The challenges of teaching physics to preservice elementary

Mark Windschitl, Section Editor
The Challenges of Teaching
Physics to Preservice Elementary
Teachers: Orientations of the
Professor, Teaching Assistant,
and Students
Southwestern Bell Science Education Center, University of Missouri–Columbia,
Columbia, MO 65211, USA
Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA
Received 26 July 2004; revised 2 December 2004; accepted 23 December 2004
DOI 10.1002/sce.20077
Published online 18 July 2005 in Wiley InterScience (
ABSTRACT: The purpose of this study was to understand how the professor, teaching
assistant, and students experienced inquiry-based science instruction in an undergraduate
physics course designed for elementary education majors. During the teaching of a 6-week
electricity unit, the professor faced several challenges: knowing when and how to tell the
scientifically accurate answer, deciding when and how to introduce scientific terminology,
and doing inquiry vs. testing. The professor and the teaching assistant also experienced
several tensions. Their orientations to science teaching differed in terms of their science
learning goals, beliefs about teaching and learning, and beliefs about assessment. The
students experienced frustration with the inquiry approach related to their views of learning,
their need as learners to get the right answer, and the disconnect they felt between the inquiry
approach and the assessment used in the course. During the course they were also building
their views of inquiry and their visions of themselves as future teachers. We analyze the
A previous version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Australasian Science
Education Research Association (ASERA) in Townsville, Queensland, in July 2002.
Correspondence to: Mark J. Volkmann; e-mail: [email protected]
2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
conflicts experienced by the professor and among the professor, teaching assistant and
students in terms of three orientations to science teaching: didactic, discovery, and guided
inquiry. Finally, we discuss implications for building a guided inquiry orientation in science
C 2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed 89:847 – 869, 2005
content courses for future teachers. INTRODUCTION
U.S. national policy documents in science education (e.g., Benchmarks for Science Literacy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993 and National Science Education Standards, National Research Council (NRC), 1996) posit that one of the hallmarks
of effective science instruction is attention to scientific inquiry. The documents themselves,
although clear about inquiry as a goal for science teaching and learning, are less clear about
the problems teachers encounter when they attempt implementation. Examples of successful inquiry practices are illustrated through classroom vignettes (NRC, 1996, 2000). Yet,
despite these glowing pictures of success, inquiry remains largely unimplemented (Weiss,
Banilower, & Smith, 2001). The challenge facing teachers who contemplate change is the
translation of the rhetoric of reform (cf. NRC, 2000) into practices that work in real-science
classrooms. We believe that what is lacking in the science education literature is descriptions
of the questions, problems, and dilemmas that arise during the implementation of inquiry
teaching. Such examples from real classrooms should be made available.
The challenge to teachers is accompanied by the concomitant challenge to teacher educators. That is, how can teacher educators model inquiry in ways that help future teachers
understand scientific inquiry and commit to incorporating inquiry-based strategies into their
own science teaching? We know that teachers who have spent many years as students in
the apprenticeship of observation (Lortie, 1975) very likely will teach science the way they
were taught. All too often that amounts to telling the facts of science, with little attention to
the organizing conceptual or procedural aspects of the discipline. Thus, the challenge for
science teacher educators is to break into the cycle of ineffective science teaching within
and beyond the science teacher preparation program. We believe a first step in this process
is to understand the experience of instructors and students in undergraduate science courses
designed to model inquiry instruction. Our intent is to support reform-minded practice by
adding to the conversation about ways to address the questions, issues, and problems that
are raised when inquiry is implemented. The purpose of this study was to understand the
varying experiences of a faculty member, a graduate teaching assistant, and students, as
they were involved in inquiry-based instruction in an undergraduate physics content course
for future teachers.
The science education research context for this investigation includes studies about the
inquiry experiences of teachers (Abell, 2000; Crawford, 2000; Simpson, 2000), inquiry
experiences of students (Lehrer et al., 2000; Wild, 2000), and dilemmas of classroom inquiry (Hammer, 2000; Smith & Anderson, 1999; Southerland, Gess-Newsome, & Johnston,
2003). Evidence from these studies supports the essential features of inquiry (NRC, 2000)
as viable instructional activities. These features include engaging questions (Lehrer et al.,
2000; Simpson, 2000), attention to data that fit the question (Crawford, 2000; Lehrer et al.,
2000; Wild, 2000), appropriate procedures for gathering data (Crawford, 2000; Lehrer et al.,
2000; Wild, 2000), evidence-based explanations and arguments (Crawford, 2000; Lehrer
et al., 2000; Smith & Anderson, 1999), and opportunities to justify and communicate explanations (Crawford, 2000; Lehrer et al., 2000; Simpson, 2000; Smith & Anderson, 1999;
Wild, 2000). These teaching actions attest to the complex nature of designing appropriate
instruction for inquiry.
However, the complex nature of classroom inquiry leads to a host of problems. For
example, teachers may not share similar instructional goals for science teaching (Abell,
2000; Southerland et al., 2003); teachers may experience frustration when students do not
accomplish subject matter goals or when students do not develop inquiry skills (Smith
and Anderson, 1999; Southerland et al., 2003); teachers may find it difficult to construct
experiences, discussions, and assessments that help students question and expand their
ideas about scientific knowledge (Hammer, 2000; Smith & Anderson, 1999); and significant
progress is hard to achieve without socio-emotional and cognitive challenges for the teacher
(Smith & Anderson, 1999). Furthermore, students (and teachers) may become frustrated
and less successful when asked to make evidence-based claims and build collective models
(Smith & Anderson, 1999; Southerland et al., 2003). Or they may become resistant when
asked to put forth the effort necessary to integrate authoritative knowledge with evidencebased knowledge (Smith & Anderson, 1999; Southerland et al., 2003). Thus, implementing
science classroom inquiry, although beneficial to students, can raise many issues.
We know from our review of the literature that teachers and students may become frustrated during inquiry instruction, but the nature of this frustration is unclear and a solution
to the problem of frustration is not apparent. We also know that teachers may disagree about
the best pedagogical approaches to teaching science, but little is known about how teachers’ and students’ manage problems of practice, especially if their orientations to science
teaching and learning are different. Finally, most studies focus on the K-12 experiences of
teachers and students. A few university-based studies demonstrate the problems experienced
by the instructors (Southerland et al., 2003) or the students (Smith & Anderson, 1999), but
there is an absence of studies that integrate the three perspectives of professor, teaching
assistant, and students. This investigation addresses how these three groups respond to the
same teaching/learning experience. The question that guided this study was: How do the
professor, teaching assistant, and students experience inquiry-based science instruction in
an undergraduate physics course designed for elementary education majors?
