Many Connections. One U.

Changing students’ relationships to knowledge in a theme-study classroom

Sam Hausfather

(1998) Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 13(1), 33-47.

Jennifer: You’re a teacher, you’re supposed to know.
Bill: Yeah, we don’t know.
Teacher: Yes, I have a little more experience than you do, but you have six years of experience.
Linda: You have a lot more! You have forty-two. (Videotape transcription, 1/14/92)

What right had I, as a fifth-grade teacher, to change the role expectations of students? Here I was trying to redesign relationships within the classroom, trying to negotiate curriculum decision-making with the students. The students appeared not as willing as I to accept this goal.

A democratic society demands citizen-participants who are able to have a voice in their classrooms, in their education, and in society. Current reform efforts in education emphasize role changes for students and teachers within classrooms and schools (Corbett & Wilson, 1995). This requires a different relationship to the knowledge traditionally dispensed in schools. Students can no longer be merely consumers of knowledge. They must take an active role with knowledge they construct, questioning and judging knowledge and its use. As we move from behaviorist to constructivist approaches to learning, we face head-on the implications of different approaches to knowledge.

Much recent research examines teachers’ conceptions of knowledge (Kagan, 1992; Lyons, 1990) but little attention has been paid to students’ relationships to knowledge. Knowledge has been defined in the literature in many different ways (Alexander, Schallert, & Hare, 1991; Alexander & Dochy, 1995). For this investigation, I was concerned with how students approached constructing knowledge within classrooms, not so much with what knowledge they actually possessed. Nona Lyons (1990) revealed how teachers’ perspectives toward knowledge colored their view of themselves and their students as knowers. Likewise, students can take different approaches to knowledge which can affect their relationships with knowledge within classrooms.

This article chronicles the events in a class experimenting with a theme-study approach, examining conceptions of knowledge of both students and teacher. The study examines changing relationships to knowledge and defines three approaches to knowledge students could take within classrooms. Possible underlying causes are explored for changes in students’ approaches to knowledge. Finally, questions are raised about the connection between the social construction of the classroom and changes in approaches to knowledge.

Method: Revealing meanings in my practice

Having been an elementary school teacher for seventeen years, I thought I knew teaching well enough to be able to change accepted approaches to teaching. My two years of graduate study had reinforced my desire to construct a classroom where students related to knowledge in different ways. My goal was to organize curricula around the problems, needs, and interests of the students through interdisciplinary investigations of themes. I reentered the classroom as a fifth-grade teacher and part-time instructor at a small college laboratory school in the southeastern United States. The laboratory school had approximately 110 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, comprising a variety of backgrounds with both college-related and working-class families well-represented. I had fifteen children in my fifth-grade class, a small number by most standards in education today.

A real normal cross-section of kids: active and passive, bright and dull, all the ranges I would expect in a public school class. Unfortunately no minorities. The group knows each other well, but there is a fair amount of teasing and pushing limits with each other. They are lively, a few with some real problems, yet generally likable kids wanting what we all want: affection, interest, etc. Connor came up to me and confided about his grandpa who has a tumor. Hard life for that kid, with or without Ritalin. Katie got hurt in P.E., physically in being roughed up, and then emotionally when the girls talked about her not especially nicely. How emotional an age it is becoming. (Teacher Journal, 8/23/91).

Within this classroom community, I took the role of both teacher and researcher, aspiring to make visible the teacher’s role in the generation of knowledge about teaching and learning (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993). This study reports the conclusions from my year-long experience as a teacher-researcher negotiating the social context of the classroom and the resulting relationships to knowledge students appear to form.

Entering the classroom, I decided to employ phenomenological action research to analyze my practice. My interest was distinctly qualitative and phenomenological, to reveal the essential meanings of theme study as it was experienced in my classroom. Phenomenology is the science of phenomena, of objects and events as they appear in our experience. Phenomenology “endeavors to describe how the world is constituted and experienced through conscious acts” (, p. 184). Phenomenology attempts to reveal and describe the internal meaning structures of lived experience, the essences of phenomena.

Personal experience is the starting point for gathering data (van Manen, 1990). Researchers must always be aware of their role in the life experience they are studying. Instead of the participant-observer role often mentioned in ethnographic research, I adopted the role of observant participant, maintaining an orientation of reflectivity while immersing myself in practice. Close observation then allowed me to enter the lifeworld of the experience studied. “Close observation involves an attitude of assuming a relation that is as close as possible while retaining a hermeneutic alertness to situations that allows us to constantly step back and reflect on the meaning of those situations” (van Manen, 1990, p. 69). Close observation provides the anecdotes that begin the development of a cogent sense of the lived experience.

