquiry curriculum. The role of the inquiry curriculum as a cultural tool in this study was central to mediating understanding of inquiry methods, as it was the medium to create an environment for investigating the phenomenon of inquiry as a pedagogical method. Our data from the larger study indicated that some of the preservice teachers would modify the teaching activities in spite of explicit directions by the instructor to follow the teacher guide with fidelity. Imposing other pedagogical schemes has potential to interfere with the nature of the inquiry method.

For example, our anecdotal experience informs us of how some preservice teachers would give children vocabulary words and definitions to be copied into a student journal, an action atypical of inquiry methods. Rather, students should uncover the concepts connected to these words during engagement in their investigation to develop appropriate scientific discourse (see Gee, 2005). These instances are further evidence of the ingrained notion of the teacher as the center of classroom activity rather than learner.

At the outset, Dani was conflicted after reading the teacher guide, as this did not fit her preconceived model of teaching and learning:
   At first I was really confused. When I read
   the inquiry lesson plans, I said, "How is
   this going to work?" It was kind of weird to
   me ... I'm standing in the classroom and
   looking around, I'm like, Well, there's not
   much that I say. There's not much that I
   do." And I'm just kind of observing them
   and guiding them. You know, I was just
   there, and it was just weird to me 'cause
   like I said, in my internship classroom,
   it's more like, "Follow this." And with
   these lessons, it wasn't like that at all.
   The kids were on their own ... Wow. This
   is possible?

This conflict is expected given the orthogonality of inquiry method with preservice teachers' own experiences as typical classroom learners who surmise teaching as direct instruction. This is further reinforced by their experiences in the student teaching classroom, as shared by Dani in the following:
   [The way my internship teacher would
   teach math was] like spitting back a
   product. It's kind of like, instant results.
   "I need to see the product now." I saw her
   as more like, "Can you mimic what I do?"
   or "Can you complete the procedure?"
   rather than "Do you fully understand why
   this is the way that it is?" And with the
   inquiry lessons, the kids understood why
   you collect the data and how you organize
   it. They got a more rounded picture of it
   instead of, "Oh, you're going to collect it.
   You're going to collect it." Not "why are you
   going to collect it?" That's what I saw, you
   are going to do this as opposed to why are
   you going to do this.

Dani followed the teacher guide with fidelity, and this allowed the inquiry pedagogical method to unfold for Dani as children became actively engaged in their investigations.

Observation and dialogical interaction. As mentioned earlier, a lesson study process was used and entailed both observing a group of children and taking field notes on children's motivation, academic, or social behavior. In this process, a debriefing session among the team members follows each lesson as team members dialogically share their observations of students and of the teaching. Dani described her experience as an observer during one of the inquiry lessons:
   At the beginning, you had some kids
   talking in the back. Then all of a sudden,
   one raises their hand and, "Oh, this." And
   they start getting involved, and the others
   look around and, "Oh, what's going on?"
   And then they start to get interested, and
   that's when hands start flying up in the
   air. And kids are really excited to start
   talking. That's one of the things I noticed
   right away ... [So as an observer,] that's
   something completely different than when
   you're standing up there and doing it
   yourself ... I particularly paid attention
   to: How were they interacting now? What
   was the dialogue then? [Reflecting back on
   that lesson as an observer] and watching
   someone else teach, I could focus more on
   the interaction of the students, and the
   way they were reacting to her.

Dani is engaged in the inquiry process as evidenced by her generation of questions as she begins to make connections between what she was witnessing and the inquiry pedagogical approach. Her insight demonstrated the potential for lesson study as a vehicle for active reflection.

Children's reaction to inquiry method--witnessing knowledge generation. During the mathematics methods course, Dani and her team co-taught a series of four consecutive mathematics lessons from Investigations curriculum albeit a portion of an entire unit. They taught these lessons to ELLs in a bilingual classroom, and Dani described the children's reaction:
   Even with that little barrier [of being a
   bilingual classroom], it didn't stop [the
   children] from doing what they were
   supposed to do and from the results that
   we were supposed to be getting ... [The
   children] were really excited, and they
   were just learning. I guess that's the way
   to put it-they were learning. They were
   doing it by themselves. There was nobody,
   I mean there was a facilitator obviously,
   but nobody telling them this, this, and
   this. It was kind of like exploration, I
   guess, is a good way to put it.