We use an orientation frame to conceptualize the approaches to teaching and learning
that were experienced by the professor, the teaching assistant, and the students. We use
this frame in the analysis section to interpret the dilemmas and conflicts that arose. Anderson and Smith (1987) described orientations as “general patterns of thought and behavior
related to science teaching and learning” (p. 99). They identified four science-teaching
orientations: activity driven, didactic, discovery, and conceptual change. For example, the
discovery-oriented teachers use hands-on activities and experiments, and believe students
will eventually develop the appropriate scientific conceptions on their own, through analysis
of results. On the other hand, according to Anderson and Smith (1987), a teacher with a conceptual change orientation pays attention to student misconceptions and uses appropriate
teaching strategies to help students challenge and revise them.
Building on Anderson and Smith, Magnusson, Krajcik, and Borko (1999) also used
the label “orientation,” as a way to categorize disparate approaches to science teaching.
Magnusson and her colleagues defined orientation as teacher knowledge of the purposes
and goals for teaching science at a particular grade level, after Grossman (1990), but also
called an orientation a “general way of viewing or conceptualizing science teaching” (p. 97).
They added five orientations to those proposed by Anderson and Smith, including: academic
rigor, process, project based, inquiry, and guided inquiry. For the purposes of this study, we
draw upon their descriptions of the goals and characteristics associated with the following
orientations: didactic, discovery, and guided inquiry (see Table 1). We select these three
because they are the orientations demonstrated by the players in this investigation.
In 2000, in response to new teaching standards at the state level, our university reformed
its elementary teacher preparation program. This reform included the restructuring and redefinition of 15 credits of science content coursework required of elementary education majors. The science content curriculum planning committee included four professors jointly
appointed in education and the sciences (biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics)
and a geology faculty member. Together they developed a standards-based curriculum that
aimed to model inquiry and teach content aligned with state standards. The new curriculum included specially designed courses for elementary education majors in biology, earth
science, chemistry, physics, and interdisciplinary science, to be taught by these professors.
The new physics course, PHYS 290E: “Physics for Elementary Education,” was the focus
of the present study.
The physics course implementation team included a professor of physics and education (Volkmann) and a graduate teaching assistant in the Physics Department (Zgagacz).
The Goals and Instruction Associated with Orientations to Science Teaching
Goals of Teaching Science
Transmit the facts of
Provide opportunities for
students on their own to
discover targeted
science concepts.
Guided inquiry
Constitute a community of
learners whose
members share
responsibility for
understanding the
physical world,
particularly with respect
to using the tools of
Characteristics of Science Instruction
The teacher presents information,
generally through lecture or discussion,
and questions directed to students are
to hold them accountable for knowing
the facts produced by science.
Student centered. Students explore the
natural world following their own
interests and discover patterns of how
the world works during their
Learning community centered. The
teacher and students participate in
defining and investigating problems,
determining patterns, inventing and
testing explanations, and evaluating the
utility and validity of their data and
adequacy of their conclusions. The
teacher scaffolds students’ efforts to
use the material and intellectual tools of
science, toward their independent use
of them.
Adapted from Magnusson, Krajcik, & Borko (1999, pp. 100–101).
Implementation was designed as a three-stage process. In the first stage (the subject of this
study), Volkmann taught one section of the course while Zgagacz assisted. In stage two,
Volkmann and Zgagacz would each teach one section of the course, and in stage three, six
sections of the course would be implemented by Volkmann, Zgagacz, and four additional
teaching assistants. The course was phased in over three semesters in order to troubleshoot
problems and concerns that arose without the added difficulties that accompany multiple
sections, large enrollments, and large numbers of teaching assistants unfamiliar with inquiry
The PHYS 290E Curriculum
The definition of inquiry that framed the PHYS 290E course derived from the National
Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) and Inquiry in the National Science Education
Standards (NRC, 2000). According to this definition, learners are doing inquiry when they
engage in scientifically oriented questions, give priority to evidence in response to questions,
formulate explanations from evidence, connect explanations to scientific knowledge, and
communicate and justify explanations. According to Bybee (2000), these essential features
of inquiry are implemented to achieve three broad goals: (1) to develop students’ abilities to
do inquiry, (2) to help students understand science subject matter, and (3) to help students
understand the nature of scientific inquiry.
Volkmann’s goals for PHYS 290E were to model inquiry-based instruction and to develop
student understanding of all three of Bybee’s goals. He selected Powerful Ideas in Physical
Sciences (American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), 1996) as the curriculum for
this course, because it provided opportunities for students to do inquiry, to make sense of
physics subject matter, and to understand inquiry as the basis of scientific work. Furthermore, the AAPT curriculum supported the essential features of inquiry (NRC, 2000). The
curriculum consists of student activities, teaching notes, suggested homework activities,
assessment strategies, and multiple-choice test questions for each of four units of study.
Ten to fifteen major concepts of physics are addressed in each of four units. Volkmann
used three of the four Powerful Ideas units in PHYS 290E: light, electricity, and heat. The
electricity unit was the focus of this study.
The Powerful Ideas curriculum represents a guided inquiry orientation as per Table 1.
The curriculum approaches each major concept through a four-step sequence of instruction:
(1) a question calling for student predictions, (2) students sharing predictions, (3) students
observing phenomena, and (4) students developing and sharing evidence-based explanations. The teaching notes suggested “interactive instruction strategies that occur in a social
context where students are actively involved in the construction of new ideas and explaining
physical phenomena” (AAPT, p. 9, 1996).
Volkmann assessed students’ formative understanding through lab write-ups and homework assignments. The lab write-ups chronicled student inquiry actions throughout the four
stages of their investigations. The purpose of the homework was to help students make connections between what they were learning in class and real-world applications. For example,
in one homework assignment, students drew and explained how a flashlight works.
Volkmann assessed students’ summative understanding of the major concepts of physics
through three unit examinations and a final cumulative exam, which included multiple
choice and short answer essay questions. Some exam items came directly from the AAPT
curriculum, and others were instructor designed. Some items replicated what students had
learned in their lab activities, but most involved a slightly new application. Students answered these questions individually, unassisted by lab write-ups or notes. Volkmann chose
this form of summative assessment as a practical consideration, given the large numbers
Figure 1. Multiple choice question.
of students that would be taking the course in the near future, and the number of teaching
assistants to be involved. An example of a multiple-choice item is provided (see Figure 1).
The Instructional Team and Students
Volkmann’s background in physics included undergraduate and graduate degrees in the
physical sciences and physics education and experience as a middle school science teacher
(9 years), high school science teacher (10 years), university physics instructor (2 years), and
university science educator (8 years). His experience with teaching science through inquiry
included using a learning cycle physics curriculum as a high school teacher.
