A comparison of exemplary biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry

Authors

  • Wayne Breslyn,

    Corresponding author
    1. Science Teaching Center, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA
    • Science Teaching Center, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA
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  • J. Randy McGinnis

    1. Science Teaching Center, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA
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Abstract

Teachers' use of inquiry has been studied largely without regard for the disciplines in which teachers practice. As a result, there is no theoretical understanding of the possible role of discipline in shaping teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. In this mixed-methods study, conceptions and enactment of inquiry for 60 National Board Certified Science Teachers (NBCSTs) across the secondary science disciplines of biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics were investigated. A situated cognitive framework was used. Through the analysis of portfolio text (n = 48) and participant interviews (n = 12), themes emerged for participants' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. Findings suggested that disciplinary differences exist between NBCSTs' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. Furthermore, individuals teaching in more than one discipline often held different conceptions of inquiry depending on the discipline in which they were teaching. A key implication was the critical importance of considering the discipline in understanding science teachers' varied conceptions and enactment of inquiry. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed96:48–77, 2012

INTRODUCTION

Inquiry has been a longstanding area of sustained research and discussion in the science education community worldwide. Even with widespread agreement that inquiry should be a meaningful part of students' science education, the amount of inquiry present in science classrooms is limited (Abd-El-Khalick et al., 2004; Fenichel & Schweingruber, 2010; National Research Council [NRC], 1996). Barriers such as a lack of planning and instructional time, insufficient materials, and inadequate professional development have frequently been cited in the research literature. While these barriers have received considerable attention, the influence of the science discipline on teachers' use of inquiry has largely been ignored. Research at the secondary departmental level (e.g., English, mathematics, and science) has shown that disciplinary differences do exist and do influence instruction (Grossman & Stodolsky, 1995). However, there exists a dearth of research on differences within science departments and on disciplinary differences in science teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry.

The purpose of this study was to examine the fundamental issue of whether science discipline influences teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. We used the framework of situated cognition to guide and interpret our investigation of exemplary biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics teachers. The situative perspective (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Greeno, 1997; Putnam & Borko, 2000) has been found to be a productive framework for exploring contextually and socially rich settings such as those found in classrooms where teachers practice. Because our study focused on teachers' conceptions, enactment, and goals for inquiry teaching, both context and culture were important constructs to include in our analysis. We analyzed portfolios from 48 National Board Certified Science Teachers (NBCSTs) and participant interviews with 12 additional NBCSTs to identify and describe differences in teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry and to investigate the possible influence of the context of science discipline on teachers' use of inquiry.

RATIONALE AND RESEARCH QUESTIONS

Professional development leads to changes in teachers' conceptions about inquiry (Luft, 2001; Lustick & Sykes, 2006; Park & Oliver, 2008; Supovitz & Turner, 2000). Still, with limited time and resources, there are limited opportunities for professional development in secondary schools. These limitations make it essential that professional development be designed and conducted with an understanding of science teachers' varying conceptions of inquiry.

The study centered on two primary research questions:

  • 1.How does exemplary secondary science teachers' discipline (biology, chemistry, earth science, or physics) influence their conceptions, enactment, and goals for inquiry-based teaching and learning?
  • 2.How does teaching in more than one science discipline influence exemplary secondary science teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry in each of those disciplines?

At the departmental level in secondary schools (e.g., English, mathematics, and science), research has shown that disciplinary differences exist and influence instruction (Grossman & Stodolsky, 1995). In the current study, it was thought that such differences also may exist between the disciplines of biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics within science departments.

A number of researchers and philosophers of science have noted differences between the science disciplines of biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics. Mayr (2004) argues that biology should be considered an autonomous discipline with a conceptual framework different from the physical sciences. Schwab (1968) states that some fields such as physics, where tasks tend to be well structured with more readily verifiable knowledge, tend more toward fundamental principles. Ault (1998) describes a series of discipline-based criteria for excellence in geology education. In each case, an argument has been made for the existence of disciplinary differences in scientific inquiry.

Disciplinary differences can be found in the realm of professional scientific inquiry. Knorr-Cetina (1999) studied a group of molecular biologists studying protein synthesis and a group of high-energy physicists working with particle colliders. Molecular biologists were found to be more experiential and individualistic. In contrast, high-energy physicists worked in larger collaborative groups, focused more on semiological aspects of inquiry, and placed less emphasis on the empirical. While there are large differences between inquiry in the secondary classroom and professional laboratories, it does suggest that disciplinary differences may also be present at the secondary level.

A relevant line of research identified by Lederman (2007) is whether conceptions of the nature of science and scientific inquiry are universal or specific to scientific disciplines. While research suggests that differences exist in how scientists engage in scientific inquiry, disciplinary differences may not extend to their epistemological views of the nature of science. Schwartz and Lederman (2008) found in a study of 24 scientists from various disciplines that scientists' experiences and individual context were more closely associated with how they viewed aspects of the nature of science rather than the discipline in which they worked.

Although scientists in the study were similar in their overall views of the nature of science, subtle disciplinary differences emerged. For example, theoretical physicists in the study were found to be “most notably distinct” in their views (Schwartz & Lederman, 2008, p. 762). Chemists and life scientists in the study tended to be more experimental in their investigative approach. The researchers speculated that these differences may be related to discipline or investigative approach. Despite these differences, scientists' views of the nature of science did not appear to follow broad disciplinary trends.

One pressing question is whether research on practicing scientists can be relevant to research on secondary science teachers. We believe it is probable that if the structure of the discipline itself leads to differences between practicing scientists then these differences will also be manifest at the secondary level. Situated in the context of each discipline, scientists and teachers alike make decisions about inquiry based on the theories, experimental tools, and traditions in their discipline. Therefore, we argue that differences in conceptions and enactment of inquiry should exist with both scientists and secondary science teachers.

Prior research with practicing scientists suggests that disciplinary differences may exist in teachers' conceptions of inquiry at the secondary level. Our research builds on these findings and explores disciplinary differences in teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry in secondary science education. Initially, research centered upon identifying and describing disciplinary differences in teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. During the study, unanticipated findings arose indicating that teachers could hold multiple conceptions and enactments of inquiry. Owing to the potential importance of these findings, teachers' multiple conceptions of inquiry became an additional focus of the study.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK

Developing an understanding of the role of discipline in teaching with inquiry requires a theoretical framework to manage both the complex nature of teaching and the many contextual factors present in the classroom environment. In this study, we used situated cognition as our theoretical framework because it is sensitive to the contextual and cultural aspects of teaching. Previous research in science education has found the situative perspective to be a valuable tool for studying teaching with inquiry (Crawford, 2007; Friedrichsen & Dana, 2005; Windschitl, 2004) and professional development (Borko, 2004).

The situative perspective posits that knowledge cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs (Brown et al., 1989). According to Lave and Wenger (1991), learning is dependent upon context, is socially negotiated, and takes place through enculturation into communities of practice. In this sense, the situative perspective emphasizes systems of interactions rather than individual behavioral or cognitive processes (Greeno, 1997).

While not as much research has been done with teachers, Putnam and Borko (2000) present a description of how the situative perspective can be used to study teacher learning. Building on recent research, they conclude by stating that the situative perspective, with its view of cognition as social, situated, and distributed, offers a framework for studying teaching and teacher learning.

For the current study, we expected that teachers' conceptions of inquiry would be related to the context in which they teach secondary science in an inquiry-based manner. The malleable and context-dependent nature of conceptions of scientific inquiry can be seen in how teachers describe inquiry and in how they enact it in the classroom context. Teachers often portray inquiry in one way but enact it in a different manner (Lotter, Harwood, & Bonner, 2007; Luft, 2001; Wallace & Kang, 2004). That is, science teachers' general conception of inquiry changes when placed in specific classroom contexts.

The situative perspective is also informative in the study of secondary science teachers teaching in more than one discipline. If science teachers' conceptions of inquiry were influenced by the disciplinary context in which their teaching is situated, it would be expected that teachers could hold multiple conceptions of inquiry. For example, a science teacher may approach inquiry in biology differently than he or she does in chemistry or physics. Several studies support the idea that teachers can hold more than one conception of inquiry (Lotter et al., 2007; Luft, 2001; Wallace & Kang, 2004). Our second research question investigates these multiple conceptions using a situative framework.