Dani witnessed children's excitement and learning as they generated their own knowledge with assistive facilitation of the inquiry pedagogical method. As a cultural artifact, the children's reactions to the lessons were particularly significant in that this was a bilingual class taught in English. By the end of the mathematics inquiry lessons, Dani realized that children were fully capable of generating their own understanding without direct instruction:
   By the end of our lessons, the children
   were still just as engaged as they were
   during the first lesson. They were really
   into it ... [When I asked them to explain
   what they had done, they said things like,]
   "I collected this data, and I recorded it
   this way" or "I used tallies, right?" or "I
   used a table" or "I put it in on this graph
   so that we could see this, and this, and
   this." And the way they were explaining,
   I said, "Wow! They really did get it, and I
   didn't tell them." It was "You collect data
   because of this. You collect data like this.
   You're going to graph it like this." They
   were able to stand up there and tell me
   by themselves. I didn't sit there and say,
   "This is why we do this." They came up
   with it on their own.

The children's explicit display of understanding may be one of the more powerful cultural artifacts influencing development of conceptual thinking about what it means to be a teacher. This is closely coupled with children's academic discourse, particularly for the borderland community in which this study was conducted as many children are learning English as a second language.

Children's reaction to inquiry method--academic discourse. When Dani commenced her mathematics inquiry lesson, she had doubts that children would stay on task. Then she began to hear academic discourse.
   And I thought, "Well, are they going to
   be messing around? Are they going to
   be playing? What are they going to be
   doing?" And, as I'm walking around, I
   can hear the kids saying, "Well, we could
   use a bar graph for this" or "We could use
   a pictograph for this." They were using
   words that I hadn't told them; they were
   doing it on their own.

Dani's own inquisitiveness marks her engagement in the process of learning inquiry that is further influenced by the social interaction of the children, as Vygotsky (1986) predicted.

When Dani taught the science lessons the following semester, she again noted the use of academic discourse during the FOSS lesson on the human skeletal system:
   [By the end of the lessons, the kids were
   finding] little claws of the rodent in the
   owl pellet. And then one of the little girls
   comes up to me, and she says, "Well, look!
   There's a phalange right here. Are these
   phalanges, too?" She puts her fingers out.
   "Yeah, that's exactly right." And then I'm
   walking around, and I'm hearing like, "Oh,
   I found part of the vertebrae." And things
   like that. I hadn't even introduced vocabulary.
   The words were on the worksheet we
   had given earlier, but they were making
   those connections themselves.

These various cultural artifacts afforded opportunities for dialogic engagement among Dani's peers as they debriefed their lessons and among the children being taught these inquiry lessons. Vygotsky (1986) posited the importance of the role of dialogue among and between peers and experts as an essential facet of learning. Vygotsky also postulated that cultural artifacts, such as language or other semiotic objects, further contribute to learning development.

Analyzing as a Phase in Conceptual Development

Although Dani was skeptical about using inquiry, she developed a curiosity as she was making sense of the various cultural artifacts she encountered. This may have contributed to motivating her to analyze this method. As she and her team were deciding in which classroom to teach their science lessons, Dani described her team's social interaction in making that decision:
   [After my experience teaching the inquiry
   math], I was actually more curious than
   anything to see what was going to happen
   [when we taught the FOSS lessons ... In
   deciding which classroom to teach,] my
   team and I were just talking, "Well, what
   class do we use? Do we want to go lower-level?
   Do we want to go higher level?" And
   Susanna says, "Well, have you seen my
   class?" And we said, "No." And she says,
   "They're really bad, and there's no way
   we can do our lessons in that class." A lot
   of those kids are diagnosed with ADHD,
   ADD and have behavioral issues. And I
   said, "Wait a minute! What if we try it in
   that class?" And she says, "Really? You'd
   want to see a bad class?" And I said, 'Yeah,
   let's try it! Let's see what happens." And
   that's when we started saying, "Well, think
   about it. Are they bored or are they bad?
   Or what's the deal here?" [My partners]
   started considering it, and we said, "We
   want to try this and see what happens."

