Research Summary

Balancing teacher and student roles in elementary classrooms: Preservice elementary teachers’ learning about the inquiry continuum

Preservice Teachers’ Ideas about Science Inquiry Shift with Experience

International Journal of Science Education
2012

Inquiry-based approaches to science teaching have played a central role in education reform. According to the National Research Council (NRC), inquiry-based approaches share five key features: engaging in scientifically oriented questions, prioritizing evidence, forming explanations from evidence, evaluating explanations in light of alternative explanations, and communicating proposed explanations.

Putting inquiry-based teaching into practice, especially for new teachers, can be daunting. The materials and planning required can feel overwhelming, and preservice teachers may rarely, if ever, have experienced this kind of approach to science education as a student. Preservice teachers may not realize, however, that while the NRC identified key elements of inquiry, it also acknowledged that these can be put into practice in the classroom along a continuum from more learner-centered or student-directed approaches at one end of the spectrum to more teacher-directed approaches at the other end.

The authors of this study set out to understand how preservice teachers’ ideas about this continuum change over the course of a science teaching methods course, as the preservice teachers experiment with teaching inquiry-based lessons. The researchers focused on six undergraduate teaching students in their final year of an elementary education bachelor’s degree program at a large Midwestern university. The students were enrolled in a science teaching methods course that included both instruction in inquiry teaching and a practicum component that required the students to conduct two science lessons in a classroom. The authors conducted six interviews with each of the preservice teachers throughout the semester, reviewed the teaching students’ journal entries, observed each of the teachers’ two classroom lessons, and reviewed other course assignments.

The authors found that at the beginning of the course, the preservice teachers viewed inquiry as entirely student directed, believing that it would “develop learners’ creativity, self-efficacy, and sense of accomplishment, increase the students’ ownership in the process as well as the content, and they felt that student-directed inquiry was a more authentic science experience for the learners.” As they prepared their first lessons, the preservice teachers included a variety of teaching methods that put students at the center of the experience, allowing them to develop their own questions, design their own experiments, record their own data, and generate their own conclusions.

In enacting their lessons, however, the student teachers encountered a variety of challenges that they hadn’t anticipated. Students didn’t always ask questions related to the specific concepts the student teachers were trying to teach, some were better at self-directed work than others, some students lacked experience in sharing and discussing explanations, and so on. In moving on to their second student teaching experience, the preservice teachers began to embrace more teacher-centered approaches. One preservice teacher explained, “I thought to have inquiry it had to be student led, but now I see that there are certain parts which might work better as teacher-directed.” The teachers included more scaffolding to support students toward the learning goals, and felt relieved that their students could still be engaged in inquiry despite the teacher support.

The authors argue that while preservice teachers may hold initial ideas about the importance of student-led inquiry, it may prove too difficult for a novice teacher to operate at this end of the inquiry spectrum. Leaving open the option of using a more teacher-directed approach can help new teachers be more effective. The authors explain, “In short, to learn to productively engage students in science as inquiry, [preservice teachers] must first internalize the ultimate objective of engaging in inquiry—promoting student learning.”

The Bottom Line

Although experienced teachers may be wary of student-led, inquiry-based approaches to science education, the preservice teachers in this study fell at the other end of the spectrum, believing that inquiry should be student-led to be most effective. When they put their beliefs into practice, though, the preservice teachers found that an entirely student-led approach can be very difficult to manage and did not always lead to the desired learning goals. This research serves as a reminder that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to inquiry-based education, and when it comes to teacher professional development, teachers can feel relieved to know that they can mix and match teacher- and student-led approaches to fit their experience, students, learning goals, and time frame.