Zgagacz was an international doctoral student in the Department of Physics. Her educational experiences included preuniversity instruction in her home country, undergraduate
education at a U.S. university with a major in physics, and one year as a graduate student
in physics. Prior to PHYS 290E, she spent two semesters as a teaching assistant for lab
sections of an astronomy course. None of her science learning or teaching experiences had
included inquiry.
A physics course was a prerequisite for elementary education majors enrolled in the
science methods course. During the first two stages of the implementation of PHYS 290E,
the elementary education students could choose to take it or PHYS 210, a conceptual
physics course taught through lecture and demonstration. During the first implementation
semester, 24 students chose PHYS 290E. Of the 24 students, most were sophomores, one
was a nontraditional student, 23 were female, and 23 were white. This distribution reflects
the overall population of elementary education students at our university. When students
enrolled, they were told that this course (PHYS 290E) would replace the traditional course
(PHYS 210) over the next three years. According to the academic advisors, most students
made their choice based on availability of time within their schedule. As is typical of
elementary education majors, they felt better prepared in life science and largely unprepared
in the physical sciences. All 24 students finished and passed the course. Their grades ranged
from 62% to 96%, with an average of 82%.
In order to understand instructor and student experiences of inquiry in PHYS 290E,
we combined two different approaches: naturalistic research (Ellen, 1984) and self-study
(Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001). Naturalistic research seeks to make sense of the complex
and real-world disorder of human experience. According to Lincoln and Guba (1985),
naturalistic inquiry is useful for investigations that involve “multiple constructed realities
that can be studied only holistically”; The inquirer and the object of inquiry interact to
influence one another”; “Knower and known are inseparable”; and “All entities are in a
state of mutual simultaneous shaping” (pp. 37–38). This approach is particularly useful in
classrooms where it is difficult to isolate variables and determine causes and effects.
The self-study component focused on problems of practice. According to Bullough and
Pinnegar (2001), self-study involves the investigation of troubles within one’s teaching.
Self-study research addresses the growing dissatisfaction about the value of traditional
approaches in education (Korthagen & Kessels, 1999) by developing a deeper understanding
of the nature of teaching and a greater satisfaction in that work (Loughran, 2002). Self-study
focuses on problems of practice that are representative and endemic to the community of
Both approaches employ ethnographic methods of data collection, including guided interviews and participant observation. Abell gathered field notes of staff planning meetings
(to provide information about how the professor and graduate assistant interacted and the
nature of their pedagogical differences), and field notes from the beginning, middle, and
end of the electricity unit (about 5 weeks in length) to provide an understanding of the
context and practice of the course. She conducted 1-h interviews with the instructor and the
graduate assistant three times (beginning, middle, and end) across the semester (to provide
insight into the beliefs, knowledge, and experiences of the instructors as they enacted the
course); and conducted 1-h, end-of-unit interviews with each of four student volunteers
(to provide the student perspective on inquiry in the course). These four volunteers were
representative of the race, gender, and academic strengths and weaknesses of the class.
We tape-recorded and transcribed all interviews. Data sources for the study also included
Volkmann’s and Zgagacz’s reflection journals (which provided records of their thoughts,
feelings, and actions). The interview transcripts were the primary data source for this paper.
An interpretive analysis frame (Hatch, 2002) was used to make sense of the social situations encountered in this investigation of teaching and learning. Interpretive analysis is
about, “making inferences, developing insights, attaching significance, refining understandings, drawing conclusions, and extrapolating lessons” (p. 90). Interpretive analysis is our
best effort to produce meaning that to make sense of the social phenomena we studied.
To analyze the data, we engaged in a series of individual readings and re-readings of the
data. We wrote possible interpretations in our research journals, discussed emerging patterns, compared these ideas, and looked for points of support or challenge (Hatch, 2002).
Volkmann wrote a first draft and reviewed the interpretations with Abell and Zgagacz.
Volkmann wrote a revised summary, identifying excerpts that supported these interpretations. We generated our final interpretations about the professor, the teaching assistant, and
the students, which we present below.
The first lesson in the electricity unit focused on the idea of circuit. The first activity asked
each student to diagram how a wire might be used to connect a battery and a bulb to make the
bulb light and to share their ideas with members of their small group. Next, each small group
tried their ideas using batteries, bulbs, and wires. They discussed their results in an attempt
to develop a single consensus on how to light the bulb. As students succeeded with lighting
the bulb, they also developed written explanations of the idea of circuit (without necessarily
using the term). Progressing through a similar sequence of steps, the students developed 12
major concepts about electricity. The unit culminated with a summative assessment of the
students’ understanding of these 12 ideas. In the following sections, we highlight challenges
to the professor, to the teaching assistant, and to the students’ within this inquiry setting.
We conclude each section with a summary of the problems encountered.
The Professor’s Experience of Inquiry in PHYS 290E
During the teaching of the electricity unit, Volkmann experienced several challenges in
teaching through inquiry: knowing when and how to tell the scientifically accurate answer,
deciding when and how to introduce scientific terminology, and doing inquiry vs. testing.
A challenge
to teaching science through inquiry is to help students develop evidence-based explanations.
Volkmann attempted to incorporate this essential feature of inquiry (NRC, 2000) into the
implementation of the Powerful Ideas in Physical Sciences curriculum (AAPT, 1996).
However, his prior experience as a high school science teacher resulted in difficulties with
knowing when to and when not to explain. As a middle school and high school teacher,
Volkmann had provided opportunities for his students to learn science through activities.
However, he also valued himself as the content expert and felt that it was his responsibility
to provide succinct explanations of concepts to his students. As a result of these old habits,
Volkmann found it difficult to abstain from providing explanations when PHYS 290E
students requested them. Reflecting on his teaching, he admitted:
Knowing When and How to Tell the Scientifically Accurate Answer.
I am motivated to give them an answer–from old habits–to explain what I want them to
know. Teaching through inquiry means they use evidence that they have gathered to explain
it to themselves. But, when they ask a question, the first thing that comes to my head is the
answer they are looking for. That ties me up in terms of what am I to say to these people.
I’m blocked. These old habits are causing me trouble. (Volkmann, interview #3)
Some students were aware of this conflict that their professor faced. At times, they could
read the struggles in his face with deciding to tell or not to tell.
Stacy: It’s like he’s, you can just tell that he knows the answer and he’d like to tell us, but
just doesn’t quite get there, you know, he just . . .
Abell: So you think he’s struggling with that?
Stacy: Yes, I think he’s wondering, “How much should I tell ‘em?” That, that comes across.
(Stacy, interview)
Being aware of their professor’s struggle invited students to wonder why he refused to
tell them–especially when they were having trouble formulating explanations. Volkmann
realized the students’ frustrations, yet was unsure how to act upon them.
Students know I know, and, and so that results in them thinking I’m some sort of a trickster.