I decided to incorporate this phenomenological orientation into my research. I made use of the core components of action research, such as a focus on the practical, systematic inquiry, and reflexivity (); and I employed these components within the structure of the action-research spiral delineated by ). The process involves four dynamic, complementary steps: plan, act, observe, and reflect. First, a strategic plan is developed, taking account of risks, constraints, and unpredictability. Deliberate action follows, with the researcher keeping goals in mind and flexibly looking back at the plans. Careful observation should document the effects of actions and the action process. Retrospective reflection then provides the means to make sense of the processes, problems, issues, and constraints. The process is both descriptive, building a clearer picture of practice, and evaluative, pointing toward revisions to the plan. The cycle then repeats, becoming more refined, but also reinventing questions. Reflexivity, a distinctive aspect of ethnography (), is thus built into a model of action research. Throughout the year, I recorded class experiences on video and audio tape and in a reflective journal. Third-party feedback, classroom artifacts, and planning documents were also compiled and analyzed. I attempted to view my data through a phenomenological lens, drawing themes out of the data and connecting them to conceptual structures.

My interest in pursuing this qualitative research was distinctly in its instrumental utility. Instrumental utility involves the usefulness of comprehension in helping us understand a complex situation; the usefulness of anticipation in helping us map a particular terrain so we may better understand where we can go; and the usefulness of a guide in calling attention to aspects of a situation we might otherwise miss (). I disclosed deeper meanings in classroom life, meanings unique to my local situation yet rife with questions applicable to any classroom. How does theme study affect conceptions of knowledge in a classroom? What redefined roles are possible for students and teacher? What constrains changing relationships to knowledge? Although I will suggest conclusions, readers must create their own questions from this study and make them useful to their own practice.

The Construction of a Curriculum

My aim was to create a theme study classroom, organizing interdisciplinary investigations of themes around the problems, needs, and interests of the students. Theme study is a student-centered approach that “emphasizes a coherent and holistic approach to learning through the study of broad themes rather than compartmentalized subject areas” (Gamberg, Winniefred, Hutchings, & Altheim, 1988, p. 5). Student involvement in research was a key aspect of my conception of a theme study classroom. Through research, I hoped students could become active stakeholders in the teaching/learning process. I wanted to guard against confining my students to the role of learners and myself being restricted to the role of teacher. Students should learn for the purpose of sharing their knowledge, with each research project serving as an opportunity for students to teach each other. Each project was also a chance for me to experiment with different arrangements of the learning and teaching process (see Table 1). We moved between group and individual responsibilities, attempting to create an environment for student inquiry. We used different structures for organizing our knowledge, creating environments that promoted the social construction of knowledge. Creating a constructivist classroom was revealed as a process, as curriculum responded indirectly in unforeseen ways.

Table 1. Evolution of student research opportunities.

 Theme/Content  Learning Arrangement  Teaching Context
Why are we here?/ Geology/geography Cross-grade research & learning groups, create teaching texts Individuals teach small group with text
Understanding differences/ Native Americans Individuals research, complete chart, create artifact Groups teach class, class fills charts
Exploring the unknown/ Astronomy Individuals research, create poster & brochure Individuals teach class, class creates books
Exploring the unknown/ Early U.S. explorers Individuals research, groups collaborate, prepare notes Individuals interviewed by class, class fills charts
Investigations/ U.S. states Individuals research, write report & poster, group edits Individuals teach class, class takes notes
Greed & charity/ Slavery/civil war Group or individual research, prepare notes Group or individuals teach class, class takes notes

Under the theme “Why are we here?,” the first cycle of action research involved establishing geology research groups, beginning the process of seeing students as researchers and teachers. Each group was given the challenge to become expert enough to teach their peers. Groups created research-based textbooks from which they could teach other groups. Teaching from student-created texts, however, did not appear to promote joint construction of knowledge, as books and student lectures became sources of school knowledge, still separate from student knowledge and experience.

Students are in the teacher mode, although for some that has more meaning than for others. Doreen takes the job seriously, seeing it as more than just reading her booklet but showing as much visual information and explanation as possible to supplement the booklet. Most of the others merely read their booklet, showing only the pictures or diagrams they’ve put in it. There was not much discussion of the topics, nor many questions afterwards. Hardly joint construction, as the students were not participating actively. The main difference was that the students were teachers instead of me. (Videotape Analysis, 10/29/91)

It’s great to see their excitement at being the teacher, the one in charge sharing their new-found knowledge. Katie was jumping up and down to be chosen to teach. She explained each part, read the written part, and readily admitted to not knowing answers to some questions. Some of the kids are not real serious, however, during this time, which makes it doubly hard for the “student teacher”. (Teacher Journal, 11/4/91).