A study by Guerra-Ramos, Ryder, and Leach (2010) investigating Mexican primary school teachers' understanding of the nature of science highlights the importance of adopting a situative perspective to study teachers' ideas about science in the pedagological context where they occur. Guerra-Ramos et al. argued that the situative perspective, in particular, allowed them to take into account the context in which participants' ideas about the nature of science were located. Similar to the work of Guerra-Ramos et al., setting was an essential component for us to consider in our study that examines possible connections between conceptions of inquiry and the discipline of the science teacher.

In our study, we speculate disciplinary differences might arise as a result of the structure of the discipline itself and in the context of the science classroom in which inquiry is taught. While research with practicing scientists leads us to believe that disciplinary differences exist, the varying contextual features of schooling and the science classroom also need to be considered. Situated cognition offered us a framework for exploring how the structure of the discipline and the classroom context influence teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. Informed by a situative framework, our study centered upon two key constructs: inquiry and teachers' conceptions.

Inquiry

Over the past several decades, a rich literature on inquiry, the nature of science, and teachers' conceptions has developed (Brickhouse, 1990; Keys & Bryan, 2001; McGinnis, Parker, & Graeber, 2004). Despite this body of research, our current theoretical understanding of teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry does not consider the discipline in which they teach. Therefore, our study sought to understand the possible relationship between the disciplines of biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics and teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry.

Inquiry is defined in many different ways in the literature and by science teachers. We needed to decide upon a definition that was useful to guide the design of the study. Defining inquiry is not a trivial task. Much of the meaning is context specific, and it is not always possible to know what the speaker intended (Anderson, 2007). Confusion about the meaning of inquiry may in part have a negative influence on its use in the classroom. DeBoer (2004) stated,

… but perhaps the most important reason why inquiry teaching has not enjoyed more success is because its essential nature is often misunderstood.

In the research literature, there are considerable differences in how inquiry is described. It often goes by different names: discovery learning (Wise & Okey, 1983), project-based science instruction (e.g., Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, & Soloway, 1994), and “minds-on” inquiry (Duschl & Gitomer, 1997). For this study, we decided that the National Science Education Standards (NSES) offered a useful vision of inquiry. The standards were developed over several years with extensive input from policy makers, researchers, teachers, parents, and others involved in science education (Collins, 1998). Considering the thorough and inclusive process used to develop the standards, we believed they could be considered a consensus view of inquiry for K-12 science education. Consequently, the definition of inquiry presented in the Standards was used to conceptualize the design of the study and develop instrumentation.

Inquiry is often framed as consisting of both process skills and understandings about the nature of science (e.g., NRC, 1996). Process skills include designing investigations, collecting, and analyzing data. Understandings about the nature of science consist of aspects of the philosophy and sociology of science, such as the tentative nature of theory or the role of creativity in experimentation. Together, the process skills and understandings are intended to provide an accessible, authentic image of how scientists engage in their practices of studying the natural world.

In the NSES, inquiry is presented as Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry and Understandings about Scientific Inquiry (NRC, 1996). Abilities are primarily process skills, whereas understandings deal with the nature of science. In this study, the National Board (NB) portfolio entry, Active Scientific Inquiry, provided data on teachers' goals and enactment of the process skills involved in inquiry. Data on teachers' understandings of the nature of science, which are not emphasized in the NB portfolio guidelines or scoring rubric, were accessed using the Views of Science–Technology–Society instrument (Aikenhead & Ryan, 1992). While the ability to do scientific inquiry and understandings about the nature of science were separated for the purpose of data collection and analysis, we hold the belief that they interact to form teachers' visions of inquiry. In this study, participant interviews were used to explore this interaction and provide additional data about teachers' conceptions of inquiry.

Teachers' Conceptions and Enactment of Inquiry

A plethora of research has been conducted on inquiry and teacher beliefs (Brickhouse, 1990; Kane, Sandretto, & Heath, 2002; Nespor, 1987; Pajares, 1992) and conceptions (Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002; Lotter et al., 2007; Wallace & Kang, 2004) about inquiry and the nature of science. Still, as Windschitl (2004, p. 481) stated,

… little is known about how teachers conceptualize inquiry, how these conceptions are formed and reinforced, how they relate to work done by scientists, and if these ideas about inquiry are translated into classroom practice.

One inadequately understood aspect is the influence of discipline on teachers' conceptions of inquiry. In this study, participants' conceptions were defined as mental images of what they termed inquiry. We see conceptions as growing out of beliefs about teaching and learning and past experiences with inquiry such as preservice training, professional development, and past experiences doing inquiry.

In an in-depth study of three secondary science teachers, Lotter et al. (2007) constructed a model made up of a limited number of core conceptions. Their model consisted of teachers' knowledge and beliefs about science, the learning process, students, and effective instruction. Similarly, the current study sought to understand an additional dimension influencing teachers' conceptions of inquiry: the role of discipline.

Little attention has been given to the conceptions of inquiry held by teachers with classes in more than one discipline, however. Several studies have found that teachers can hold varying conceptions depending on the context in which they teach. Wallace and Kang (2004) observed two major belief strands about inquiry in a multiple within-case study of six experienced high school teachers. Operating from a sociocultural perspective, they found that teachers' beliefs about factors constraining their use of inquiry tended to be more public and originated from school culture. Beliefs that promoted inquiry tended to be more private and centered on what teachers believed about successful science learning.

Studying the science teaching orientations of four highly regarded biology teachers, Friedrichsen and Dana (2005) observed that teachers' orientations differed depending on the course being taught. They reported that science teaching orientations were complex and included affective domain goals, general schooling goals, as well as subject matter goals. From these findings, we wondered whether science teachers who taught in different disciplinary contexts might hold different conceptions and enactment of inquiry. Furthermore, we wondered whether science teachers who taught more than one discipline could hold different conceptions and enactments of inquiry in each disciplinary context.

DESIGN OF STUDY

We used a coordinated mixed-methods design in this study (Greene, 2001). According to Greene, different methods are planned and implemented in a generally separate manner. In this study, the Portfolio Inventory Instrument(PII) analysis, the analysis of portfolio text, and participant interviews were conducted sequentially and could be considered to be individual activities. While each was informed by previous phase of the study, the methods were not mixed until overall inferences were being made. In this sense, each method in the coordinated design contributed to triangulation, complementarity, and expansion of the influence of discipline on teaching with inquiry. Table 1 provides a summary of the study workflow.

Table 1. Study Workflow
PhaseDescriptionSamplePurposeAnalysis
IStatistical analysis of portfolios48 portfolios from 2007 NBCSTsEstablish existence of disciplinary differences on specific aspects of inquiryANOVA based on data from Portfolio Inventory Instrument (PII)
IIText analysis of portfolios48 portfolios from 2007 NBCSTsDefine emerging themes for goals and enactment of inquiryInductive analysis of portfolio text for goals and enactment of inquiry
IIIAnalysis of participant interviews12 NBCSTs from 2008Build on findings from Phase 1 and 2 with data outside context of NB portfoliosInductive analysis interview text on goals, enactment, and general conception of inquiry

As described in Table 1, in Phase I portfolio entries for 48 NBCSTs achieving certification in 2007 were analyzed using a researcher-crafted instrument. During Phase II, text from portfolios was analyzed for emerging themes. Based on findings from portfolio analysis, 12 NBCSTs achieving certification in 2008 were interviewed in Phase III.

Context of the Study and Participants

Exemplary teachers, in this study NBCSTs, were selected to study teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. In the United States, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) offers an advanced teaching credential for K-12 teachers. Others have shown the use of exemplary teachers to be appropriate participants for research on science teaching (Fraser & Tobin, 1987; Friedrichsen & Dana, 2005). NBCSTs have been recognized as accomplished teachers through a widely respected, standards-based, voluntary certification process. Because these teachers are established, many of the issues faced by preservice or new teachers, such as classroom management and content knowledge, are minimized. This, along with the rigorous certification process, allowed for a focused investigation of NBCTS' conceptions and enactment of inquiry.