“He knows, but he is not telling us.” And so in that sense, the class cannot model the scientific
world because in the scientific world no one knows the answers, and in the classroom world,
I know the answers and they know I know. (Volkmann, interview #2)
Volkmann attempted to implement instruction in terms of his understanding of inquiry, but
his own past experience as a successful science teacher presented problems. He wondered
how to tell, when to tell, and if he should tell.
Another challenge
to teaching science through inquiry was developing a student-centered classroom. Within
the context of a student-centered classroom, teaching students appropriate scientific terminology means allowing them to use their own terms first, and later helping to replace
students’ terms with scientific ones (Scott, Asoko, & Driver, 1991). The teacher provides
a personal experience in which students can attach meaning to the new terms. Volkmann
encountered three challenges in introducing scientific terminology. First, it was difficult for
him to know when and how to substitute students’ words for scientific terms. Second, it
was difficult for him to know when and how to introduce key scientific terminology. Third,
it was difficult to monitor his use of language. At times, he inadvertently used terms before
introducing them.
Although Volkmann believed it was important to honor student ideas, he also believed it
was important to develop a shared scientific vocabulary. For example, students began using
their term “outside circuit” to refer to a series arrangement and “inside circuit” to refer
to a parallel arrangement. By monitoring his language, Volkmann was able to use student
words such as inside circuit and outside circuit (while sequestering his own). However, he
experienced tension in deciding when and how to ask students to replace their language
with the scientific terms.
Deciding When and How to Introduce Scientific Terminology.
How long should I let the students use their own terms? What meaning do their terms convey
to them and how different are those terms from the ones I want to introduce? Would it be
easier to start with the scientific term? (Volkmann, journal)
It was difficult for Volkmann to know when and how to introduce key terminology—terms
were not used in the introductory stages of the electricity investigations. After wrestling
with a number of challenging activities, many students drew upon their own past knowledge
and experience without needing any introduction to the term or explanation of how to use
it correctly. The problem for the professor was in deciding how to introduce terms that
many students were already using correctly, some were using incorrectly, and a few were
not using. Volkmann wondered,
If most of the students know these terms, then why should we spend valuable class time
introducing something that appears so straightforward? And if I do introduce the terms,
then should I explain them to all the students or should I explain them to the few who are
confused. (Volkmann, journal)
Volkmann frustrated students when he inadvertently used terms before introducing them
to students. For example, when the class moved from the study of a simple circuit consisting
of a battery, bulb, and wire, to a circuit consisting of a battery, a battery holder, a bulb, a bulb
holder, wires and a switch, students became confused. They were not able to follow the flow
through all the parts of the circuit, because they were unfamiliar with how the battery was
connected through the battery holders to the bulb holder, and so on. In his efforts to help
the students understand the more complex circuit, Volkmann used the words “conductor”
and “insulator” without definition or explanation. While most students were familiar with
these terms, a few became confused, as evidenced by their written explanations of circuit.
The failure to develop shared meanings and terminology frustrated these students.
Doing Inquiry vs. Testing. Another challenge to teaching science through inquiry is to
create formal assessments of students’ explanations that are consistent with the approach to
teaching and learning. Volkmann designed tests to measure how well students understood
each major concept about electricity. The test consisted of 25 multiple-choice questions
and three short essay questions. The questions asked students to apply each of the 12 major
concepts to common phenomena that were not addressed in class. For example, a multiplechoice test question designed to address the major concept that current is the same in all
parts of a series circuit asked: “Where will current be the greatest in a series arrangement
of Christmas tree lights?”
An essay question designed to address the same concept asked: “ ‘There is more current
going into a toaster than is coming out of a toaster.’ Tell whether you agree or disagree with
this statement. Explain your answer.” Questions like these frustrated students because they
never heard the professor discuss the arrangement of Christmas tree lighting or how current
flows through kitchen appliances.
Volkmann believed that students should be able to demonstrate their knowledge of physics
and their ability to think clearly: “They should be able to show me that they know physics
and that they are clear thinkers who are capable of using inquiry to understand electricity”
(Volkmann, Journal). The students felt the objective tests were inconsistent with how the
course was being taught. Jessica, one of the four students interviewed, understood the irony
of tests that required a single correct answer given the atmosphere of socially constructed
explanations that pervaded the instruction.
I mean, one day all of a sudden we are just taking a test. . . It’s hard to take something, you
know, so much group work and observations and things like that and then put it into a right
or wrong answer. (Jessica, interview)
Volkmann partially agreed. On one hand, he felt it was important that the test measure conceptual understanding. On the other hand, it was a problem for him that the test did not measure students’ use of inquiry to develop evidence-based explanations. Volkmann reasoned,
The course isn’t just about understanding the powerful ideas. The course is also about making
sense of how we go about the process of inquiry. And they should have some understanding
of that, and there’s nowhere on the test that really gets at that idea. (Volkmann, interview #3)
Volkmann had concerns about how teaching assistants, who were unfamiliar with inquiry,
would be able to evaluate exams that measured inquiry. He believed the difficulties outweighed the benefits. “So we tended to go the objective route with multiple choice and
essay questions” (Volkmann, interview #3).
The student scores on the first two unit tests (light and electricity) indicated that they had
developed a fair understanding of the powerful ideas about light and electricity. However,
he felt that tests sent the message to the students that understanding concepts was more
important than understanding how they made sense of them through inquiry.
Reflections on Orientation. As a middle school and high school science teacher, Volk-
mann valued his ability to teach difficult concepts by giving clear explanations. His desire
to explain science through discussion and lecture are indicators of a didactic orientation;
his frequent us of laboratory work as verification further exemplifies this orientation. As a
university professor, he believed his orientation had shifted to align with inquiry. However,
as he began teaching PHYS 290E, he found it difficult to use the guided inquiry orientation
represented by the AAPT curriculum.
Volkmann resisted telling. He worried that if he began to furnish explanations, then
students would respond by stopping their mindful investigations and simply wait for him to
explain—something he had enjoyed doing as a high school science teacher, but something
he believed did not fit with an inquiry orientation. Resisting the temptation to tell, left him
unable to say anything. Students interpreted his silence as evidence that they were expected
to discover explanations without his help. From the students’ perspective, Volkmann held
a discovery orientation. Finally, Volkmann’s decision to use a multiple-choice exam sent a
confusing message to students. They hoped they had discovered what the professor hoped
they had learned.
These contradictions support the interpretation that Volkmann was struggling with three
competing orientations. These include a didactic orientation formed during his 19 years
as a middle and high school teacher, an inquiry orientation that he thought he understood
as a university science methods instructor, and a discovery orientation that resulted from
his attempts to adapt his own views to an inquiry orientation. We will return to these
contradictions when we examine the students’ experiences with inquiry.
