Coursework / ED800

Teacher Inquiry in the Educational Cosmos

“How can inquiry represent the lived actualities that can never be generalized?”
Maxine Greene

FlammarionIf we knew the exact location, mass, and velocity of every physical object of any size or composition in the universe at any one point in time; and we understood the physical laws that will determine how they will interact with and react to each other; and we looked ahead; could we predict the future?  Some physicists or philosophers might say maybe, if it were possible.  Most people would say no, we have free will.  But, we would continue to try to understand the universe from up close, right down to the last electron.  And, we would continue to look more broadly at the scientific laws that organize the dynamics between all parts large and small.  And, we would continue to dream about the future.  Educational inquiry is similar.  Each form of inquiry looking at questions of the educational universe from different perspectives, trying to understand its particularities and generalities, and how it all fits within our lives and our dreams.  When the results of each form of inquiry are able to interact, we get a clearer picture.

Teacher experience is one way of figuring out the learning that is happening in one setting, affected by various other settings (home, administration, moods, etc.).  What twists, turns, pokes, and temperatures will make the desired difference?  Teacher experience can help the big picture (and medium and small) make better sense.  It is important for all interested or involved in education to pay attention from different distances, with different “magnifying instruments,” from different angles, and across time and experience.  It is important not to lose the individual students that matter so much, or the ideals toward which we are all moving.  “We need a broader vision, to match the world in which we act and with an image that includes the forest and the trees, the baby and the bathwater” (Bateson, 1994, p. 110).  Teacher inquiry is fruitful because it represents the baby and the trees, the particular classrooms of the educational universe.  It must be considered in the overall conversation.


Teacher inquiry is distinctive because, as a form of inquiry, attention is focused on the personal, the particular, and the idiosyncratic.  General rules, even daily rules, may not be an ultimate possibility.  Teachers’ experiences stand out in inquiry because of their proximity to the teaching and learning, because they are personal, they are interpersonal and intrapersonal, they are highly contextualized, accessible, and “real.”  Maxine Greene says, “Like the philosopher Gadamer (1975) I want to keep pointing to the ‘peculiar falsehood of modern consciousness:  the idolatry of scientific method and of the anonymous authority of the sciences’” (39).  Teacher inquiry stands out in contrast to scientific, empirical, or philosophical forms of inquiry.

As was noted by Professor Weiland, teacher inquiry takes readers inside specific classrooms, teachers’ heads, and conversations.  This form of inquiry is “up close and personal.”  Readers can see through one set of eyes, hear the interactions between teachers and others, experience another’s experience, and interpret another’s interpretations.  Often these thoughts vanish away in the day-to-day tasks of teaching and learning.  How did we get here?  What am I doing wrong?  What am I doing right?  What am I doing?  Taking teachers’ daily experiences into account, asking about them, examining them up close where, when, and how they experience and interpret (or reflect upon) them; readers can begin a conversation of sorts with a teacher.  Teachers’ experiences can be a “ground truth,” helping to “keep it real,” an opportunity to take readers inside of one teacher’s story at a time.  Those stories can be informative and sustaining if they are shared, even if only with ourselves.  Karen Gallas could not be more emphatic when she talks about this approach to inquiry:  “The truth is, if you’re a teacher and you don’t write, when you stop teaching, you leave no physical traces behind that can be incorporated into the body of knowledge about teaching and learning” (quoted in lesson 2.11).  Perhaps a little strong, but the message is clear—reflect, share, think, grow, encourage, achieve!  Teacher experience is distinctive, in part, because it affords the opportunity to do all of these things not for every one, but for one classroom, one teacher, one student at a time.