Our second cycle, the study of Native Americans, involved the theme “Understanding Differences”, and gave students a somewhat more active role in processing knowledge, as writing, literature, and art all came together around the theme. I created a chart with seven categories related to general areas raised by students’ questions. Groups shared what they had found about a chosen tribe, which the students used to complete their individual charts. The groups then collaborated to translate their findings into projects for a school display case. Students were beginning to take active roles in the joint construction of knowledge, but I sensed they were not participating enough in instructional conversations within the classroom.

I also feel the pressure of the kids for me to teach in predetermined ways. They resist using manipulatives or exploring in depth the reasons why an algorithm exists. Give us the trick, or let us do it the way we’ve been taught before. Just give us the knowledge and let us get on with our work! The idea of constructing knowledge together runs smack into the pressure, both from kids and from the teacher, to move on quickly and get through with the topic. (Teacher Journal, 12/27/91)

Student perceptions of what a teacher is or does, of how learning happens, influenced how I taught and what I felt I was able to do in the classroom. The enacted curriculum became a negotiation between myself, the children, and institutional pressures.

The next research cycle involved students more in designing the investigations around our “Exploring the Unknown” theme. I attempted to negotiate with the class their approach to research on explorers.

Students [s] are seated at tables in groups of four. The teacher is at the front of the room, before the blackboard, talking to the whole class.
Teacher: I looked over what you webbed for the ideas and what you knew about explorers. What I need to figure out now is, I’d like you to help me . . . I want to find out from you what different ideas you have for finding out about the who, what, and why for the different groups; and how we should present that for each other. (Quiet meets me as I look out at the group). Any ideas for how we should do it this time? (Pause) No ideas?
s: You’re a teacher, you’re supposed to know.
s: Yeah, we don’t know.
Teacher: Yes, I have a little more experience than you do, but you have six years of experience.
s: You have a lot more! You have forty-two.
Teacher: . . . So it sounds like you don’t have any great ideas about this, do you?
s: I do! Read books!
s: Go to the library.
s: Read an encyclopedia.
s: Watch a movie.
s: Play games. (Videotape transcription, 1/14/92)

I was pushing the students to establish a clear sense of the research process before they knew very much about explorers. By allowing students the freedom within limits to respond to the knowledge they create, I wanted them to view knowledge as mutable. At the same time, the students wanted a clear sense of expectations from me, an idea of the direction they were to pursue. I found it difficult to balance these needs with a flexible approach to the understandings we were examining. My relationship to knowledge of explorers was already set, and the boundaries I had created colored my ability to open alternative avenues of exploration.

It was through other classroom activities that I began to form more of an understanding of alternative modes of knowing. Using a simulation exercise, students assumed the roles of seven explorers, each claiming to be the true discoverer of America and presenting their case through questioning by another student (Lacey & Bovberg, 1987). During the following freewheeling discussion, we began to see knowledge as something worth debating, not staid facts and set answers. Sitting around our tables, students actively generated ideas and weighed each other’s thinking. Discussing an excerpt from the writings of historian Samuel Eliot Morison analyzing the claim that Columbus first discovered America, students began to judge the nature of knowledge as they struggled to comprehend differing perspectives on the nature of history.

A number of times, students asked about the right answer. We discussed the need to judge the different evidence and work from accounts that could not always be definitively verified. And in the end, when students wanted to know the right answer, even after reading Morison’s conclusions, I stressed that there is no one right answer, only evidence from which they had to judge. (Teacher journal, 1/18/92)

The excitement students experienced in this discussion led me to a better understanding of the importance of exploring “big” problems with the students. “Big” problems had enough meat on them to afford us a look in detail, the existence of alternative interpretations, and no clearly established right answer.

I was struck by how different this relationship to knowledge was from the simple digestion of facts. Our concurrent study of astronomy was becoming a time-consuming, in-depth process marked by attempts to negotiate knowledge with the students. For example, discussion in class on reasons for the seasons turned into a hard look at naive theories of science and a forceful push to justify each theory logically. Students were questioning and making multiple connections as their peers began presenting their individual planet research. Questioning knowledge, inquiring into the meanings behind the facts, was fast becoming the enterprise that I saw as primary in my classroom.

