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Praxis III Final Paper

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Emily Lovejoy

December 18, 2009
Praxis III

Inquiry and Teacher Support in the Classroom

Many educators believe that the most effective way to lead a class is in a structured environment in which the teacher relays information to the students and the students are expected to retain this information and add it to their existing knowledge base. Contemporary educators' main goal in education is to help students become better, more independent thinkers. Freire (2000), Dewey (1938), and other contemporary educators believe that the best way to help students become better learners is by having less structured classes that emphasize hands-on experiences, utilize group projects and discussion, and have flexible outcomes (Dalke et al., 2007). Teachers need to practice interactive teaching and engage students in inquiry.



What is inquiry?

Inquiry is an interactive type of learning that involves asking questions to find the cause of something. Typically, one’s “answer” leads them to ask more questions. Solutions are not always immediately found when engaging in inquiry. Inquiry involves being inquisitive, and requires students to investigate their surroundings. Students use analytical observations to engage in problem solving.  Inquiry can be useful outside of scientific disciplines, and it can be implemented in all levels of education.
During my time observing classrooms this semester, I observed a few different approaches to inquiry. The types of inquiry that I saw ranged from students being directed and guided in a certain way, to inquiry in which students had a task and were to use an open-ended inquiry process to learn something new.
The type of inquiry that I observed the most was guided inquiry. In guided inquiry, the teachers would introduce a topic and guide/direct their students through a lesson. An example of guided inquiry that I observed was in a 1st/2nd grade class in which the students were asked to brainstorm about a particular topic (i.e. the moon, craters).  On this particular day, they were brainstorming about craters.  The students were called on as they raised their hands and each explained something they knew about the topic. Because the topics that were being discussed were so broad, each student could interpret it however he or she wanted to. Some students would state facts (i.e. “a crater is caused by a meteor, asteroid, or comet”), while others would discuss personal experiences (i.e. “I have seen craters in the moon”). Brainstorming activities allow the teacher to gauge what students already know, and what sort of topics should be covered in the future. After the brainstorming activity, the teacher asked students what they thought it would look like when a small, medium, and large ball were dropped into a box full of white flour and brown coco powder. The students were asked to make hypotheses, and then were able to witness the outcomes.
Another type of inquiry that I saw in classrooms was open inquiry. In this type of exploration, students used information they had previously learned in class to come up with their own experiment or project. In a 5th/6th grade class that I observed, students were able to design their own projects on the brain and behavior after they had learned the vocabulary and other pertinent information relating to neurobiology. One student organized a project on vision and why some people wear glasses. This topic was of particular interest to her because poor vision runs in her family. It seems that the project was extremely effective because the student was working on something that she was passionate about. Often, open inquiry allows students to focus on a topic of their own interest instead of a topic that is assigned to them by a teacher.
The last type of inquiry that I observed in classrooms was discovery-based. Discovery was an open-ended type of inquiry in which students were exposed to something that they would be learning about in the future. For example, when the 1st/2nd grade class was exploring the properties or liquids, solids, and gases, the teacher gave them some “unknowns” and asked the students to play with them and to think about their various properties. Some of the “unknowns” that the students played with were toothpaste, shaving cream, and sand. The “unknowns” showed properties of both liquids and solids. The students played with them and discover the properties of the different types of matter.

Inquiry learning stresses the learning process and does not focus on the outcome of particular lessons.   Guided inquiry, open inquiry, and discovery allowed students to be engaged in hands-on, interactive learning.


My Praxis III Course


            This summer, I had an internship at Bryn Mawr College that helped to develop the summer institutes for K-12 teachers. Paul Grobstein led an institute on brain and behavior, and Wil Franklin led an institute on inquiry science. My Praxis (e.g. independent study) was developed because I wanted to continue the work I did this summer exploring different approaches to education and the difficulties teachers face with strict curriculums and funding. 

            The goal of my independent study was to visit the K-12 classrooms of participants from the summer institutes to gain a better understanding of emergence and inquiry, and how they can be practiced in a variety of settings. As the semester progressed, I focused my efforts on studying student and teacher perceptions of teacher support in the classroom. I researched these questions by observing classrooms two times a week. I additionally met with my mentors, Paul Grobstein and Wil Franklin biweekly to discuss readings that covered topics ranging from teacher support to explanations on how to effectively teach scientific inquiry.

Teacher Support


            As mentioned earlier, a large part of research focused on the distinctive kinds of support that are needed in a classroom. In schools that have a more inquiry-based approach, the type and amount of support students receive differs than that of schools with less inquiry-based approaches.