NBCSTs are certified in one of four areas: biology, chemistry, earth science, or physics. This presents an opportunity to study teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry within the context of each science discipline. Requirements for NB portfolio construction are identical for biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics certificate areas, making valid comparisons between disciplines possible. In addition, to triangulate findings from the analysis of portfolios, additional NBCSTs were interviewed about their use of inquiry in the classroom context. Therefore, the sample consists of two tiers: a large sample made up of 48 NBCTs for portfolio analysis and a smaller group of 12 NBCSTs for focal studies.

Recent research showed that the NB certification process results in gains in teachers' understanding of inquiry (Lustick & Sykes, 2006; Park & Oliver, 2008). The comprehensive nature of the NB certification process, including an entire portfolio entry documenting the teaching of an inquiry lesson or unit, provided access to data that would otherwise take considerable time and resources to obtain. In addition to a sizable sample, NB portfolios provide the following:

  • A uniform, well-established, and documented treatment.

  • A rigorous treatment. It is estimated that teachers will spend between 50 and 100 hours on the portfolio entry Active Scientific Inquiry (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards [NBPTS], 2008).

  • Descriptive, analytical, and reflective commentary by teachers (13 pages) about their inquiry teaching based on video of themselves and students engaging in inquiry.

For the portfolio entry, Active Scientific Inquiry, NB provided guidelines, a rubric on how the entry was assessed, and relevant NB standards. These documents provided NBCSTs with a structure as they planned and composed their portfolio. As a result, the portfolio entries analyzed in this study tended to follow a similar format. That included sections on planning the inquiry lesson or unit and the goals of instruction. In addition, in their portfolio science teachers included a description of three video segments consisting of students planning the investigation, collecting data, and analyzing and interpreting their results. The final section featured teachers' reflections upon their inquiry lesson. The format and topics addressed ensured consistency across participants' portfolio entries and supported consistent portfolio analysis for this study. Instructions for the Active Scientific Inquiry portfolio entry are available on the NBPTS Web site (NBPTS, 2010, pp. 17–25).

Participants for the study were selected from a national population of NBCSTs who achieved certification in 2007 and 2008. All participants were certified by the NB in the Adolescent and Young Adult: Science (AYA Science) area prior to the study. In addition, each participant held a bachelor's degree, possessed a valid state teaching license, and had completed a minimum of three full years of teaching at the time of their participation in the NB certification process. As a way to answer our research questions, we selected our participants by using a stratified random selection procedure based on the science discipline in which they were certified (biology, chemistry, earth science, or physics).

NBCSTs have successfully completed a rigorous and uniform professional development experience.1 The certification process is time consuming and only about 40% of candidates achieve certification the first year; about 65% do so by the end of the 3-year cycle (NBPTS, 2009). In addition, teachers spend from 200 to 400 hours to complete their portfolio. Of the four portfolio entries required for AYA Science certification, the entry Active Scientific Inquiry was of interest in this study. All NBCSTs received identical portfolio instructions, standards, and rubrics for the portfolio construction process. Because of this substantial and uniform treatment, NBCSTs are an ideal population for study.

Two groups of NBCSTs were selected for the study. Table 2 details the disciplines of participants in each group organized by NB certification area.

Table 2. Participants
 BiologyChemistryEarth SciencePhysicsTotal
Pilot study1113
Phase I and II: Portfolio analysis1213101348
Phase III: Participant interviews333312

Two earth science portfolios were incorrectly labeled, resulting in an unequal number of portfolios for analysis.

Phase I: Statistical Analysis of Portfolios

The first phase of the main study consisted of analysis of the NB portfolio entry, Active Scientific Inquiry, for each of the 48 NBCSTs. Participants were selected using stratified random sampling from a national population of 282 NBCSTS achieving certification in 2007. Portfolios were read a total of four times by the first author, and teachers' enactment of inquiry was rated using the PII. Tentative findings were shared in a regular and ongoing manner with the second author, and when differences of interpretation arose (infrequent and minor) negotiation ensured arrival at a shared view.

Portfolio Inventory Instrument

Each portfolio was analyzed using a researcher-crafted inventory. The PII assesses the degree to which teachers engage their students in inquiry as defined by the National Research Council's Abilities Necessary to Do Inquiry (NRC, 1996). The inventory instrument was determined to provide a consistent measure of teachers' enactment and goals of inquiry with an intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) of 0.84, indicating a good agreement between ratings. The ICC provides a measure of consistency between ratings.

The PII was designed to measure teachers' enactment of inquiry as described in their written commentary for the portfolio entry: Active Scientific Inquiry. Each item of the PII was developed based on the description of the Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry in the NSES (NRC, 1996, pp. 175–176) for Grades 9–12. Table 3 provides a list of PII items. Each item number corresponds to the headings in NSES for Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry.

Table 3. Description of PII Items
ItemDescription
1ADegree to which teacher supports students' efforts to develop a research question
1BDegree to which students choose own question to investigate
2ADegree to which students engage in designing their scientific investigations
2BConducting scientific investigations
3AEvidence that teacher encourages and supports the use of technology in students' investigations
3BEvidence that teacher encourages and supports use of mathematics in students' investigations, where appropriate
4AStudents' work culminates in an explanation or model of the phenomena (physical or mathematics)
4BStudents review current scientific understanding, evidence, and logic to determine the best explanations or models
5AStudents are encouraged to consider alternative explanations for their conclusions or theories
6AStudents communicate about their investigation in writing
6BStudents defend their investigation and respond appropriately to criticism from peers or teachers
6CStudents present their presentation publicly
7AStudents develop and test a hypothesis in their investigation

Since the instrument was based on the NSES, a consensus document developed by science educators and experts in the United States, it is expected to have a high degree of face and content validity. While there are other possible items that could be considered inquiry, the decision to limit the PII based on the NSES was made to allow for a consistent and manageable instrument.

We consulted with a university statistician before setting our sample size (N = 48) to ensure that we met the criteria for use of the ANOVA. For a sample size of 48 participants, we learned it would be necessary to have 12 in each of the four disciplines to achieve a significance of .05, a power of 0.8 with an effect size of 0.5. According to Cohen (1988), an effect size of 0.5 is considered large. Power analysis was conducted with G*Power 3 power analysis software (Faul, Erdfelder, Lang, & Buchner, 2007). A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted for each item on the PII. For significant results, the Tukey post hoc comparison was used to identify where the differences existed.

First, portfolios were read and scored using the PII developed and tested in the pilot study. Each item in the inventory was rated from 1 to 5. A score of 1 indicated the enactment of that aspect of inquiry was limited in the portfolio. A score of 5 indicated the item was fully present in the teacher's enactment of inquiry. These scores were used after the last reading of portfolios was complete in the statistical analysis of how teachers' enactment and goals of inquiry differ across science disciplines. After the first reading was completed, a refinement of the PII was conducted to address any ambiguities within the instrumentation.

A second reading of portfolios took place, and PII scores were then compared with those from the first reading. Any discrepancies between the two scoring sessions were investigated and, when necessary, clarifications were made to the PII. During the third reading, a similar process was conducted, resulting in further refinement of the data collection process.

A fourth reading was conducted by the first author and then shared for comment with the second author to generate the final scores that were used in the statistical analysis. Afterward, 10 portfolios were selected at random and scored. The scores were compared to corresponding scores from the fourth reading. An ICC was conducted to document consistency in scoring portfolios.

Phase II: Portfolio Text Analysis for Emerging Themes

Portfolios were also read a total of four times by the first author and coded in an analytical inductive manner (Charmaz, 2005) to identify and describe emerging themes about teachers' goals and enactment of inquiry. Starting with initial codes suggested by the pilot study, four readings of each portfolio were used to identify analytical categories that were then refined through an iterative process over a 3-month period. The second author was apprised by the first author at multiple points during the coding process. Portfolios from Phase I were also used in Phase II.

As coding progressed by the researchers, a set of themes emerged for teachers' goals and enactment of inquiry. In about half of the portfolios, teachers could be placed in more than one theme. Therefore, after considerable debate and discussion between the researchers, the decision was made to assign participants a primary and secondary theme based on the degree to which the theme was present in the portfolio text.

An example of the coding process for an inquiry lesson about muscle fatigue is provided as a way to illustrate how decisions were made in assigning participants to categories. Paul, a NB-certified biology teacher, prepared his portfolio entry based on an inquiry lesson in his anatomy and physiology course. While similar to other portfolios analyzed, his portfolio was particularly instructive as it contained both a primary and secondary goal for the inquiry lesson. Therefore, the analysis sought evidence to decide between the competing primary themes.