15907244-pregnant-woman-in-flowersWhile participant observation offers a level of closeness similar to that of teachers’ inquiry or experience, generalizations or patterns beyond that particular experience is not likely a major goal of teachers’ inquiry.  Teacher inquiry is more likely to convey something personal that a teacher researcher thinks that others might like to know.  We often convey messages through personal stories.  For instance, before our daughter was born, many mothers (especially my own) would disguise their advice in personal stories of pregnancy, labor, birth, and beyond.  It was a little graphic at times.  But, the point was never missed:  “You should learn from my personal experience.”  And, just as every pregnancy is different and unpredictable, each follows a pattern that can often be called “normal” regardless of outcomes and in consideration of the contexts in which it progresses.  Between the polite smiles and head nodding, I could not help but come to understand that their stories could prepare us for pregnancy’s real-world unpredictabilities.  Knowing many of these mothers and their children (though unsolicited stories and advice from strangers were no rarity), I knew that everyone turned out fine.  Leaving each conversation slightly annoyed, I became oddly comforted by others’ personal stories and interpretations of the “real world” of pregnancy. By way of personal stories, teachers’ experiences and inquiries are distinctive in educational inquiry because they are personal and particular.

Teachers’ experience is also distinctive as a form of inquiry because it is both interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Teacher inquiry relies on the relationships and interactions between teachers and students, administrators, friends, families, and others who affect their classrooms—including themselves.  Each direct and indirect participant in the classroom adds a variety of contextual flavors of varying intensity each day.  Taking from Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, the interpersonal intelligence required to recognize (let alone navigate and negotiate) the interactions between participants and contexts is significant.  Teacher experience offers real stories on which to develop such skills.  Vivian Paley says, “The simple need to communicate is, after all, the basis of community, and of education itself.  Tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine; we’ll put all our stories on a pretend stage and then we’ll know who we are” (in Koshewa, 2002, p. 9).  Paley also speaks to the connection between the interpersonal and the intrapersonal—teachers reflecting on discoveries within themselves as part of teacher inquiry.  She says, “Apparently I needed classroom after classroom of young children demanding to be heard before I could identify my own voice and imagine my own questions” (quoted in 2.8).  In The Girl With the Brown Crayon (1997), Paley’s co-teacher, Nisha Ruparel-Sen, describes reaching into herself:  “It’s more like opening up, or maybe even discovering things I’ve forgotten” (p. 47).  Both Paley and Ruparel-Sen found within themselves some of the strengths, values, interests, loves, struggles, emotions, biases, expectations, and dreams that they brought to the classroom dynamic.  Each intrapersonal and interpersonal context and set of specific details is available for discovery and rediscovery every single day.  Teacher inquiry is distinctive because of its necessary attention to both interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics in particular, personal contexts.

Teacher inquiry stands out because it is highly contextualized.  Building from the particular, personal, interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects of this form of inquiry; each participant (person, place, thing, or idea) is part of and carries a variety of further contexts into classrooms; whether recent, current, historic, expectant, emotional, intellectual, physical or in any other way impactful.  There is a lot going on in any classroom, and the number of people, events, and ideas that have directly or indirectly affected each classroom is perhaps immeasurable.  What stands out in teacher inquiry is the relative importance of contextual dynamics among its other distinguishing features.  Understanding the particular contexts that play out in a particular classroom may create greater possibilities for teaching and learning.  In their conversation, Allen Koshewa and Vivian Paley remarked on the value of contexts as possibilities for learning through the power of imagination.  “Abstraction is the ability to project yourself into different social possibilities” (Koshewa, 2002, p. 7) “…and emotional possibilities” (Paley in Koshewa, 2002, p. 8).  With respect to its particularities, teacher inquiry stands out because of the relative importance of contextual dynamics.

Teachers’ experience as a form of inquiry can also be distinguished because it is accessible as a form of inquiry, it is repeatable, and it yields unique results across time, space, and context.  Quoted in lesson 2.6, Vivian Paley describes the fun that can come along with this level of accessibility and its resulting uncertainties and improvisations:  “Do you want to refashion your classroom?  Do you want to ignite yourself again the way you used to feel without spending a penny?  You don’t have to buy anything.  You don’t need anyone’s permission.  You don’t need a catalogue.”  Anyone can do it and contribute to the larger conversation.