At this point, Dani was testing whether the inquiry methods could work as successfully with children who had behavioral issues. In a sense, she was using a deductive process to test her pre-concept in this phase of developing conceptual understanding of inquiry. As Dani and her team undertook the FOSS science lesson on the human skeletal system, they had a few glitches at the beginning where some children had tantrums. However, the classroom quickly moved toward full engagement. Dani described this as follows:
   We did the FOSS kit on the human body,
   with the bones. I think, in [the first] lesson,
   they had to estimate the number of bones
   in their body. And I noticed, when [the
   children] were outside jump roping and
   making their observations, there were no
   problems. They were really into it. They
   were writing everything down that they
   were supposed to. We didn't have to get on
   anybody to do anything. Then we go inside.
   All of a sudden, that's when the chaos
   broke out. The kids were fighting. There's
   this little girl throwing a tantrum, and
   Susanna didn't know how to really control
   the situation. But she [started] her lesson,
   and the class started to calm down as the
   lesson went on. So then the next day, it
   was Sarah's turn. Sarah was a little strict
   with them at first saying things like, "You
   know what? You need to be quiet while I'm
   talking." They listened to her; there was
   no fighting then. In her lesson, they had
   to reconstruct a skeletal system, and they
   had to put it together. And so the kids are
   putting bones together, and I noticed that
   they were just doing it. We didn't have to
   get on anybody Dora did the third lesson
   where we were introducing owl pellets to
   them. And again, as we went on, it was
   less disruption, less fighting, less talking.
   And they were really excited. And
   then Susanna would tell us that, at the
   end of eveiy day, [the children] were like,
   "Are they coming in today? Are we going
   to do that lesson again?" And they were
   really, really excited. So toward the end
   of the lessons, there were no problems
   whatsoever. The kids were just doing it
   on their own. They were really interested,
   and they were really excited. There was a
   lot of noise, and the teacher comes running
   in 'cause they're like, "Oooh, man, I found
   a skull! Oh man, I found this!" And I'm
   like really excited. So the teacher comes
   in and, "Is everything okay?" And then
   she looks around, and she's like, "Oh, my
   gosh!" She was amazed because the kids
   were engaged and motivated. And it's
   funny 'cause she even said at one point
   like, "Wow! These lessons are really cool!"
   And so all the third grade teachers end up
   coming in because there's noise. They're
   all looking in and are all amazed because
   these kids aren't fighting.

After this experience, Dani had more curiosity about inquiry methods and needed to know if she could design her own inquiry lesson and if this would produce the same results. Furthermore, she decided to teach this lesson to her internship class, as they were not responsive to their own teacher. She stated, "So, with [designing my own inquiry] lesson, it was kind of putting that to the test. Can I do it?" The following describes her experience.
   And my goal was how to get the class to
   do something as a whole for Earth Day. It
   made me really excited because, after that
   lesson, the kids are coming up to me, and
   they're like, "Oh, Miss, now I'm recycling
   at home" and "Oh, Miss, I'm not using my
   paper bags. I made my mom buy me a
   lunch box instead" and things like that.
   And so I saw that they were actually using
   what I was teaching them and, you know,
   it took me a really long time to get that
   lesson together. At the end, it just came
   together. And I was really, really pleased
   with the results. In fact, at the end of the
   year, they were able to still explain to me
   in detail what happens to the earth if we
   don't reduce, recycle, and reuse.

Dani realized that she could indeed design her own inquiry lesson, and knew it was successful from the reactions of the children.