I based my opinion of schools as having a more or less inquiry-based approach to learning on the conversations I had with teachers and with students on what they thought their role was in the classroom. In classrooms that had more of an inquiry-based approach to learning, the students felt very comfortable going to their teachers to receive help and guidance. The students explained that the teachers were good at explaining basic concepts, but that most of the time teachers would respond to their question with more questions. One student said that it can be frustrating to have to look up information instead of having your teacher just tell you the answers, but that in the long run, it is more beneficial for the students to do it for themselves. The student explained that it teaches them to be better learners and better scientists. Another student in an inquiry-based classroom said that their teacher offers them enough support by pointing students in the right direction. Instead of giving students answers, the teacher would typically point the student to a website or encyclopedia that may help them. In another classroom, a student told me about a “parking lot” bulletin board in their classroom: the purpose of the board is to allow students to post questions that they might not want to say in front of others. At the end of the day, the teacher reads the questions and comments anonymously and answers any thoughts or questions students may have. I really like this concept because it encourages students to be curious and to ask questions, but it allows them to do it anonymously. Another student had different feelings about the amount of support he received from his teacher: he felt comfortable in the classroom and enjoyed being in a supportive environment, but he sometimes felt that he received too much support and just wanted to do things on his own. “It is frustrating when the teacher is too nosy!” the student exclaimed. This inquiry-based approach to learning allows students to develop their own voice and permits them to test their beliefs and compare them to previous research. In this sort of environment, students are able to feel comfortable exploring something new, comfortable in creating, asking, and having questions, and most importantly, are comfortable in not being “right.” I witnessed students taking many risks because they were comfortable with the unknown. This environment often allows the teacher to answer questions with more questions, instead of giving students a direct answer.
I also observed classrooms on the other end of the spectrum in schools that had less of an inquiry-based approach to learning. Most of these schools had strict curriculums that they had to follow, and did not have the same amount of funding that other more schools had. While observing an 8th grade physical science class, the teacher was helping students prepare for an exam by playing jeopardy. To start, the students were asked true and false questions and sentence completions (i.e. “work is measured in ________”). Not a lot of group discussion went on during the game, and it seemed like only the “smart” students were answering questions. The students would only look to others when they didn’t know the answer. This sort of learning experience was interactive and was a great way to get students to learn the material because of the competition between the groups, but it seemed like it was an activity that did not engage all of the students. When I talked to students about teacher support, they described only going to the teacher when they couldn’t figure something out on their own. The students felt that it was helpful to go to the teacher because the teacher tended to give them direct answers. Another student said that she felt uncomfortable if she was wrong because there are other students in the class who know the right answer. Students expressed that they liked to do hands-on learning, but prefer to do it only after it had been shown to them "how it was done."

I observed another teacher’s special education classroom that had 9th-11th graders in the class. Students described the best type of classroom as one that uses technology and hands-on learning. One student expressed that he doesn’t like it when teachers yell at him when he asks questions, and prefers for them to be calm, understanding, and helpful. Another student expressed that he often felt that teachers were “mad” or “disappointed” when he was not “right.” This made the student feel uncomfortable and made him not want to ask questions in the future. It seemed that these students were less comfortable taking risks in the classroom.

As you can see, I experienced a wide variety of observations at very diverse schools. But, it must be considered that I was talking to students of varying ages. The more inquiry-based classrooms were for grades 1st/2nd and 5th/6th, and the schools that had less of an inquiry-based approach to learning were for 8th grade and 9th-11th grade. Additionally, the types of schools and the students that attend the schools must be considered when making generalizations. The 1st/2nd and 5th/6th grade classes were in a private school, while the 8th grade and 9th-11th grade students attended public school.



Risk Taking



For one of the bi-weekly meetings I had with Paul, Wil, and Brie, we read a paper on intellectual risk taking in science.  Risk taking was defined as "engaging in adaptive learning behaviors (sharing tentative ideas, asking questions, attempting to do and learn new things) that placed the learner at risk of making mistakes or appearing less competent than others" (Beghetto, 2007, p. 210).  The study looked at factors associated with risk taking in elementary science classes.  Beghetto found a decrease in risk taking as grade-level went up, but also found that risk taking was correlated to the students' interest in science and their perceptions of teacher support.  From a psychologist's perspective, people rely on fear as a defense mechanism to keep them out of unknown, uncomfortable circumstances.  If students have a fear of taking a risk, they are unlikely to engage in risk-taking activities.  So, it is important that classrooms create a safe and inviting environment for students to learn in so that students are comfortable with asking questions and being "wrong".  Classrooms that offer more inquiry-based activities allow more time for exploration, and thus it is acceptable for the students to test multiple hypotheses and be "wrong."

Concluding Remarks

During my observations at various schools in the area, I learned a great deal about inquiry, emergence, risk taking, and teacher support.  It was interesting to see things from the student's perspective, and then also to hear the teachers' comments on the lessons as well.  I observed guided inquiry, open inquiry, and discovery in many of the classrooms.  The amount of inquiry in each classroom was related to the amount of wiggle room teachers had in the cirriculum.  I talked to students that felt comfortable with the amount of support they received from teachers, and also heard from students who felt threatened by the authority of their teachers which made them uncomfortable asking questions.  My conversations with the students helped me to understand that the key to inquiry is creating a safe space in which students feel comfortable to ask questions and explore on their own.  With a safe space and the appropriate amount of teacher support, students are more likely to engage in risk-taking activities  and overall have a better, more meaningful learning experience.



Beghetto, R. (2008). Correlates of intellectual risk taking in elementary school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46, 210-223.

Dalke, A., Cassidy, K., Grobstein, P., & Blank, D. (2007). Emergent pedagogy: learning to enjoy the uncontrollable-- and make it productive. Journal for Educational Change, 8, 111-130.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York : Free Press.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.