This is exactly the type of relationship to knowledge which I am interested in promoting. I must see “thematic” pale in comparison to “inquiry” as the focus for the relationship to knowledge. Themes might promote curriculum which pushes us to inquire, but by no means will that necessarily happen. Projects push kids more in that direction. I’ve seen that this week as kids report to the class on their planet posters. As kids take on the role of producer of knowledge, knowledge which they have researched and selected, they identify themselves with that knowledge. And the other kids respond with valuable questions, interest in knowing more, as Ted did in asking Kirsten about relative sizes of Mars’ moons. (Teacher Journal, 1/18/92)

As students shared their planet research, a culture of learning began to be established. Individual reports gave each child a chance to become an expert on a particular planet, with the clear goal of presenting new-found knowledge to the class. Students were asked to prepare a presentation to the class on their planet, creating a poster and brochure to aid them in their presentation. Planet posters and brochures made the knowledge public while allowing the students creativity in expression. Teaching the class put the students in a different role, both sharing and defending their efforts.

. . . when Nate told us of the high temperatures on Venus, we questioned why they were so high. Nate mentioned the many clouds. We looked again at what those clouds were, mostly carbon dioxide. What is carbon dioxide? Various kids mentioned breathing, trees, and plants. Someone mentioned the ozone and heating of earth. So we pushed further into the greenhouse effect and global warming. Many had heard about these and were concerned. How was it related to Venus and carbon dioxide clouds? So we discussed pollution, deforestation, and warming, and connected it to Venus. Someone brought up the possibility of trees on Venus, and we discussed trees changing Venus’ atmosphere to more oxygen . . . (Teacher Journal, 1/26/92)

I took an active role in nudging the class toward clarifying and questioning the knowledge presented. I wanted discussions to flow from the presentations — discussions that promoted an inquiring approach toward knowledge while supporting the development of those in the class.

At the beginning of February, I began to experiment with somewhat different instructional approaches in our “Taking off on Investigations” theme. While individual and group research continued, simulations and literature became essential aspects of integrating and creating the theme. A wagon train simulation allowed the children to participate in real problem-solving discussion time (Wesley, 1974). As situations arose which involved hard decisions on the fate of their group’s progress along the Oregon Trail, students attempted to convince each other to accept their solution based on their own thinking.

A group of seven students sits tightly around a round table, very involved in a discussion of what to do about being able to pay guards who were selling water along the wagon train route.
Bill: I think the same thing as Ann’s saying. Number 1, there won’t be enough water. Number 2, then we’ll become weak and we won’t go that far. Number 3, chances of you finding water are not that good. The guards are powerful, and if we sell something to get money and get something that we do need, that’s good.
Jim: What if they don’t want to trade?
Ann: No, we sell things to other people, like a shop, and take the money and go to the guards and get the money.
Joe: Where do you get something to sell?
Ann: Well all three of us have . . .
Bill: Like if you have something you don’t need. OK, what was your idea?
Doreen: I said the same idea. Except I think you might want to have to pay for the water and agree to share it, because you might not get anyone to buy their stuff. That might be a good thing to have in case you can’t sell the stuff. I don’t think there’s going to be very many shops along the prairie . . .
Ann: OK, everyone gets a few minutes to think about it. GO. (puts head down on hand in thinking pose)
Sam: Wait, instead of thinking about it, I think it’s better if people can . . .
Doreen: Talk about it.
Sam: Yes, can convince other people, say things to convince other people.
Ann: Yes, go ahead.
Doreen: If you’re going to have to sell things that are unnecessary, that’s good to get room for water, but you might not be able to sell it or you might not be able to get enough money for it. But if we put our money together, we’ll be able to get some water but we’ll have to share the water.
David: I don’t care, I have five barrels.
Bill: Yeah, but . . . I’ll try to convince you of mine. Your idea is good, but we probably won’t get enough water. See, we need enough water to get us to the next settlement which is far. But if we don’t get enough water, then . . . (Videotape transcription, 2/20/92)

The students were intensely involved in the process and the problems encountered. There was lively debate as they explored the positives and negatives of situations in order to solve problems. They were quite determined to come to decisions that they saw as valid and agreeable to all. They were getting closer to their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). As in the above transcription, joint problem solving actively involved the students in a social transaction, allowing students to do collaboratively what they were not yet ready to do alone. In this group work existed the type of collaboration that involved students in hard thinking to convince each other.

As the year progressed, an all-encompassing theme began to emerge, unifying our studies around the powerful issue of stereotyping.

