Inquiry-Based Professional Development for a Diverse Population

Andrew Elby, Ayush Gupta, Luke Conlin, Jennifer Richards
University of Maryland, College Park

In this article, we describe a professional development program for fourth through eighth grade teachers in a large county in Maryland. In this county, about 67% of the students are African American and 23% are Hispanic. Approximately 60% of the students are economically disadvantaged, and 27% were born outside the US or speak a language other than English at home. After giving a program overview, we’ll briefly present an episode from a professional development session to illustrate some of the unusual but (we hope) promising features of our program.

Program overview

For the past four years, as part of an NSF-funded Math Science Partnership (DUE-08319705), our program has offered a two-week summer workshop followed by continued contact with teachers during the academic year. Our goal is to help teachers (i) refine their conceptions of inquiry and “good scientific thinking” and (ii) engage their students in those practices more deeply and consistently. Fostering deeper conceptual understanding is also a goal; but our top priority is helping teachers develop their sense of what counts as learning and understanding science to the point that they can more effectively learn particular content on their own and in other professional development settings.

Summer workshop. Each summer, the teachers in our program meet six to seven hours a day for ten days. During this time, they engage in three main types of activities: their own extended scientific inquiry, discussions about classroom video of elementary and middle school students engaged in inquiry, and activities directly related to their teaching such as planning lessons and discussing assessment strategies.

Many teachers participate in the program for multiple years, so we split the participants into “oldies” (teachers returning to the program) and “newbies.” Each year, newbies work through the same, well-tested inquiry units on forces and motion and on basic circuits, co-facilitated by our team and by oldies. In parallel, oldies work on 1-2 day inquiry units, often suggested by and usually co-facilitated by an oldie.

In discussing classroom video, the newbies and oldies often come together, and much of the classroom video comes from the oldies. One of our goals in the summer workshop is to create and reinforce a non-evaluative atmosphere in which teachers share video and student work from their classes. To promote this aim, we try to keep discussion of the videos centered on the substance of the students’ thinking, not the teacher’s moves. We also focus on students’ thinking because inquiry-oriented teaching involves interpreting students’ ideas and making them central to instruction, as several NRC reports have emphasized. We want to give teachers a chance to use and refine their skills of attending to students’ thinking and reflecting on how they could alter instruction to respond to those ideas. As often happens in the Colorado Physics for Elementary Teachers curriculum, our teachers regularly relate the inquiry they see students doing in the videos to their own reasoning during their inquiry sessions.

Academic year activities. Science and mathematics education researchers studying K-12 teacher professional development have reached a consensus that substantive changes in teachers’ classroom practices usually occur after at least a year of sustained professional development. Intensive summer programs can develop content knowledge and alter some beliefs about teaching and learning, but have not been documented to change teachers’ day-to-day practices in the classroom. Our program addresses this issue by offering three types of activities during the school year: (1) visits by individual members of our team to the teachers’ classrooms, (2) twice-a-month group meetings after school, and (3) monthly evening workshops run by science instructional coaches employed by the county school system but paid by the MSP grant.

  1. The teacher and the team member assigned to that teacher typically arrange classroom visits to occur when an inquiry lesson is planned. The teacher decides what role our team member plays: observer, lesson co-planner, or even co-teacher. Many of the teachers use these visits as opportunities to try out new inquiry lessons and to get feedback. We also typically videotape these lessons, though teachers have taken more ownership over taping their own teaching over the past two years, even when we are not there.
  2. In the first and second year of the project, we planned the group meetings, at which the group focused on issues teachers were having, discussed video from teachers’ classes, and sometimes engaged in inquiry about the topics they were teaching. In later years, the teachers have gradually taken the lead in these meetings, setting the agenda and holding the meetings in their own schools (on a rotating basis). As our funding draws to a close, we plan to research how these “professional learning communities” continue to function with minimal support from us.
  3. The instructional coaches, all former science teachers in the county, are experts about the county curricula, county resources, and discussion-leading techniques and strategies for fostering students’ inquiry. Their workshops and our team’s work complement each other. The coaches have also been grooming several of our “star” teachers as teacher-leaders in their schools. This extends the reach of our program.

Our primary means of assessing the program is our (often videotaped) observations in the teachers’ classrooms. Following highly individualized trajectories, most teachers have made progress in the confidence, frequency, and/or skill with which they make space for students’ ideas to surface and attend and respond to those ideas. The MSP project as a whole is also analyzing the Maryland State Assessment scores of students of the teachers in our program.

An episode from our first summer workshop

The following episode, summarized from a paper by Gupta et al. that is under review (available at, illustrates the open-endedness of the inquiry in which we engage the teachers. We intend this inquiry not as a model of what they can do in their own classrooms, but rather to help them develop a sense of what “real” inquiry is so that they can engage their own students in its closest possible approximation, given the constraints of curricula and standardized testing. (Most of the teachers, however, modify and use our inquiry units.)

For several days in the summer of 2009, the teachers had been investigating offshoots of our opening question, which is the only pre-planned part of our newbie “curriculum”: Suppose you’re walking at a steady pace, holding your keys in your hand but keeping your hand still compared to your body. You want to drop the keys into a small, low trash can sitting on the floor. Should you drop the keys before you reach the can, directly over the can, or after you pass the can? Teachers began with extended small-group and whole-class discussions formulating arguments for the different possibilities. These discussions led to experiments which in turn led to more questions and explanations involving gravity, air resistance, and the object’s “inherited” forward motion. Through this process, most teachers came to realize that the discourse surrounding experiments is just as important for inquiry as the experiments themselves.