While teachers’ experience as a form of inquiry shares many features with other forms of inquiry, its distinguishing features are useful as part of the overall, ongoing conversations about education.  Patricia Cooper says of literacy, “There is no one way to approach this issue.  Teachers must decide what to do within the context of expectations, their own, the school’s, and the families’” (2005, p. 240).  The same holds true when looking at teachers’ experiences.  Teacher inquiry takes us inside the classrooms, contexts, the interpersonal dynamics, the intrapersonal dynamics, the particular questions and ideas that can help us make sense of the particularities.  It offers an opportunity to contribute personal stories to the “body of knowledge about teaching and learning.”  On the inside, the answers seem more “real” somehow, opening up the conversation about education to all participants.


Depending on their focus, specific teachers’ inquiry is suitable for looking at a variety of particular, local educational problems, issues, and areas of application.  Among the educational questions to which this form of inquiry is well-suited are questions about specific classroom needs, about classroom relationships, about teachers’ personal and professional growth, and about the value of particularistic inquiry in discussions about education.  In short, teacher inquiry is suitable to educational questions that reflect its distinguishing characteristics as a form of inquiry.

Teacher inquiry is well-suited to questions of specific classroom needs, hopes, improvisations, inventions, practices, and materials.  What will happen if we explore Leo Lionni’s stories alongside our own?  How does Reeny’s family story contribute to her reading of Frederick?  What am I keeping students from learning?  There are many questions that teachers must answer about their classrooms every day.  The observations from teachers’ inquiry can result in flexibility and improvisations.  Absent consideration of observations, teachers may become more rigid in an increasingly changing world.

Teacher inquiry is also suited to exploring classroom relationships—student-teacher, student-student, teacher-teacher, teacher-parent, teacher-administrator, and many more.  These relationships color and influence teaching and learning.  While other forms of inquiry may offer insight, individual teachers must negotiate these relationships specific to their situations.  Teacher inquiry is very much suited to furthering understanding about real classroom relationships.  Teachers can set their own standards for assessing relationships within the contexts of their classrooms.  “Lonely or not, some folks, when required to use another person’s yardstick, will simply inch their way out of the forest—or out of the faculty room” (Paley, 1997, p. 45).

Teacher inquiry can be valuable when applied to questions of teachers’ personal, intrapersonal, and professional growth.  Vivian Paley says, “We are not, any of us, to be found in sets of tasks or lists of attributes; we cannot be defined or classified.  We can be known only in the singular and unfolding of our unique stories within the context of everyday events” (1989, pp. 1-2).  Because everyday events occur every day, and contexts and perspectives change throughout the day and over time; teacher inquiry is very well suited to the ongoing questions of growth over time at different personal and career stages, and in new contextual worlds and circumstances.  The questions will continue to change and to demand continued exploration.  For Paley, “Somehow each book ended with the questions that led to the next story” (in Lindfors, 2004, p. 149).  Another great opportunity for teacher inquiry.

Understanding, measuring, and reflecting upon student growth offers another solid tack for teacher inquiry.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of student growth.  Paying attention to the contexts and factors that contribute to learning is important.  Understanding and closely observing students can offer practitioners of teacher inquiry valuable insight.  “The children keep track of each other’s footprints in a way no magnifying instrument of mine can ever accomplish” (Paley, 1997, p. 96).  Teacher inquiry is suited to questions about students’ discoveries because it takes place in the room with them.  In light of students’ insights and their own inquiry, teachers can understand students’ growth in ways that are directly applicable in (nearly) real-time.

Teacher inquiry is suited (along with other forms of inquiry) to questions about the value of particularistic inquiry in conversations about education.  Karen Gallas (2001) handles this question in her description and prescription for the “parallel universes” of educational research.  Somewhat less than a form of inquiry than as an example of inquiry, teacher inquiry’s suitability to questions of up-close observation rests in its value to the overall balance of educational focus.

Teachers’ experience is suitable as a form of inquiry into questions having to do with the personal, the particular, and the idiosyncratic in education.  For Maxine Greene (1992), this form of inquiry is essential.  She says,

I simply want to argue against anonymity as we regard the lives of children now and in the past.  I want to argue against the decontextualization of those lives.  I want to resist the temptation to accommodate to the demands of a system more interested in technological growth than in the growth of diverse children.  I want to think about flexibility and relationship and the conversational reconciling of a multiplicity of voices as we strive for a decent and humane world. (p. 39)

Taken as a whole, teachers’ inquiry can be applied to larger questions.