The Teaching Assistant’s Experience of Inquiry in PHYS 290E
Zgagacz, the teaching assistant for PHYS 290E, also responded to the course based on her
experience and beliefs about teaching and learning. In several instances, contrasts between
her beliefs and Volkmann’s became apparent (Volkmann & Zgagacz, 2004). Volkmann and
Zgagacz disagreed on the goals of instruction, beliefs about teaching and learning, and
beliefs about assessment—factors involved in teaching orientations.
Beliefs About Goals. As a student, Zgagacz had learned physics, starting in high school
and progressing through graduate school, from textbook and lectures.
I come from an old fashioned method of teaching. I come from Poland, so in Poland, you
know, you sit down and nobody is telling you an easy, in an easy way how to do problems.
You have to read the books, go through it and then figure it out. (Zgagacz, interview #1)
She believed that students learn physics through solitary study from expert texts or expert
individuals. She interpreted the AAPT curriculum to be very different from her experiences.
I have a feeling they [the curriculum writers] want these students to first of all, make
the mistakes they are supposed to make in the beginning, make observations through an
experiment, and figure out that they were wrong, why they were wrong, and get another set
of ideas about um, you know, physics about some physical phenomena. (Zgagacz, interview
When asked if she agreed with the AAPT approach and goals, she responded:
I feel very uneasy leaving them without the right answer. For example, when I go up to a
table where people are saying they think electricity travels in both directions at the same
time. You know, my insides are twisting, and I can’t, I can’t say anything. So I am not saying
anything, I am just trying to well why don’t you try this set up, or why don’t you try this
set up, and see what they are like. No, no, it still travels in both directions. There is nothing
I can do. I as a, as a, you know, as a physicist, I guess, I, you know, I feel terrible leaving
somebody without the right answer. I feel terrible leaving them, I cannot allow these people
to leave my, to leave my class thinking that electricity travels in both directions. I cannot
do that. I mean, this is, I feel that this is my duty to tell them that I’m sorry, you are wrong.
You know, I would, I never figured it out. I was told.
Zgagacz conceived of physics as a body of knowledge, the goal of instruction is for the
teacher to transmit that knowledge to the students. The AAPT curriculum conceived of
physics as a set of powerful ideas students could use to understand the natural world. In
agreement with the curriculum, Volkmann believed the goals of instruction were to help
students learn these major concepts by investigating common physics phenomena through
inquiry. One conflict between Zgagacz and Volkmann stemmed from the basic difference
in their goals for physics instruction. Zgagacz’s beliefs and her goals led to her criticism of
Volkmann’s teaching and of the overall quality of student learning in PHYS 290E.
Beliefs About Teaching and Learning. During one of the early planning meetings,
Zgagacz voiced her doubts about teaching university students through inquiry. “I think they
prefer to be told the right answer, instead of having to wonder about it. I think it’s a little
bit too late for them to start being taught in that way” (Zgagacz, Planning Meeting #6).
Zgagacz wanted to make it easy and painless for them. “So, I want to tell them right away,
“Listen, I found out already, so you don’t have to go through you know, sitting over the
books and, and trying to figure out. I can tell you right away” (Zgagacz, interview #1). This
belief led her to criticize Volkmann’s teaching.
When the class started to study current, Volkmann solicited students’ explanations for
current flow in a simple circuit. He drew every team’s ideas on the blackboard. Zgagacz
believed that the teacher should share only the correct answers with students and that wrong
information only confused them. Volkmann responded that he wanted students to consider
a variety of possible explanations for a phenomenon. He explained that eventually students
would construct an explanation based on the evidence they were gathering. Later, during
an interview, Zgagacz wondered, “What is more important—knowing or learning? To me,
knowing is more important; maybe to him, learning is more important” (Zgagacz, interview
#1). Zgagacz wanted one specific answer for each question. Volkmann wanted students to
make progress toward learning and understanding the major concepts; he expected students
to develop evidence-based explanations, not merely correct answers.
Beliefs About Assessment. Zgagacz thought the purpose of assessment was to distin-
guish the best students from the worst students. “There are ‘A’ students and ‘F’ students and
test items should be written to distribute these students in the proper performance category”
(Zgagacz, interview #1). She was unhappy that the test scores did not count for more of the
students’ final grade in the course.
Abell: So why do you want the tests to be worth more?
Zgagacz: Because that’s the only way to really differentiate between A students, B students,
C students, failing students, telling them apart, you get a distribution, great. Right now most
of them are getting As because Volkmann gives so much credit to the lab work. (Zgagacz,
interview #1)
Zgagacz believed that the purpose of assessment was to value a select few students who
could outperform the rest of the class on the exam. She believed the best exams were those
that resulted in a bell-shaped distribution. This belief contrasted with Volkmann’s hope that
the students’ performance on the test would provide information about what they understood
and where they needed assistance.
Reflections on Orientations. Zgagacz’s experiences, beliefs, and teaching actions fit
well with a didactic orientation. Her learning experiences in high school, undergraduate,
and graduate preparation supported her view of herself as content expert and her perceived
role as communicator of a body of knowledge for students to acquire. Her belief that the goal
of teaching is to explain physics in a clear and efficient manner through lecture, textbooks,
and verification laboratory exercises was indicative of this orientation. Furthermore, her
views of the purpose of examinations aligned well with a didactic orientation. That is, the
exams separated the best students—the ones able to recall information during tests—from
the worst students—the ones who could not.
The conflicts between Zgagacz and Volkmann were demonstrated through thoughtful
discussions about the nature of teaching and learning. Discussions were not aired in front of
the students, rather, differences of opinion were a normal part of the weekly team meetings.
It was clear that Zgagacz brought a strongly held didactic orientation to those meetings.
Although Volkmann struggled internally trying to resolve his own orientation in these
discussions, he typically represented the guided inquiry view of the AAPT curriculum.
The Students’ Experience of Inquiry in PHYS 290E
Like their instructors, the students in PHYS 290E were sorting out their roles in the
course. During class, they worked individually and in groups, writing, talking, and doing
laboratory activities. Sometimes the entire class met to prepare for an activity or to discuss
results, but most of the time, students were engaged in small group activities. This structure
was new and unusual to some students, and they often found themselves frustrated with the
course. However, they claimed to still prefer it to the lecture/demonstration approach. The
data for this section comes from interviews with four student volunteers (Kayla, Jessica,
Manda, and Stacy) given at the end of the electricity unit. We describe their frustrations,
how they built their views of inquiry, and their visions of themselves as future teachers.
We found frequent use of the words “frustrated”
and “frustrating” (5, 9, 9, and 12 mentions, respectively, per interviewee). Students claimed
to be frustrated in a number of different ways in PHYS 290E. They were frustrated because
they had to work to understand the major concepts, because activities took too long, because
they did not get the answers they wanted when they wanted them, and because they had no
way to access correct answers—no textbook and no teacher to provide answers.