Experiencing the Synthetical Moment

As Vygotsky (1978) posited, when a learner synthesizes experiences mediated by the cultural tools and artifacts, a synthetical moment occurs as that learner reflects abstractively and is able to conceptualize meaning as a whole. Dani described the moment when this occurred:
   When I had my little aha moment, it was
   really interesting. I was reading one of
   the articles you gave us to read about
   experience and how experience is important.
   A couple of days before, I had this
   conversation with my dad. I was telling
   him about one of my friends, and I said,
   "Dad, I tell her, and I tell her, and I tell
   her, and she just doesn't get it." And he
   says, "Well, Dani, you can tell someone
   until you're blue in the face, but until
   they experience it on their own, they're
   not going to learn it." And I was like,
   "Yeah, you're right," and just whatever.
   Then I'm sitting there reading that article,
   and it was just like, thunk! ... It was like
   something just like hit me on the head. I'm
   sitting there, and I literally said, "Oh, my
   gosh!" I think what amazed me the most
   is that it was experience that I had had.
   It was understanding it myself and going
   through it myself. I went through it. It was
   a complete 180, like from 0 to 60 in just
   one little paper. It all just came together.
   It was in the mix already, and it was just
   getting there, getting there, getting there.
   It just finally locked into place, and that's
   when I opened my eyes completely ... I
   realized--that's what she's been talking
   about to us this whole year, you know,
   inquiry. And that's what we've been doing.
   So, after that, it was kind of like, "What
   else have I missed?" I was reading these
   articles, and I was learning it, but, you
   know, I wasn't really. I was thinking about
   this yesterday, "What was it like?" 'Cause
   I learned it, I felt like I did it on my own,
   and I understood what you were teaching
   us ... You didn't say, "Here. You have to
   learn it this way."

Reading articles assigned in the methods courses had potential for scaffolding learning, as preservice teachers reflected on how these readings related to what they were experiencing in classrooms as student teachers. For Dani, this scaffolded understanding created a significant moment for her. She metaphorically described it:
   When you're watching a 3-D movie, it's
   kind of blurry without the glasses. You're
   understanding what's going on, sound and
   everything; but you have to experience it
   in order to fully understand it. So when
   you put those glasses on, that's when you
   see the picture completely clear, and you
   completely understand what it is. That's
   what happened to me. When I was reading
   that article, I just put those glasses on,
   and I said, "That's what she's been talking
   about!" And everything I looked at after
   that was just completely different to me
   ... It just started making so much sense
   to me ... Ever since then, my whole views
   on education and everything had just done
   a complete 180. And I think my role of
   what a teacher should be has completely
   changed from when I first got into the education
   program. It totally flipped on me.
   After that, I'm reading these articles, and
   I start to notice things in the classroom.
   Then I started to think about things, and
   I started to observe what's going on. After
   doing my FOSS lesson and being excited
   about it, I think that's the process of me
   putting on my glasses. I think that's when
   I was getting to that point of seeing it a
   bit differently.

In her description of this transformative moment, she was excited and smiling exuberantly. Dani was liberated. Later she shared with Author Villa a decision she had made at the outset of her final year in her undergraduate studies: She had decided that she did not want to be a teacher and upon graduation would seek another career. However, after this transformation, she said that teaching was something she was now passionate about and knew was her destiny--something she would do for the rest of her life.
   [This past year] was life-changing. I
   started one way at the beginning, and it
   just totally flipped at the end ... [What
   I learned from all this is] it can be done,
   and I learned that it doesn't matter your
   population, because I've seen it done in
   three different classrooms with three
   completely different students: Ones who
   were ridiculously bad; ones who, like in my
   class, are used to following the rules, and
   everything is by the book; and this other
   class that I just didn't know anything
   about. At the end of every day, I would
   sit there and reflect, and I said, "It can be
   done, and it worked." At the end of every
   single lesson, I sat there, and I said, "It
   does work." And these kids are still talking
   about it even after the lessons.


Preservice teachers' perceptions of what it means to be a teacher are typically informed by traditional pedagogical methods of direct instruction that they experience in their formative years as a pre-college student. As mentioned earlier, Lortie's (1975) sociological study suggested that teachers learn how to teach by observing those teachers who taught them.