At one point, the teachers decided to drop both filled and empty water bottles out the window of a moving car, to probe the relative effects of air resistance on each. Watching video of their experiment in slow motion, they noticed, among other things, that both bottles landed at about the same time. This led to a discussion in which the teachers brought up a result most of them knew and many of them had taught: a heavier and lighter object dropped from the same height land at the same time. The teachers decided that they didn’t understand why the heavy and light object fall together, and that figuring out why could help them understand what was going on with the water bottles. So, they broke into small groups to discuss it.

One small group’s discussion was rife with incorrect reasoning of the type usually labeled “misconceptions.” At some moments, they thought of gravity as an agent pulling the objects down, rather than as an interaction between the Earth and the falling object. At other moments they thought of gravity as analogous to gasoline, a “fuel” carried by the object. (Gupta et al.’s paper analyzes their reasoning in more detail.) A team member was listening to this group the whole time, but said nothing; neither she nor a “curriculum” nudged the group toward correct notions of gravitational force and inertia.

Reporting out to the whole “class” a bit later, one of the teachers, “Lynn,” summarized her group’s argument as she currently understood it:

Lynn: Well we were really struggling with the germ of an idea, and we're not totally sure, but, we sort of have the idea that, like if you take a roll of quarters and one quarter, we know that if you drop them, they're going to land at the same time now. And to try to reconcile that, I was trying, we had a couple of analogies, I was trying to think of gravity as a constant force all over the earth, and in order to pull that one quarter down, it takes like two ounces, or two whatever, units of gravity to pull it down. So, when you just lump them all together, it doesn't change the fact that each one of those quarters in that roll is still going to need its little two whatevers of gravity, so putting them together doesn't make it any harder or any easier for it to come down, if each little part still needs that little bit of gravity, so if you thought about that coin roll, and slowly started separating them, just the fact that you're pushing them together doesn't, shouldn't really affect the fact that each need their own little bit of gravity. And we thought about a car as well, we said maybe it takes fifty gallons to move one of those semi trucks a mile. Well, when you add another semi truck to it, it doesn't make it take less energy, for the new space that's been added on, it needs more gasoline, so we kind of think of gravity as this is something that each little amount of space needs a certain amount of to be pulled down, and it doesn't matter if you lump the space together, you pull them apart, it's all going to work the same, if you think of that roll of quarters as just a mess of little quarters put together.

We’d like to point out a few features of Lynn’s explanation. First, it contains the same “misconceptions” present in the small-group discussion, with gravity as agent and gravity as analogous to a substance that can make the coins move. Nonetheless, the explanation elegantly accounts for why heavier and lighter objects fall at the same rate; indeed, it’s similar to the one Galileo gives in On Motion (1590). Furthermore, this idea led to a more textbook-style explanation of why the heavy and light objects fall together:

Daniel: Well, the eight quarters also have eight times the inertia, right? So it's going to, if they're heavier, they're going to have more mass, so they have more inertia, um, does that factor in?

Andy (facilitator): So, more inertia. So what is inertia meaning for us, you right now?

Daniel: Um, it's going to have, uh, when you drop it, it wants to stay at rest, but gravity's pulling it down, so it's got to overcome that willingness to stay at rest. The more massive it is, the more it's going to want to stay, to not move.

Andy: So you're saying things that are just sitting somewhere don't want to move, and you're saying the, uh, the bigger heavier thing has more "not want to moviness" to it then a lighter thing, so.

Daniel: Eight quarters stacked together is eight more times not willing to move than one quarter.

Andy: So the eight quarters is eight times as hard to move.

Dave: But that means there's eight times as much gravity pulling it down.

Daniel: Right. And that’s why they fall at the same [inaudible]

This episode was typical of our summer inquiry sessions in several ways. Instead of confronting the teachers’ misconceptions, we gave them the extra time needed to work through those misconceptions on their own—or actually build on them to make conceptual progress, as Lynn’s group did. This often led to frustration, which several teachers disliked; yet teachers also noted, in retrospect, the important role that confusion and frustration play in pushing learning forward.

By giving the teachers more time and agency over the direction of their inquiry than is typical in summer programs for teachers, we hope that they develop a better understanding of the nature of doing and learning of science. Equally important, we want them to feel the joy of taking charge of their own learning in science. Lynn referred back to the coin roll discussion several times in subsequent years as transformative in helping her think of herself as a “science person.”

On a personal level, the first year I did this and we did the, one of the things where you drop book and feather, which hits first? And we had to figure out for ourselves how that occurs? What happens? And I, it was very frustrating working through that, but when I actually figured it out for myself, that was probably one of the most exhilarating intellectual moments I've ever had in my life. It was just really astonishing. And then, that was cool because that happened with me that summer, and then I started using it in classroom, and I can see same kind of epiphany occurring with students, and I know how exhilarating and empowering it is to have that kind of experience. So that's probably been the most amazing part.

Andrew Elby, Associate Professor of Teaching & Learning, Policy & Leadership at the University of Maryland, did his doctoral work in Physics and taught high school physics before turning to science education research.

Ayush Gupta, Research Assistant Professor (Department of Physics) and Instructor (Keystone Program, AJC School of Engineering) at the University of Maryland, did his doctoral work in Electrical Engineering before turning to discipline-based education research in physics and engineering.

Luke Conlin, Postdoctoral Scholar in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, received a B.S. in astrophysics and taught high school physics prior to pursuing education research, recently completing his Ph.D. in science education at the University of Maryland.

Jennifer Richards is currently finishing up her doctorate in science education at the University of Maryland and continuing work on the (MSP)2 project as a research associate next year.

Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.