The students were not used to thinking during class. This new expectation challenged
and frustrated many students. Kayla said:
Student Frustrations with Inquiry.
I get frustrated during class when we discuss things and people throw out a lot [of ideas]. We
have done an experiment, they throw out their ideas, what they got from it, and then we never
come together, come to a conclusion of what actually happened and why it happened. . . .
I think it’s, it’s really difficult, and I think for all of us to walk in there and do this kind of
approach it’s just, it’s really a dramatic change and something we’re not used to, and, and,
it’s very frustrating. (Kayla, interview)
The nature of each four-step lesson cycle was to help students develop explanations. Some
of the major concepts, such as the simple series circuit, could be constructed in a single
class period, while others required a series of periods. These extended periods of time spent
on related sets of concepts proved to be frustrating to students, as well.
I know everybody gets frustrated, but, um, and they, some people keep saying, they’re
frustrated because we do things. Like we spent so much time with batteries. We were doing
batteries for, you know, every day in class for how long. (Mandy, interview).
The batteries were the focus of three sets of activities. Each sequence was aimed at supporting a related set of concepts. However, students did not see the nuances and felt the
activities were repetitious.
The greatest level of frustration stemmed from the students’ preoccupation with getting
right answers. Students believed that knowing the right answers was key to successful
learning. Stacey spoke for the class when she said,
It’s frustrating, you know, because we don’t know the answers. . . . Because I, I’m the kind
of person that, I, I need answers. I’m doing all this work. I want to know if I’m right or
wrong. (Stacy, interview)
Not having answers exacerbated student frustration with PHYS 290E. This need for answers
was echoed by Jessica when she said, “We never really get straight answers in that class. . . .
That it’s very drawn out and I just am frustrated with it, and I wanted to know right away”
(Jessica interview). Stacy blamed Volkmann for never providing answers:
Professor Volkmann wants you to think, and so he’s not, he, you’ll usually never hear him
give any kind of definite answer. And so he is really not a resource in terms of anything
definite. He tries to lead you in the right direction, but you are never really sure if you are
there or you are not there. (Stacy, interview)
Students also blamed the lack of clear answers on the absence of a textbook. Past science
experiences taught students to value the text as a source of knowledge. Mandy said, “There’s
no textbook for us to open so that we can understand it, and that, it was so frustrating” (Mandy
Finally, students were frustrated because they felt unprepared for tests. The tests were
designed to assess student ability to use the major concepts in each unit to explain realworld phenomena. However, the students believed the tests were designed to measure their
recall of facts. A feeling of panic emanated from Jessica’s statement about tests: “So this
test on Monday, I need to know the right answer for it. So that is very frustrating, because
I don’t have a right answer” (Jessica, interview). Students did not know how to prepare for
a test without expert answers from the teacher or an authoritative text. Stacy described her
preparation for PHYS 290E exams in this way: “studying all your labs without knowing
the answers, you’re studying all the wrong, wrong things” (Stacy, interview).
Despite their frustrations as learners, the students connected
the instructional events of questioning, predicting, observing and explaining to scientific
inquiry. Kayla said,
Student Views of Inquiry.
I think scientists are doing this constant inquiry process, where they are you know, doing
these experiments, and they are trying to see what’s going to happen, make, you know,
making predictions, and then observing it, and I think it, it’s really the whole approach is
more of a think like a scientist type of thing. (Kayla, interview)
Furthermore, Kayla valued how she was pushed to think and to make sense of physics in
terms of her own experiences.
I think you are discovering new concepts, such as, you know, how the light bulb lights, and
things like that, you are discovering that. But to discover that you are going through the
process of inquiry where you have to, you know, this, it’s a big thinking class, and I think a
lot of your other classes just are more answers, answers, answers, and not really engaging
the learner in a lot of thinking beyond the simple definite answer. (Kayla, interview)
Kayla realized that there is more to learning science than learning technical terms or “simple
Although Kayla believed that the daily investigations in PHYS 290E were legitimate
scientific activity, she also believed that new concepts could be discovered. Other students’
shared the use of the term “discovery” in their descriptions of the course. For example,
Stacy said, “Discovery. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. Like I said before, you make your
predictions, test it. . . and see what you discover along the way” (Stacy, interview). Mandy
agreed, “I just call it discovery learning because they aren’t telling us what we should
be learning or what we’re going to find out, we have to discover for ourselves” (Mandy,
interview). These students interpreted their instructor’s goals as wanting them to find the
answers from the activities.
In addition to helping students to understand physics,
Volkmann wanted to prepare the students to become elementary science teachers. All of the
students we interviewed were able to explicitly state this as one of the goals of the course.
For example, Mandy said:
Student Visions for the Future.
He just keeps saying how we can do these things in our classroom, and that stuff, and I think
that drives it. And a traditional, he probably knows that kids don’t like traditional science
classes. They’re boring, they’re tedious, they, you can’t understand them. They’re frustrated
and if you teach it this way, then it’s likeable. It’s not a huge drag. You understand it, and so
then maybe we’ll get fired up about it, and we’ll teach our kids about it. (Mandy, interview)
Mandy’s comments illustrate her positive view of the reformed course as a model for future
teaching. She believed students would learn science better than they would if they learned
science in a traditional course. However, not all students were as positive as Mandy about
her use of Volkmann’s strategies. Kayla projected her frustrations in the course onto her
future students.
I feel like as a teacher, I am going to be happy when I know that my learners are happy
and understand the material. And through this type of practice, it’s really difficult when
you are in the middle of something, to know exactly if you know your learners know what
is happening, and to assess a little. . . . And little kids don’t have a very big attention span
anyway. (Kayla, interview)
Students such as Kayla valued the course but resisted the possibility of confusing her future
students the way she had been confused. By the end of the semester, these students had not
yet resolved their feelings about PHYS 290E. Abell investigated the experiences of Kayla
and Stacy in their elementary science pedagogy course (see Hubbard and Abell, 2005)
and witnessed their continuing tensions with inquiry-based teaching, both as learners and
as future teachers. The results of this investigation clearly indicate that students who had
experienced PHYS 290E understood inquiry more deeply and applied it more readily in the
context of the methods course than those without the PHYS 290E experience.
Reflections on Orientations. The students were frustrated with PHYS 290E because
they wanted to be successful, but they were not getting the assistance they needed to be
successful. The lack of assistance stemmed from (1) the absence of guidance from the professor, (2) the lack of expert explanations from a textbook, (3) the experience of not reaching
consensus or closure on the major concepts, and (4) tests that seemed inconsistent with the
approach used in the instruction. These problems served as obstacles to inquiry because
students equated their high level of frustration with the approach used by the professor—the
approach he labeled as inquiry and they perceived as discovery. What students perceived as
their instructor’s discovery orientation clashed with their prior science classroom experiences and with their desire to get good grades. Given the level of frustration, it is interesting
to note that students did not abandon inquiry. When students stepped outside of their own
learning and thought about their future teaching, at least some of them believed inquiry
offered a better option.