In the initial reading, the portfolio text was underlined and assigned preliminary codes related to teachers' goals and enactment of inquiry. Codes relating to inquiry were identified for the entire set of portfolios. Examples include Students as Scientists, Conducting Scientific Investigations, Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Modeling, Science Content Knowledge, and Lab Skills. For example, Paul's statement “I feel this is important because this allows students to be scientists” was coded as Students as Scientists. The code Science Content Knowledge was assigned to the text “… justify how carbon dioxide production relates to muscle fatigue…” as it related to biology content knowledge.

In the second reading, codes were refined and collapsed into larger, more inclusive themes. For Paul, two themes found throughout his portfolio were Conducting Scientific Investigations and Science Content Knowledge. These two themes were underscored in his goal to “provide experiences for students to build this important concept, they design, conduct, and analyze a controlled experiment that tests the effects of human muscle fatigue.” This goal encompassed both the biology content of muscle fatigue and students designing and conducting scientific investigations. Text throughout his portfolio supported both themes, although the theme of Conducting Scientific Investigations was more frequent.

During the third reading, categories were further consolidated and an initial primary theme was assigned to each portfolio. Five primary themes resulted: Students Conducting Scientific Investigations (SCSI), Science Content Knowledge, Modeling, Problem Solving, and Other. At this point in coding, Paul's goals and enactment of inquiry were most strongly aligned with the theme of Students Conducting Scientific Investigations. Throughout the text, there were references by Paul to his students forming a hypothesis, designing and conducting controlled experiments, manipulating variables, reflecting on possible errors, and coming to conclusions. In contrast, science content knowledge was mentioned less frequently. This may be because, as noted in his portfolio, Paul emphasized content knowledge prior to the inquiry lesson. Therefore, while science content knowledge was important to him, he placed it outside of the inquiry experience. Instead, inquiry was centered on students learning to conduct scientific investigations.

A fourth and final reading of portfolios was conducted and primary and secondary themes were assigned to each of the 48 portfolios. At the conclusion of the analysis all 48 portfolios were placed in one of five categories as the primary theme for their goals and enactment of inquiry. When present, secondary themes were also assigned. For Paul, Students Conducting Scientific Investigations was assigned as the primary theme. Science Content Knowledge was assigned as the secondary theme.

Phase III: Participant Interviews

After Phases I and II of the study were complete, a second group of NBCSTs were recruited to serve as more in-depth focal case studies. Semistructured interviews took place by phone with e-mail for follow-up questions and clarification (see Appendix A for the interview protocol). A second interview was conducted when necessary to clarify earlier responses. Prior to the interviews, as a way to enhance data collection, the participants received an e-mail with an outline of topics that would be discussed in the interview. Table 4 provides background information for each participant.

Table 4. Participants
ParticipantNB CertificateYearsBachelor'sMaster'sContext
  • a

    Diane also held minors in chemistry and physics.

AmyBiology5BiologyNoneSuburb/urban
ScottBiology9Biology (chemistry minor)TeachingSuburban
TomBiology10BiologyCurriculum and instructionRural
AllenChemistry11Biology (chemistry minor)TeachingSuburban
AnitaChemistry5BiologyTeachingSuburban
PeterChemistry11BiologyCurriculum and instructionRural
CathyEarth science8Laboratory medicineScienceSuburban
DonnaEarth science14Earth scienceScience educationRural
SarahEarth science8No dataEarth scienceRural
CarlPhysics6PhysicsTeachingSuburban
DianePhysics30Biology and educationaScience educationSuburban
JanePhysics8BiologyBiology educationUrban

A central component of the interview was a discussion about an inquiry lesson or unit of participants' choosing. For participants teaching in more than one discipline, a lesson for each discipline was discussed. After first exploring participants' general conception of and goals for inquiry, a specific inquiry lesson plan or unit they had taught in their own classroom was discussed in detail. This included a detailed description of the goals for the lesson, what the students were asked to do, and probing questions to clarify and elicit further details when appropriate. The interview concluded with participants being given the opportunity to comment on inquiry and the NB certification process.

The interviews were transcribed and analyzed immediately, allowing data collection and analysis to build upon each other in a grounded theory fashion. Transcription and analysis were used to inform future participant interviews and make modifications to the interview protocol where necessary to enhance the richness of the data collection.

RESULTS/FINDINGS

Results are presented by disciplinary area to address the primary research question “How does exemplary secondary science teachers' discipline (biology, chemistry, earth science, or physics) influence their conceptions, enactment, and goals for inquiry-based teaching and learning? Data from the PII, inductive analysis of portfolio text, and findings from participant interviews are presented for each discipline. Although participant interviews were conducted in the final stages of the study, they are presented first within each discipline to establish emerging themes and allow for a more concise presentation.

Biology

Portfolio analysis and participant interviews revealed that biology teachers in this study tended to approach and enact inquiry with an emphasis on the theme SCSI. For the theme SCSI, investigations reported by the participants typically consisted of students asking a question, generating a hypothesis or testable question, designing procedures that involve the manipulation of variables (and often specific mention of a control group), coming to a conclusion, and communicating findings to their teacher and peers. Teaching students about the process of scientific investigations is the central goal for SCSI. Learning science content could also take place, but it was not the primary purpose of inquiry-based instruction.

Participant Interviews

In addition to the three teachers with NB certification in biology, three additional teachers certified in other areas also taught biology courses. As a result data for six teachers were available for biology. Based on participant interviews, four of the six teachers were placed in the category of SCSI. Two were placed in Content.

Under the theme of SCSI, students often began with a question or hypothesis. For example “My goal was for them to first of all, take a look at the question, the hypothesis…” (Tom, NB certification: biology)'' or “I wanted them to melt down their gel and somehow change something, some factor in each of the tubes” (Scott, NB certification: biology).

As was the case with most participants in this study, the science teachers held students responsible for designing the investigation. However, the manipulation of variables was a frequent feature in the SCSI theme. In addition, having a control group was often included when discussing variables. Scott stated,

As far as inquiry goals I just wanted them to come up with a simple experiment, I wanted them to have a single variable, I wanted them to make sure that they could set up an experiment that had a control group, and it had a gradient of the chemicals, not just all or nothing, the control group or nothing, the experimental group with the chemical.

One possible reason for biology participants tending toward SCSI is due to the complexity they perceive in conducting inquiry in biology. For example, Tom, a biology and physics teacher, believed that inquiry was easier to do in physics classes:

I suppose because there just so many more activities that I'm used to using or able to use in physics. … And for biology it seems like a lot of the labs turn to be more difficult and start out with a hundred and seventeen different steps to get through them and it's more difficult to modify those.

Out of four teachers teaching biology and another discipline, three perceived inquiry to be more difficult in biology. It may be that the structure of the theme SCSI aids in managing the complexity. This assertion is supported by the length of time spent on inquiry. Of the biology teachers interviewed four of the six described investigations that took over 1 week. In contrast, for physics only one of four participants described longer-term activities.

Table 5 provides a summary of biology participants interviewed. The first column lists each participant and their NB certificate area. In the second column, the classes they teach are listed. The column “General Conception” provides short text segments taken from data presented previously. It represents their response to the question, “What do you think of when you hear the words ‘inquiry teaching’?” This provides participants' general view of inquiry apart from the context of a specific lesson plan or discipline.

Table 5. Biology Participants' Conception, Enactment, Goals for Inquiry
Participant (Certificate Area)Teaching (2008–2009)General ConceptionEnactmentGoalOverall Theme
Allen (chemistry)AP biology, chemistry“creation of a worthwhile problem which the students are capable of solving”SCSISCSISCSI
Amy (biology)Biology“students learn through discovery”ContentSCSI/real-world connectionContent
Cathy (earth science)Astronomy, pre-AP biology, chemistry“I just think, thinking”SCSIContent and student engagementSCSI
Jane (physics)Biology, physics“so they're coming up with a hypothesis, coming up with a purpose”ContentContentContent
Scott (biology)Biology“students … should be able to plan, data collect, and do data analysis… ”SCSISCSISCSI
Tom (biology)Biology, physics“discover scientific facts or information” “makes the point concrete”SCSISCSISCSI

Our interpretation of participants' enactment of a specific inquiry lesson of their choice is provided under the column “Enactment.” This was generated from detailed interview text and was influential in deciding which theme best represents participants' conception of inquiry for that discipline. Participants' stated goals for the specific lesson plan are presented in the “Goal” column.