This way of knowing what it means to teach is further reinforced during student teaching as prospective teachers engage in and learn the practice of experienced teachers as they interact in the everyday activity of schooling. Too often the everyday activity is interpreted and reified in the following way: Teachers are the experts who deliver knowledge to students who are the consumers of that knowledge rather than intellectual beings capable of constructing their knowledge. Freire (1970) coined this concept banking where learners are perceived as empty vessels to be filled by a teacher's knowledge (p. 61).

In this case study, Dani exerted agency to further investigate inquiry as a pedagogical method and reject what she was experiencing as a student teacher under the tutelage of her mentor. She developed understanding of what it means to teach inquiry and allow children to generate their own knowledge.

The cultural tools of the systematic structure of the inquiry materials and use of a lesson study process with its engagement in dialogic interaction and reflection with others contributed to developing this agency. With these materials and process as scaffolding support structures, Dani was able to make the necessary connections to extract and abstract what it means to do inquiry. This process developed over almost two full semesters in a spiral manner, as Vygotsky (1986) posited, where Dani re-visited familiar spaces with new understandings, as her conceptual understanding was materializing and concretizing. As suggested by Fosnot and Perry (2005), learning is complex and non-linear, and is a continual process of negotiating meaning and modifying our interpretation of meaning.

During this process, Dani began to realize the effectiveness of an inquiry method with ELLs in a bilingual class. This comes as no surprise as inquiry methods in an elementary science classroom "set the context for the learners' development of domain-specific language" (Villa, 2010). As a result of Dani's experience with ELLs, she developed epistemic curiosity and systematically selected a classroom of children with behavioral issues to test inquiry. Again these children responded in positive ways.

She then designed an inquiry lesson for the children in her own student teaching classroom to determine (1) if she was capable of creating such a design, and (2) if children were capable of generating their own knowledge sans the teacher's direction. With favorable outcomes to her analyses, Dani was positioned for engaging in a synthetical moment, the culmination of what Vygotsky posited occurs when a learner realizes how seemingly disparate objects are unified into a single concept rather than being viewed as discrete objects.

To describe her synthetical moment of transformation, Dani used the metaphor of viewing a 3-D movie. In their discursive analysis of metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) posit the use of metaphors as a mechanism to explain an experience with an express purpose of comprehension. "Metaphors allow us to understand one domain of experience in terms of another" (p. 117).

The abstractive nature of Dani's aha moment resulted in her use of a metaphor for explanation. She mentioned wanting to re-read papers given to her in her methods courses, i.e., Dani desired to re-visit familiar spaces with her newfound knowledge, evidence of learning as a spiral process. Through analysis and synthesis, Dani united and separated the concept of what it means to do inquiry. "In genuine concept formation, it is equally important to unite and to separate: Synthesis and analysis presuppose each other as inhalation presupposes exhalation" (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. 135-136).


Many, if not most, educators agree that reflection is an essential element in constructing understanding of a domain-specific discipline, such as mathematics or science. In their 30-year study of learning mathematics using a constructivist perspective, Confrey and Kazak (2006) noted reflection as fundamental for constructing understanding of mathematics. Correspondingly, John Dewey (1916) asserted science knowledge, or construction of understanding of science principles, as "the outcome of methods of observation, reflection, and testing which are deliberately adopted to secure a settled, assured subject matter" (p. 256).

What we have demonstrated here is the case of a prospective teacher who actively and systematically engaged in such a process of observation, reflection, and testing to understand inquiry as a pedagogical method. Kolb (1984) underscores this notion of learning as a process in the following:

If the education process begins by bringing out the learner's beliefs and theories, examining and testing them, and then integrating the new, more refined ideas into the person's belief systems, the learning process will be facilitated, (p. 28)

This has implications for re-examining how we teach preservice teachers and, more importantly, for their understanding of teaching as facilitation, and learning as a developmental process. This is especially critical for teaching children from diverse backgrounds since inquiry methods have potential to shift power to the learner who will be in control of their learning and knowledge construction.


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Elsa Q. Villa is a research assistant professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas.

H. Prentice Baptiste is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction of the College of Education at New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.
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Title Annotation:Research
Author:Villa, Elsa Q.; Baptiste, H. Prentice
Publication:Multicultural Education
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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