Volkmann studied his own teaching. Ideally, the process of self-study results in concrete
recommendations that improve the quality of instruction. Volkmann used the evidence
gleaned from student interviews to make changes in the second term. He added essay
questions to the multiple-choice tests and Socratic questions to his teaching strategies. But
these changes were superficial. They resulted in minor improvements in the quality of
instruction. However, his reflections on teaching continued as this manuscript developed.
Over this period, he engaged in an interpretive process of analysis where he read, wrote,
and thought about his own actions and the responses of the students. We share results of this
thinking below and return to the discussion of self-study at the conclusion of the discussion.
A good share of the conflict experienced in PHYS 290E was concentrated around the
question of whose job it was to explain physics. Was it the teacher’s job to explain physics
to the students or the students’ job to explain physics to themselves, to each other, and to the
teacher? We examine this conundrum in terms of the conceptual framework of orientation
by asking the following questions: How is knowledge generated within each orientation?
Where is knowledge located? What role do the teacher, the teaching assistant, and the
students play in knowledge generation? We develop this third level of analysis and apply
it to the professor, teaching assistant, and students of this study in an effort to clarify their
experiences of teaching and learning physics through inquiry. This analysis represents the
products of Volkmann’s self-study.
Didactic Orientation
According to Magnusson et al. (1999), the goal of a didactic orientation is to transmit the
facts of science. In this orientation, knowledge is located with the teacher. The role of the
teacher and/or the teaching assistant is to tell this knowledge to the students. The role of the
student is to listen to the teacher and learn the facts that have been provided. We represent
the location and transmission of knowledge for the didactic orientation in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Knowledge transmission in a didactic orientation.
The professor, teaching assistant, and students all exhibited elements of a didactic orientation to science teaching. Volkmann exhibited didactic behaviors as he struggled with
the question of what to explain, how to explain, and how to introduce terms. Zgagacz’s
didactic orientation was demonstrated by her beliefs that telling students answers to their
questions was the clear responsibility of the teacher and that writing incorrect ideas on the
board was not good teaching. The students’ wishes for immediate and expert answers to
their questions exhibited a comfort with didactic instruction.
Discovery Orientation
The goal of a discovery orientation is “to provide opportunities for students, on there own,
to discover targeted science concepts” (Magnusson et al., 1999, p. 100). The discovery
orientation locates knowledge in the phenomenon. The role of the teacher is to select a
particular phenomenon for students to investigate and to furnish appropriate activities with
which to engage students in the phenomenon. The role of the student is to discover the
underlying scientific concept that explains the phenomenon and to use that understanding
to answer the teacher’s questions. Figure 3 represents the location and transmission of
knowledge for the discovery orientation.
The professor, the teaching assistant, and students exhibited elements of a discovery
orientation. Volkmann exhibited a discovery orientation as he made decisions about the
sequence of activities to follow within the curriculum and as he withheld direct assistance
from the students. These actions looked like discovery because they required the students to
make meaning with very little support. Zgagacz believed that scientists discovered physics
concepts through their investigations of nature. However, she did not believe students were
capable or interested in discovering that knowledge. She believed the role of the teacher
was to efficiently explain what the scientists had discovered. The students interpreted what
they were doing in PHYS 290E as discovery. They examined phenomena selected by the
teacher in terms of activities and questions furnished by the curriculum in an attempt to find
the underlying explanations.
Guided Inquiry Orientation
In a guided inquiry orientation, knowledge is constructed—not transmitted—through interactions among the teacher, the phenomena, and the students. The role of the teacher/
teaching assistant is to select a phenomenon of interest and structure a question that
spurs further investigation. The teacher’s focus is on social interactions, rather than on
Figure 3. Knowledge transmission in a discovery orientation.
the phenomenon as the location of knowledge. The role of the teacher/teaching assistant is
to guide students as they think about and discuss their experiences with the phenomenon,
and to offer scientific explanations when appropriate. Thus, the teacher is a partner in the
social construction of knowledge. The role of the student is to interact with the phenomenon,
with other students, and with the teacher as they develop explanations. We represent the
construction of knowledge for the guided inquiry orientation in Figure 4.
Although the curriculum was designed around a guided inquiry orientation, only glimpses
of that orientation appeared in the class. None of the participants in this study exhibited
a guided-inquiry orientation, but the curriculum did. Volkmann held guided inquiry as the
ideal he was striving for. Zgagacz came to understand and believe in a guided inquiry
orientation through extended study with Volkmann after this initial semester (Volkmann &
Zgagacz, 2004). Some of the students started to recognize and believe in guided inquiry
as they engaged in the elementary methods course and as they thought about their future
How does a teacher carry out a guided inquiry orientation? To help us answer this question,
we draw upon Edwards and Mercer (1987) and their landmark work, Common Knowledge:
The Development of Understanding in the Classroom. This book resulted from the evaluation
of science curriculum initiated in the United Kingdom in response to the Plowden Report
(1967), which criticized didactic instruction, and urged its replacement with discovery. The
report described discovery as
Initial curiosity, often stimulated by the environment the teacher provides, leads to questions
and to a consideration of what question it is sensible to ask and how to find the answers.
This involves a great exercise of judgment on the part of the teacher. He will miss the whole
point if he tells the children the answers or indicates too readily and completely how the
answers may be found, but he must not let them flounder too long or helplessly, and can
often come to the rescue by asking another question. (Plowden Report, 1967, paragraph
The Plowden reforms sought to base instruction on a Piagetian foundation. In Piaget’s words,
“Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself,
the child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely”
(Piaget, 1970, p. 715).
Figure 4. Knowledge construction in a guided-inquiry orientation.
In contrast, Edwards and Mercer (1987) brought a Vygotskian framework to their evaluation. They believed that
The ways in which both children and adults appear to reason about things has been shown
to be closely bound up with the nature of the social transaction and discourse within which
the reasoning is done. (p. 21)
In their investigation, they found that students were unable to discover explanations without
the surreptitious assistance of the teacher. The kind of assistance they observed consisted
of teachers giving students answers when they appeared to struggle.
The teacher’s dilemma is to have to inculcate knowledge while apparently eliciting it. This
gives rise to a general ground-rule of classroom discourse, in which the pupils’ task is
to come up with the correct solutions to problems seemingly spontaneously, while all the
time trying to discern in the teacher’s clues, cues, questions and presuppositions what that
required solution actually is. (Edwards and Mercer, 1987, p. 126)
The hidden curriculum supported students learning answers to questions without understanding meaningful connections. According to Edwards and Mercer, students did not learn
explanation-oriented knowledge, rather, they learned algorithmic, ritualized knowledge.