The last column, “Theme,” is our interpretation of the participants' overall conception of inquiry. It is based upon a careful reading of interview text and follow-up conversations with participants. Participants' general conception, enactment, and goals for inquiry, summarized in Table 5, were used to generate themes.

Although SCSI was more common among participants, there were two instances classified as Content. Jane approached inquiry as Content, although her general conception of inquiry was similar to SCSI. With Jane, who recently shifted to teaching biology, a lack of experience with the discipline may have led her to focus on content knowledge.

Amy, a ninth-grade biology teacher, believed that middle-school science classes did little to prepare students for thinking about and doing scientific activities. As a result, she found it took more time and effort to use inquiry with them. She states,

Sometimes it's very hard to get them to do that, because they don't have enough background to ask the right question.

One possibility is that her students' lack of previous experience with inquiry led her to focus on biology content knowledge.

Portfolio Text Analysis

Similar to participant interviews, the analysis of portfolio text for biology teachers predominantly followed the theme SCSI as shown in Table 6. Only one participant was categorized under Content. An additional participant who focused on technical lab procedures was classified as Other.

Table 6. Primary Goals and Enactment of Inquiry for Biology Participants
DisciplineSCSIContentModelingProblem SolvingOther
  1. SCSI: Students conducting scientific investigations.

Biology10 (83%)1 (8%)1 (8%)

Curricula, student ability, geographic context, and grade level did not explain the trend found in the data. Participants represented a range of curricula (one Advanced Placement [AP], two International Baccalaureate [IB], six general biology, two anatomy/physiology, and one forensics/bioethics), student abilities (seven high, two average, and three low), and geographical contexts (two rural, four suburban, two urban, four no data). There was also a range of grade levels (five 9th, seven 10th, eight 11th, seven 12th), with many classes having two or more grade levels present. These contextual factors did not appear to influence teaching with inquiry with 83% of participants being categorized as SCSI.

PII Analysis

The PII analysis revealed that biology teachers were more likely to offer students a choice of the question they would investigate than all other disciplines and were more likely to support students' questioning than chemistry and physics participants. In addition, biology teachers were also more likely to discuss the use of a hypothesis in their portfolios than chemistry or physics teachers. Significant results are presented here.

An analysis of variance found a significant difference, F(3,44) = 4.31, p = .010, between groups for teachers' support of student questioning. Post hoc analyses using the Tukey criterion for significance indicated that portfolio item scores for biology teachers (M = 3.00, SD = 1.28) were significantly higher than for chemistry (M = 1.69, SD = 1.03) and physics teachers (M = 1.38, SD = 0.65).

An analysis of variance found a significant difference, F(3,44) = 7.70, p = <.001 between groups for students' ability to choose the research question. Post hoc analyses using the Tukey criterion for significance indicated that portfolio item scores for biology teachers (M = 3.00, SD = 1.13) were significantly higher than for chemistry (M = 1.69, SD = 0.86), earth science (M = 1.70, SD = 0.95), and physics teachers (M = 1.38, SD = 0.65).

An analysis of variance found a significant difference, F(3,44) = 8.15, p = <.001, between groups for students' use of a hypothesis in their investigation. Post hoc analyses using the Tukey criterion for significance indicated that portfolio item scores for biology teachers (M = 4.58, SD = 0.74) were significantly higher than for chemistry (M = 2.62, SD = 1.61) and physics (M = 1.77, SD = 1.24) teachers.

Our PII analysis resulted in a finding that was consistent with the finding from our portfolio text analysis and participant interviews. That is, most biology teachers in our study approached inquiry with an emphasis on the actual process of the investigation. This is seen in the emphasis on students developing their own question or generating a hypothesis, something rarely mentioned in chemistry and physics.

Summary

Together the three data sources support the notion that biology teachers are more likely to approach and enact inquiry under the theme of SCSI. Data from participant interviews suggested that biology was more challenging for the teachers to teach with inquiry. As a result, it is plausible to conjecture that approaching inquiry as a SCSI theme was necessary to provide them structure in their practices.

Chemistry

Chemistry teachers in our study were more likely to be categorized under the theme of Content although SCSI was also a frequent theme. In both participant interviews and the analysis of portfolio text, the theme Content was found to be about twice as frequent as SCSI.

For the theme Content, the acquisition of science content knowledge was emphasized as the primary role of inquiry. While students could develop their own procedures, select variables to investigate, or work with mathematical equations, the predominant goal by the teachers was the development of subject-specific content knowledge rather than on the process of conducting scientific investigations.

Participant Interviews

As shown in Table 7, of the four participants interviewed two were classified under the theme Content. One was placed in both Content and SCSI. The other was classified as SCSI.

Table 7. Chemistry Participants' Conception, Enactment, Goals for Inquiry
Participant (Certificate Area)Teaching (2008–2009)General ConceptionEnactmentGoalOverall Theme
Peter (chemistry)IB chemistry“for IB anyway, they have to do a series of planning or design labs”SCSIContentSCSI and Content
Allen (chemistry)Chemistry“creation of a worthwhile problem which the students are capable of solving”SCSISCSISCSI
Anita (chemistry)Chemistry“trying to figure a problem out” “more likely to be remembered”ContentContent and problem SolvingContent
Cathy (earth science)Chemistry“I just think, thinking.”ContentInsufficient dataContent

In her interview, Anita (NB certification: chemistry) chose to discuss an inquiry lesson where students use Alka-Seltzer tablets to study rates of chemical reactions. Her description of the inquiry lesson does not consist of the highly structured scientific investigation found for most biology teachers. There is no mention of a hypothesis and manipulating variables, for example. Instead the emphasis is on students gaining knowledge about the rates of chemical reactions. She states,

For example I do a lab where, it's a rates of reactions, and they have to figure out what's affecting the rate of reactions and before that what knows what actually affects the reaction. I have, we set up and say “What can we do with this and how does this differ?” and they do a few things and one of them is the different temperature of water. And I give them an Alka-Seltzer tablet and after performing it and playing around with it what they notice is that the hot water tablet dissolves faster. And so by increasing the temperature they're actually seeing the rate of reaction is increasing with me actually going over that concept.

Her response indicates that by experiencing the chemical phenomena firsthand, students will learn the content without the need for direct instruction. The focus is on the content knowledge. In this case, the lesson serves as a substitute for more traditional instruction on chemistry content knowledge. In her description of an inquiry lesson in her AP chemistry class, there is a similar emphasis. She explains “It's going to be a lot easier for them to learn it and remember it if they're the ones actually doing the process instead of me getting up there and saying this is how it is.” For Anita, like many chemistry teachers in this study, inquiry is primarily a means for students to develop content knowledge.

Peter represents a case where an external curriculum was influential in his use of inquiry. As a result, he was challenging for us to classify in our analysis system. His description of inquiry initially appears to be SCSI. He states,

So they have to plan out the lab, the procedures, the materials, the hypothesis, all that kind of stuff. Then they have to actually carry out the lab and then do analysis, conclusion, and evaluations and all that kind of stuff. That's, when I do inquiry in chemistry it's often in the form of something like that. I try to keep it, it's required for IB so it's convenient, you know, it's not like I have any way around it.

While his description of inquiry fits the theme of SCSI, he later indicates the importance of the chemistry content knowledge gained through inquiry. In discussing an inquiry lesson on chemical kinetics, Peter explains that he uses inquiry to introduce or follow up on conceptual material. This suggests that one role of inquiry is to support chemistry content knowledge:

Whenever I do inquiry, like I said, at least with IB, it's almost always in the form of lab. Whether it's to introduce a concept or to follow up on something that we talked about before. It's like maybe to think a little bit deeper on a concept, more deeply than when I talked about it in class and let them figure it out for themselves.

Here Peter indicates that, for him, inquiry is about developing an understanding of a concept, something he returns to in discussing his goals for inquiry:

Mainly I want them to have an operational understanding of chemical kinetics, that they can apply the stuff that we talked about, or that they've previously learned, that they can apply that in a tangible fashion to something in the real world.