Accessibility & Utility

In addition to its accessibility as a form of inquiry, the results of teacher inquiry are accessible and variously useful to a number of different groups interested in education.  Including the educational lenses of teachers, administrators, parents, students, researchers, scholars, and philosophers; the results of teacher inquiry lend themselves to easy interpretation through different educational lenses.  As such, the results of teachers’ inquiry can contribute to the ongoing conversations across educational topics, between educational players, within individuals, and with the past and the future.

The accessibility and utility of teacher inquiry to teachers is all but self-evident.  Being able to connect (or disagree, but in any case to interact) with the results of one’s own or others’ inquiry, teachers may engage in valuable conversations about their roles in education.  Inquiry is useful in that it affords a deeper, closer look at the questions that, left alone, may just pass by.  Allen Koshewa describes this value, saying, “…Ms. Paley learned to listen to children and to make her own learning a crucial part of teaching.  For her, teaching is not about dispensing facts, but about finding our what is important to each of us” (2002, p. 7).  Where teachers take their understandings of themselves and others will differ, but if they are open to growth, they can learn from others’ experiences.

Maxine Greene says, “Interest in children’s imaginations on our part depends on how we perceive children in this culture, how the public comes to perceive them, what we value, what we are visibly struggling to attain” (1992, p. 38).  The same can be said about administrators, students, and parents with regard to the results of teachers’ inquiry.  Each group has the opportunity, through teachers’ inquiry, to develop a greater sense of teachers and to have more meaningful conversations with them.  These groups may better understand their own perceptions and those of teachers and, therefore can build relationships from a place of understanding and respect.  The strength of educational experiences is built, in part, on these relationships.

Seen from the perspectives of scholars, researchers, and philosophers, the results of teachers’ inquiry can be incorporated into their ideas about education.  Whether as a balance to scientific and empirical results or integral to their primary purposes, teacher research is a reminder of the particular in education.  According to Karen Gallas, “Only when researchers begin to demonstrate their belief that the work of teacher researchers has something to contribute to discussions of theory, practice, and policy will the field of education begin to change to the benefit of teachers and students” (2001, p. 573).

For all individuals and groups interested in education, it is important to continue an ongoing conversation across groups, forms of inquiry, contexts, perspectives, space, and time.  Teacher inquiry and its results should be a valuable part of the discussion, but not the only part.  Because it is distinctive, accessible, and useful; teacher inquiry should be a significant contributor to our collective understanding of the educational cosmos.  The more that is known of the particulars, the better we can see our past and present and predict, interpret, and improvise our future together.  After all, as Hillary Sterling (1999) reminds us, “Learning—like evolution—is a changing, developing process that requires an ongoing reconstruction of experience.”


  • Bateson, M.C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York, NY: Harper.
  • Cooper, P.M. (2005). Literacy learning and pedagogical purpose in Vivian Paley’s ‘storytelling curriculum.’ Journal of Early Childhood Education, 5(8), 229-251.
  • Gallas, K. (2001, July). Teachers’ knowledge and children’s lives: Loose change in the battle for educational currency. Language Arts, 78(6), 570-573.
  • Greene, M. (1992). Beyond the predictable: A viewing of the history of early childhood education. In L. Williams & D. Fromberg (Eds.), Encyclopedia of early childhood education. New York, NY: Garland.
  • Koshewa, A. (2002, November/December). Interview with Vivian Paley. Talking Points, 7-9.
  • Lindfors, J.W. (2004, November). A written conversation with Vivian Gussin Paley, Outstanding Educator in the Language Arts. Language Arts, 82(2), 148-153.
  • Paley, V.G. (1997). The girl with the brown crayon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Paley, V.G. (1989, September). Must teachers also be writers? Occasional paper No. 13. National Center for the Study of Writing.
  • Sterling, H.A. (1999, November/December). Teaching with Dewey on my shoulder. Science and Children, 37(3), 22-25.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s