Edwards and Mercer (1987) offered an alternative—the building of common knowledge
through discourse and action. They described common knowledge as consisting of two
essentials: context and continuity. Context consists of the ideas that are being considered,
and continuity is the continuation of dialog about those ideas. In classroom dialog between
students and teacher, there is a power differential. Edwards and Mercer recognized that the
teacher has control over the knowledge that the students are learning. However, teachers are
charged with the responsibility to scaffold knowledge for student learning. The “successful
process involves the gradual handover of control from teacher to learner” (p. 158). The
goal of education is to transfer competence, such that the student is capable of independent
action. Autonomy may be achieved,
As the learner becomes able to do alone what could previously be done only with help. In
formal education, this part of the process is seldom realized. For most pupils, education
remains a mystery beyond their control, rather than a resource of knowledge and skill with
which they can freely operate. (p. 158)
To achieve autonomy, Edwards and Mercer recommended several actions, including (a)
discourse, (b) scaffolding support, (c) incremental removal of support as students gain
competence, and (d) handing-over control from teacher to student. These actions engage
the student in meaningful learning that leads to independent action.
How do these actions inform our thinking about guided inquiry? Inquiry is grounded
in the asking of scientifically oriented questions (NRC, 2000). Yet, unless students have
learned what makes a good question to investigate, they will need guidance. For example,
students may need practice at framing productive questions (Elstgeest, 2002), or assistance
evaluating questions, or help with developing selection criteria for choosing appropriate
questions (Jelly, 2002). In short, a scaffold must be erected that supports the learning of
questioning skills. As the class comes to understand how the right question provides context
and continuity for investigative actions, students develop a common knowledge that extends
beyond the class. As expertise grows, support is withdrawn. Successful instruction leads to
autonomous question-asking abilities.
Volkmann made a number of instructional choices in good faith, but his choices did not
provide the kind of support students needed. Instead of gaining confidence, students felt less
sure and more anxious. His indecision about when to tell, about when and how to introduce
terms, and his expedient choice of an objective test did little to quell student frustration.
Without the development of a context for discussion, no continuity could evolve. In the
absence of context and continuity, no common knowledge about physics or inquiry could
be established. In the absence of common knowledge, students remained
‘Scaffolded’ like some supported structure, unable to function independently or outside the
precise context and content of what was ‘done’ in the classroom. (Edwards and Mercer,
1987, p. 167)
Self-study is an ongoing endeavor. In this study, self-study was initiated when Volkmann
began planning and implementing the course. However, the self-study did not stop with the
teaching of the course. As the writing of this manuscript progressed, Volkmann continued
thinking about how students perceived him in terms of discovery teaching and how he
wanted to be perceived in terms of guided inquiry. He learned that the process of changing
orientations is not as simple as learning new teaching strategies. He learned that changes
in orientation can result from self-study, but the study must involve deep understanding
of one’s beliefs and values about learning. Understanding where knowledge is produced
provided an interior structure that Volkmann could use as he reconsidered strategies that
support the essential features of inquiry (NRC, 2000).
According to Weiss et al. (2001), only 16% of the elementary teachers, 27% of the
middle school teachers, and 20% of the high school teachers in the US require students to
supply evidence-based explanations to support claims. Unless students have opportunities
and receive guidance as they investigate phenomena, they will not develop the abilities to
perform inquiry. Discovery-oriented teachers believe inquiry is the same as discovery, and
didactically oriented teachers think of themselves as the source of science knowledge (NRC,
2000). Neither of these orientations is likely to influence teachers to scaffold activities that
help students construct evidence-based explanations. Volkmann’s experience shows us that
unless practices change there is little hope that an innovative curriculum such as Powerful
Ideas in Physical Science (AAPT, 1996) will have much impact.
Volkmann’s and Zgagacz’s experiences suggest that the reason teachers are not implementing inquiry is because the beliefs, values, and goals that support the teacher’s orientation
are at odds with those that support guided inquiry. For example, if teachers value their own
questions, their own evidence, and their own explanations more than their students’, then
their goals will be focused on helping students recite only the accepted explanations. These
teachers will ignore student questions and leave no time for students to gather evidence,
much less to develop explanations. Student will be encouraged to learn the facts and to
compare their factual recall to an answer key.
The first step in supporting inquiry is promoting the desire to change. The second
step is to help teachers understand where learning occurs. Unless teachers’ value student to student and student to teacher interactions as the location of knowledge generation, it is unlikely that they will learn the strategies necessary for the support of guided
inquiry. These strategies include asking questions, predicting outcomes, deciding what
data to collect, constructing arguments, comparing arguments, devising new tests, making evidence-based claims, comparing claims to other scientific work, and communicating
and justifying claims; in short, strategies that support and scaffold the essential features of
inquiry (NRC, 2000).
Implications for teacher education are that unless professional development and preservice teacher development programs include learning and practicing the appropriate scaffolding strategies, then implementation of inquiry is unlikely to succeed. We believe the
difficulties described in this study have implications for future reform initiatives—especially
those seeking to influence the way science will be taught.
Studies of classroom-based instruction demonstrate the need for more practice-based
information about classroom inquiry (Abell, Martini, & George, 2001; Bybee, 2000; Keys
& Bryan, 2002). We recommend further research that examines the experience of both
teachers and students as they embark on journeys of classroom inquiry—especially those
that investigate teacher’s beliefs, actions, and orientations.
Based on the experiences in this course, we recognize that inquiry is difficult to initiate for
professors, teaching assistants, and students. However, we believe that if learning through
inquiry is to become a reality in today’s schools, then university science courses must
model inquiry so that preservice teachers may experience it. Breaking the cycle of teachercentered didactic science instruction is well worth the effort required to initiate inquiry
Inquiry in Undergraduate Physics Research Project: Student Interview Protocol
1. What are the goals for you as a learner in this class?
2. What roles do the instructors play?
3. I’ve heard him talk about and use the word inquiry to describe what is going on in
this class. What does that word inquiry meant to you?
4. Do you think that this class is any different from your other science classes that you
have had before?
5. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about evaluation of the course. How are you
being evaluated for your grade in this course?
6. To what extent do those kinds of assessments represent what you are getting out of
the course?
7. Did you learn anything about the flow of electricity through the activities?
8. Can you think of a specific time when you were confused in terms of electricity?
9. Does this course teach you anything about science and how science is supposed to
10. Does this course model how you might teach science with elementary kids?
11. What other science classes have you had here?
12. Do you think the professor and the TA have the same goals as you and the same goals
as each other, or do you think they are different in any way?
13. Is it ever good to be frustrated?
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