Because both trends were found throughout the interview, Peter was classified as both SCSI and Content.

In contrast to Anita and Peter, Allen approaches inquiry as SCSI. Allen conceptualizes inquiry as consisting of a 3-day cycle similar to how scientists conduct investigations. The cycle starts with identifying a problem and then developing a procedure to solve the problem. The second stage involves carrying out the procedure and collecting data. Finally, the data are analyzed and discussed to arrive at a conclusion about the phenomena. For Allen, a well-planned inquiry lesson generates new questions to allow the cycle to start again:

Basically I try to operate all of my lessons, especially in the lab based classes, on about a three day schedule, meaning that the first day we tend to create a problem … and then we work on a lab protocol, procedure, small groups sometimes, sometimes there's a whole group, to solve that. What data would we have to collect, what is our objective going be, what's it going to like in terms of the units, and usually try to lead them towards a graphing aspect, and then the next day we run the lab, then day three we basically come together and debrief on it, and if I've done my planning correctly, that third day discussion pretty much leads us in to whatever the next problem is going to be.

On the basis of his description, Allen has a very structured approach that guides his planning and teaching with inquiry. As a result, he was categorized as SCSI.

Table 7 provides a summary of the themes found in participant interviews.

Portfolio Text Analysis

Table 8 shows that 8 of the 13 chemistry participants were categorized under the themes. Four participants were placed under SCSI and one as Other. The portfolio in the Other category emphasized critical thinking.

Table 8. Primary Goals and Enactment of Inquiry for Chemistry Participants
DisciplineSCSIContentModelingProblem SolvingOther
Chemistry4 (31%)8 (62%)1 (8%)

Participants represented a range of curricula (four AP, nine general chemistry), student abilities (eight high, four average, and one low), and geographical contexts (four rural, six suburban, two urban, one no data). There was also a range of grade levels (two 9th, five 10th, eight 11th, nine 12th) with many classes having two or more grade levels present.

No trends were found based on student ability or geographic context. Chemistry did have the most AP courses of all disciplines analyzed. Of the four AP teachers, three were classified as Content and one as Other, following the general trend for the discipline.

PII Analysis

The PII was developed to detect differences in teachers' enactment of inquiry. As a result, data on content knowledge were not collected. Since the chemistry teachers in this study tended to enact inquiry with an emphasis on content knowledge, they are less likely to enact items measured with the PII. In this case, chemistry teachers were less likely than biology teachers to allow students a choice of questions to investigate, support students' use of questioning and discuss the use of hypotheses. In addition, chemistry teachers were less likely than physics teachers to use mathematics and modeling as part of teaching with inquiry.

Summary

Findings for the chemistry teachers in our sample consistently were categorized under the theme of Content. This is the case even though four participants taught within the structure of the AP program. Thus our findings suggest that curriculum may not be a primary influence in chemistry teachers' use of inquiry.

Earth Science

Similar to biology, earth science participants also tended to fall under the theme of SCSI. The theme Content was also present in one participant interview and one portfolio. Earth science differed from other disciplines in the age and abilities of students. Students were more likely to be in ninth grade, and fewer participants described their classes as high ability.

Participant Interviews

Two of the three earth science participants interviewed were classified as SCSI and one was classified as Content. Donna provided an exemplar of earth science teachers' use of inquiry. In her interview, she described an investigation about factors influencing crystal growth:

We start out … where they go to a web site and collect information on what type of variables could affect the growth of salt crystals … how they want to manipulate crystal growth and they form their hypothesis from there and we make sure that they quantify them and predict how things will be manipulated. From there they design the experiment, … look at the data to make sure they control just that variable and then they graph it in … and see how their manipulated variable … to conclude at the end the type of relationship is affected, … and then what they would like to do for future studies, then we have them present it in front of the class.

For Donna, inquiry in earth science centered on teaching students how to conduct scientific investigations. This started with students deciding what variables they wanted to test, forming a hypothesis, manipulating variables, coming to a conclusion, and presenting their findings. The focus was on the process of the investigation with little mention of the science content.

Sarah also was classified as SCSI although high-stakes testing influenced her use of inquiry. She cited the pressures of testing, stating “they have a high stakes state test to pass at the end of my course.” Even so, her general conception, enactment, and goals for inquiry focused on SCSI, indicating that external requirements do not always lead to teachers focusing on content knowledge. Generalizing her goals to other inquiry lessons, Sarah states,

I have them experience a scientific experiment they create, that they're responsible for and that they learn from and it's not, and the results are not, you know, are unanticipated perhaps.

In contrast, Cathy, who taught astronomy, was classified under the theme Content based on her lesson about electromagnetic radiation. Describing her lesson she said,

… and so I think that lesson worked really well for them and they all went away understanding, I think better how light works, a little bit better about how the energy it carries, has to do with frequency and wavelength.

For Cathy, students' understanding of light and energy was the most important outcome for her inquiry lesson. It is possible that controlled scientific investigations are more difficult to accomplish in astronomy where there are limitations on equipment and logistical concerns such as nighttime data collection. Another possibility is the age of students. Both Donna and Sarah taught primarily ninth-grade students, whereas Cathy taught 11th and 12th. It may be that participants found the structured nature of the theme SCSI to be more manageable and appropriate for younger students. Table 9 provides a summary of participants interviewed.

Table 9. Earth Science Participants' Conception, Enactment, Goals for Inquiry
Participant (Certificate Area)Teaching (2008–2009)General ConceptionEnactmentGoalOverall Theme
Donna (earth science)Earth scienceInsufficient dataSCSISCSISCSI
Sarah (earth science)Earth science“discover something during the lab” “how real science is done”SCSISCSI and contentSCSI
Cathy (earth science)Astronomy“I just think, thinking”ContentContent and applicationContent

Portfolio Text Analysis

Analysis of portfolio text also found SCSI to be the most common category for earth science teachers. In addition to SCSI, one portfolio was categorized as Content, whereas another was Problem Solving. Two portfolios were placed under the theme Other. The first described students taking measurements, and the second dealt with making detailed observations.

Participants in Table 10 represented a range of curricula (six earth science, one environmental, one astronomy, one meteorology), abilities (three high, six average, one low), and geographical contexts (one rural, one suburban, two urban, six no data). There was also a range of grade levels (five 9th, three 10th, six 11th, six 12th) with many classes having two or more grade levels present.

Table 10. Primary Goals and Enactment of Inquiry for Earth Science Participants
DisciplineSCSIContentModelingProblem SolvingOther
Earth Science6 (60%)1 (10%)1 (10%)2 (20%)

Of note is that high-ability classes made up a smaller percentage of courses for earth science when compared to other disciplines (biology: 58%, chemistry: 62%, earth science: 30%, physics: 85%). In addition, three of the classes consisted of only ninth grades. A similar trend was found for participant interviews where two of the three teachers taught ninth-grade students. Although this does not appear to influence how they were individually categorized, these are distinct contextual features for the discipline of earth science.

PII Analysis

Our statistical analysis of portfolios revealed only two differences between earth science and other disciplines. As previously reported, biology teachers were more likely to allow students a choice of questions to investigate than all other disciplines, including earth science. In addition, physics participants were more likely to use mathematics and modeling than earth science participants in this study.

We believe that the significant difference with biology indicates that biology teachers are more likely to approach inquiry with an emphasis on structured investigations than earth science participants. Data from portfolio text analysis support this notion. There was a greater range of themes (SCSI, Content, Problem Solving, Other) found for earth science.

Summary

Based on participant interviews, portfolio text analysis, and the PII statistical analysis, earth science teachers tend to approach and enact inquiry as SCSI. The discipline of earth science provided more extreme examples of grade level and student ability. Even so, both did not appear to influence teachers' conception or enactment of inquiry.

Physics

Physics teachers in this study were more likely to approach and enact inquiry with an emphasis on the theme Modeling. The theme Modeling most often involved the generation of mathematical equations to describe physical phenomena. In general, students were presented with a problem or system. They then decided what data to collect and designed a procedure. On the basis of the data, they conducted an analysis, often involving graphing, to generate a mathematical model in the form of an equation to describe the phenomenon and predict its behavior. In this study, only the participants teaching physics courses were found to represent the Modeling theme.

While there are similarities between Modeling and SCSI, there are important differences. For SCSI, there is an emphasis on the structure of the investigation, often taking a form similar to the traditional scientific method taught in schools. Here the focus is on the process of conducting the investigation. This frequently includes generating a hypothesis or testable question, conducting the investigation with frequent mention of control groups and manipulating variables, conducting multiple trials, coming to a conclusion, and communicating results. In contrast, Modeling is more centered on observing physical phenomena, collecting data, and generating a relationship or equation that describes the phenomena.

Participant Interviews

Four physics teachers were interviewed. Two of these teachers taught biology courses as well as physics. In addition, two teachers taught lower ability physics classes. The theme of Modeling was found for all participants although two participants held alternate themes for their lower ability students.

When asked her general thoughts about inquiry, Diane (NB certification: physics) immediately talked about the relationships between variables and the centrality of the mathematical equation. She stated,

… is going to happen to be a predecessor to any equation that you may give the students to show them a relationship between variables. So the inquiry that you're setting up, see I'm a physics person, so I'm going straight to an equation… . (Diane)

Her response is typical of participants who hold the conception of inquiry as modeling. The primary focus was to use a mathematical equation to describe the relationships between variables. In Tom's physics inquiry lesson, students constructed a mathematical model for projectile motion without having studied the actual equations. They then used their model to predict the path of the projectile:

Okay, so I show them that set up and I explain that the purpose of doing this is trying figure out exactly where the marble is going to land on the floor. So they calculate that. And this is ahead of learning projectile calculations at all. We haven't done any of that prior to this. (Tom)

Carl also held the primary conception of inquiry as modeling. In his inquiry lesson on circular motion, students worked with a computer simulation that gave them the ability to manipulate variables and observe the effects. Carl also taught an introductory physics course for lower ability sophomores who did not pass algebra. Here his emphasis was on students conducting scientific investigations:

Um, we're still sort of struggling with experimental design. This is a tougher population of students. Getting them to carry out an experiment to completion and discuss the results.

It may be that Carl perceived a need for more structure found with SCSI prior to students being able to engage in modeling.

For her physics class, Jane also held the conception of inquiry as modeling. Like Carl, she taught an introductory physics course. In her class, students collected and graphed data to develop an improved, environmentally friendly barrier to separate highway traffic lanes. While there was a mathematical component, the lesson was more about learning the physics concepts and applying them create model highway barriers. Students were not involved with the generation of equations in this lesson. Table 11 provides a summary of participants interviewed.

Table 11. Physics Participants' Conception, Enactment, Goals for Inquiry
Participant (Certificate Area)Teaching (2008–2009)General ConceptionEnactmentGoalOverall Theme
Carl (physics)Active physics“how real science is done”SCSISCSISCSI
 IB physics ModelingContent and “Accountability”Modeling
Diane (physics)Physics“more internalization if they have the thrill of discovering it”ModelingModelingModeling
Jane (physics)PhysicsInsufficient dataModeling and contentContentModeling and content
Tom (biology)Physics“discover scientific facts or information” “makes the point concrete”ModelingModeling and contentModeling

Portfolio Text Analysis

Our analysis of the portfolio text supports our finding that the use of mathematics and modeling represent a trend in how physics teachers approach inquiry. Of the four disciplines, portfolios for physics participants were the most diverse of the disciplines analyzed. As shown in Table 12, many approached inquiry as Modeling but Content and SCSI were both also represented. One participant was listed under problem solving. While his students did engage in developing an equation for friction the emphasis was on approaching and solving problems. Therefore, the decision was made to analyze all portfolios for evidence of Problem Solving.

Table 12. Primary Goals and Enactment of Inquiry for Physics Participants
DisciplineSCSIContentModelingProblem SolvingOther
Physics2 (15%)4 (31%)6 (46%)1 (8%)

Participants represented a more focused range of curricula (2 AP, 1 IB, 10 general physics) and student abilities (11 high, 2 average). Geographical contexts (one rural, six suburban, three urban, three no data) were similar to other disciplines as was the range of grade levels (three 9th, two 10th, nine 11th, ten 12th) with many classes having two or more grade levels present. Only one of the classes was exclusively ninth grade.

PII Analysis

Our PII analysis revealed that physics teachers were more likely to use mathematics in their instruction than teachers in all other disciplines. In addition, physics teachers were also more likely to include a strong modeling component in their portfolio description of inquiry. Appendix B lists results for each PII item.

An analysis of variance showed that there was a significant difference, F(3,44) = 6.73, p = .001, between groups for students' use of mathematics. Post hoc analyses using the Tukey criterion for significance indicated that portfolio item scores for physics teachers (M = 4.23, SD = 1.30) were significantly higher than for biology (M = 1.75, SD 1.29), chemistry (M = 2.54, SD 1.81), and earth science teachers (M = 2.40, SD = 1.27).

An analysis of variance showed that there was a significant difference, F(3,44) = 4.39, p = .009, between groups for students' work culminating in a model of the phenomena. Post hoc analyses using the Tukey criterion for significance indicated that portfolio item scores for physics teachers (M = 4.23, SD = 0.73) were significantly higher than for biology (M = 3.25, SD = .62), chemistry (M = 3.15, SD = 0.90), and earth science (M = 3.20, SD = 1.23) teachers.

For physics teachers the use of mathematics and emphasis on generating models of physical phenomena was more pronounced than for all other disciplines. The results from PII analysis are consistent with both participant interviews and portfolio text analysis and support the overall theme of Modeling for physics participants.

Summary

Together the three data sources presented support our finding that physics teachers are more likely to approach and enact inquiry under the theme of Modeling. Data from participant interviews suggest that student ability may explain some of the variation seen in portfolio text analysis due to lower ability students being less likely to engage in Modeling.

DISCUSSION

Previous research and thought on practicing scientists (Ault, 1998; Knorr-Cetina, 1999; Mayr, 2004; Schwab, 1968) led us to believe that disciplinary differences could be an important influence on secondary teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. In our study of exemplary secondary science teachers, the discipline in which they taught was found to be a major influence on participants' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. These findings make a unique and significant contribution to the literature on inquiry teaching. In this section, we outline two primary explanations for disciplinary differences based on the situative perspective. First, the context of classroom teaching (e.g., curricula, student ability) is one possible influence we explored. Second, we consider the structure of each discipline, thought to be a major influence. Our findings indicate that the structure of the discipline is the primary influence although classroom contextual features can also be influential.

Situated in the classroom, we expected that contextual features would have a greater influence on teachers' conceptions and enactment of inquiry. However, we found that while it did have an effect, the classroom context did not appear to be as large a factor as the structure of the discipline. Two contextual features of the classroom did emerge as exceptions during participant interviews, and they may explain some of the variation seen in cases where teachers did not follow the broader disciplinary trends seen in the study. The two influences were curriculum and student ability.

Curriculum is one factor that that may influence inquiry-based teaching. Participants in this study taught within a range of curricula that included AP, IB, honors, and varying content. For example, portfolios from biology participants consisted of two AP, one IB, one forensics/bioethics, and two anatomy and physiology courses. Even with these differing curricula, biology participants overwhelmingly approached inquiry as SCSI. Likewise, curriculum seldom appeared to play a major role in teachers' conceptions or enactment of inquiry in chemistry, earth science, or physics.

One exception is Peter who taught IB chemistry. For Peter, the requirements of the IB program led him to enact inquiry as SCSI. As he stated “it's required for IB so it's convenient, you know, it's not like I have any way around it.” In the interview, it became apparent that Peter also approached inquiry with an emphasis on chemistry content. While the IB requirements were influential in his enactment, an equally important role of inquiry was building chemistry content knowledge. This indicates that while curriculum was not found to be a primary influence in this study, in certain cases it can have an impact. Even so, teachers' underlying conception and goals for inquiry will likely be expressed.

Student ability was another contextual feature with only a minor influence on teaching with inquiry. Portfolio text analysis found no disciplinary trends associated with student ability. One exception was Carl who focused on SCSI with his low-ability physics students while using Modeling with his high-ability IB students. In his inquiry lesson on circular motion, his IB students worked with a computer simulation that gave them the ability to manipulate variables and observe the effects. For his lower ability students, Carl emphasized students conducting scientific investigations. He states, “we're still sort of struggling with experimental design. This is a tougher population of students.”

We believe that for Carl, the ability to conduct a scientific investigation was a necessary precursor to modeling. Students must first be able to conduct an experiment before moving on to generating models. This suggests that student ability may be a factor in certain cases. Overall though, no trends were found for student ability. Student age, geographic context, and years teaching also did not appear to have a major impact on teaching with inquiry.

Despite a variety of curricula, student ages and abilities, and geographic contexts, we found that disciplinary trends still emerged for teachers' conceptions and use of inquiry. Participants teaching in more than one discipline support this assertion. These hybrid participants held different conceptions and enactment of inquiry depending on the discipline they were teaching. At the same time, their years teaching, preservice and inservice experiences, and geographic context remained constant. Of the four hybrid participants interviewed, three held multiple conceptions. Furthermore, these conceptions tended to follow the disciplinary trends found in the larger study.

The hybrid science teachers in our study were particularly important and offer insights into how the structure of the discipline can influence teaching with inquiry. Although there is a dearth of research on disciplinary differences in how teachers approach inquiry, several studies have suggested that teachers can hold multiple conceptions of inquiry (Lotter et al., 2007; Luft, 2001; Wallace & Kang, 2004). In our study, Tom, a hybrid teacher who taught biology and physics, was categorized as SCSI for his biology teaching and Modeling for physics. Like other hybrid teachers in the study, Tom found it more difficult to teach with inquiry in biology. Three of the four hybrid teachers teaching biology and another discipline also indicated inquiry in biology to be more challenging. All three approached inquiry as SCSI in biology, indicating that a structured approach to investigations may be necessary to manage the complexity of inquiry in biology.

Our analysis of the interviews of hybrid teachers suggests that the structure of the discipline was the primary reason for their approach to inquiry being SCSI. Two of the teachers who also taught physics were categorized as Modeling and Modeling/Content. This may be because physics phenomena are more verifiable (Alexander, 1992) and readily studied through a modeling approach. The other hybrid teacher taught chemistry and earth science and was categorized as Content for both. These hybrid teachers highlight the influence the structure of each discipline has on teaching with inquiry.

Hybrid teachers demonstrate the situated and flexible nature of the conceptions teachers hold for scientific inquiry. As seen in this study, teachers were able to hold multiple conceptions of inquiry that varied as they moved between disciplines. Since teaching in more than one discipline is common at the secondary level, especially in smaller schools, shifting between conceptions of inquiry is likely a common occurrence. We believe this finding to be a major contribution to research on teaching science through inquiry.

In this study, the use of the situative perspective led us to see that science teachers' use of inquiry in their practice is dependent on the context of discipline and, to a lesser extent, the classroom context. Teachers in the study conceptualized inquiry within the context of the structure of the discipline and their discourse regarding inquiry was made visible only when related to a specific science discipline.

IMPLICATIONS

Findings suggest that curriculum, along with student ability and teachers' preservice experiences, may not be as important of a factor in teachers' use of inquiry as previously thought. Therefore, simply modifying the curriculum or providing additional preservice professional development will likely not result in changes in teaching with inquiry. The underlying structure of the discipline appears to be the driving factor in teachers' conception and enactment of inquiry in this study.

An important implication of our study is that presenting a broad vision of inquiry to preservice and practicing secondary science teachers may have a limited impact on their use of inquiry. For example, presenting inquiry as SCSI, as is often done in both preservice and inservice science teacher education programs, will likely be of limited use to chemistry and physics teachers. Based on the findings in this study, it may be more effective to offer more discipline-specific examples of inquiry.

An encouraging finding is that teachers' conceptions of inquiry are flexible and often adapt to disciplinary contexts. In particular, what we learned from the hybrid teachers in our study suggests this flexibility may be a reason for optimism. If curriculum and preservice/inservice experiences take into account and address issues related to the structure of the discipline, science teachers may be able to modify their conceptions to include more varied forms of inquiry. Learners in science would benefit from experiencing inquiry in a more varied, and thus more authentic, representation of scientific practices.

It is important to note that the frequency of teaching with inquiry was not a focus of our study. Nevertheless, one implication may be that curriculum and preservice/inservice experiences more suited to specific disciplines may result in more frequent use of inquiry if teachers find it aligns with their conceptions and enactment of inquiry.

A final implication and area for future study involves whether disciplinary trends are a common feature for other instructional strategies. For example, do significant disciplinary differences exist in how teachers conduct demonstrations, teach with socioscientific issues, or use technology in the classroom? The current study suggested that the context of discipline may be influential in these cases and have consequences for curriculum design and professional development.

Limitations

We recognize that science teachers, exemplary or otherwise, are individuals, and our findings suggest trends and not absolutes. Furthermore, this study does not advocate any one approach toward inquiry in science: quite the opposite. It does, however, encourage the science education research community to consider further the importance of the context of discipline in how teachers actually think about and use inquiry in their classrooms.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the National Board Certified Science Teachers who took part in the study. In addition, the authors are grateful to Angelo Collins for her ideas on the structure of a discipline, William Holliday for assistance with the situated perspective, and David Lustick for valuable conversations about the National Board certification process.

  • 1

    The first author achieved National Board certification in Adolescent and Young Adult Science: Chemistry in 2007 and has mentored numerous teachers seeking National Board certification. As a result, he has an in-depth knowledge of the AYA Science certification structure and process.

APPENDIX A: INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

I. Teachers' Conceptions and Enactment of Inquiry

  • a.General Conception of Inquiry
    • i.Could you describe to me what you think of when you hear the word inquiry in science teaching?
  • b.Enactment of an Inquiry Lesson
    • i.Now I'd like to talk about how you would teach an inquiry-based lesson of your choice. Please describe the lesson plan in as much detail as possible.
    • ii.What were your goals for the lesson plan?
    • iii.What is your primary goal or reason for using and inquiry lesson like this?
    • iv.How much choice did students have in the question(s) they researched?
    • v.How did you support the development of their question?
    • vi.Please describe how students used mathematics in the lesson.
    • vii.How did students communicate their results?
    • viii.You mentioned (technology, hypotheses, modeling, alternative explanations, defending an argument, etc.). Could you describe why that is important?
    • ix.Is this inquiry lesson appropriate for lower ability students? How would you modify it for lower ability students? * This section is repeated when teachers have classes in more than one discipline.
  • c.Inquiry and Curriculum
    • i.Where would you go to find inquiry-based curriculum?
    • ii.What are three characteristics that you would look for in inquiry-based curriculum?

APPENDIX B: ANOVA SUMMARY FOR PORTFOLIO INVENTORY ITEMS ACROSS DISCIPLINES

 

Table  .  
ItemBiologyChemistryEarth SciencePhysicsFp
  1. Note. Standard deviations appear in parentheses.

Item 1A3.00 (1.28)1.69 (1.03)2.00 (1.70)1.38 (1.65)4.31.010
Item 1B3.00 (1.13)1.69 (0.86)1.70 (0.95)1.38 (0.65)7.70<.001
Item 2A4.50 (0.80)3.69 (1.11)3.80 (1.55)3.77 (1.17)1.26.299
Item 2B4.83 (0.58)4.15 (0.80)4.80 (0.42)4.62 (0.65)2.95.043
Item 3A1.92 (1.38)2.46 (1.71)1.80 (1.32)2.92 (1.80)1.28.294
Item 3B1.75 (1.29)2.54 (1.81)2.40 (1.27)4.23 (1.30)6.73.001
Item 4A3.25 (0.62)3.15 (0.90)3.20 (1.23)4.23 (0.73)4.39.009
Item 4B3.17 (0.58)3.15 (0.56)3.30 (0.68)3.69 (0.63)2.20.101
Item 5A1.67 (1.37)1.08 (0.28)1.10 (0.32)1.31 (0.63)1.43.247
Item 6A4.17 (1.53)2.46 (1.20)2.60 (1.65)2.92 (2.02)2.74.055
Item 6B2.58 (1.62)2.16 (1.07)1.50 (0.71)2.31 (1.65)1.25.304
Item 6C3.25 (1.71)3.15 (1.28)2.70 (1.34)2.38 (1.76)0.86.471
Item 7A4.58 (0.74)2.62 (1.61)3.10 (2.03)1.77 (1.24)8.15<.001

Ancillary