I get excited reading our literature book, excited over the larger theme I see coming out of that book: the tendency of people to create enemies, to typecast people, basically the roots of racism. This theme has run through the entire year, although I have not always seen it in the literature we’ve read. But it was there, under the surface, sometimes picked up in our reading discussions, sometimes in a question asked on the response sheets, sometimes in discussions about our social studies. It is something I could have made much more apparent yet am only now coming to realize was there the whole time. I’ve looked more at the outer manifestations, the explorations and why themes, and even those were not often brought enough to the surface. (Teacher Journal, 3/28/92)

Themes allowed these “big ideas” to surface, a metaconceptual bonus allowing the students to see beyond the content materials into connections to life experiences. Students could then go beyond the materials to the knowledge itself, exploring, judging, and balancing their developing knowledge. “Exploring stereotypes,” which revealed itself as a year-long theme in the materials and discussions of our studies, was as much an exploration of humankind as it was an exploration of the students’ own selves. We had begun our year discussing differences between people of very different socioeconomic backgrounds in Bridge to Terabithia. Our initial Native American studies focused on the clash of cultures between Native Americans and Europeans. Reading Caddie Woodlawn (Brink, 1935) allowed us to explore in depth the stereotyping of Native Americans during Westward Expansion: racism and fears of people different from one’s self; creating an enemy (Sadaam Hussein); and understanding why one would use the label “Tomboy.”

The most interesting part of the discussion for me was discussing the view pioneers had of Indians then. I asked for their opinions, challenging them to think of why pioneers made Indians into such bad people. The students came up with the clash over land, the differences in cultures, the fears of the pioneers. I introduced the idea of creating an enemy, and related it to how Sadaam Hussein was portrayed in the Iraqi war. . . . (Teacher Journal, 2/29/92)

These were “big ideas” precisely because they related back to the experiences of the children. The literature became a focal point for discussion that linked our studies with the students’ lives. Thus, were these powerful ideas tied to student experience.

In a way, the choices of literature and content create the themes more than even the conscious choices I make as a teacher. Thus the deadliness of textbooks, where the themes are purposefully amorphous and whitewashed, purposefully disconnected. The power to create my own curriculum, although somewhat circumscribed by the state and national curriculum, has allowed me to see into the materials we use, to get excited about what I deem important in the reading and in the studies we do. (Teacher Journal, 3/28/92)

I was struggling with defining the theme study classroom. Truly seizing the power to create curriculum with the children meant both allowing the children to experience the materials of instruction in their own ways and forcing my “teacher” self to seize the opportunity to go where the children led me. When I could do that, it allowed us to reveal the deep issues which the literature revealed in ourselves. School knowledge appeared tied to student knowledge through a process of negotiation, but there was still not enough student generation of knowledge involved.

As we launched into our last theme, “Greed and Charity,” I perceived the whole class being excited and consumed by the ideas in our study. Studying the Civil War fits clearly within the developing year’s theme of “Exploring Stereotypes”; however, I wanted the theme to be broader. I wanted it to fit into our science, literature, language arts, and mathematics studies as well. I came up with the idea of using the broader question, “Why do people act as they do?” It was only during our studies that a duality in human nature became the focus. It was not only why people acted as they did, but how humans struggled with the conflicting forces of greed and charity in themselves and those around them. This understanding began to take shape as we went to the public library history room.

We gathered around a table to peruse a copy of the Weekly Courier from 1860. We found some slave ads, “Negroes for sale.” . . . I read several articles to the group, one about not talking about the abolition movement in front of slaves, one about the slave trade, one about Lincoln, and one about rewards for turning in deserters. Most of the kids were spellbound by the paper and the questions it raised, how totally different it was from today, how the perspectives on life were different . . . The kids asked about the conditions of selling slaves, prices, splitting families, raising slaves to sell them, and why different slaves could cost different amounts, especially women. (Teacher Journal, 5/3/92)

This was a profound experience for all of us. A number of parents spoke to me of the impact it had on their children. I was deeply impressed by the intensity with which the children approached the document. The sharing of purpose and focus associated with intersubjectivity was reached. There existed a joint process of cognitive, social, and emotional interchange. All of us around the table questioned and answered, explored and wondered. The old newspaper made historical events concrete in a way that allowed us to see it in a new light. It also opened more questions than I as the teacher could answer. In their discussion, we all became inquirers, stretching our minds to understand.

The novel we were using for reading, The Slave Dancer (Fox, 1973), added a human face to our ongoing experiences with slavery. It raised the important issue of how we stereotype a group of people in order to see them as less than human. We began to see in the book’s characters the struggle between greed and charity. The characters were locked in internal conflict, pitted between their greed in taking a job on a slave ship and their sense of charity in viewing the horrible suffering of the slaves and each other as well. This internal conflict became a focus of our discussions as we tried to understand how people could act toward others as the slavers acted toward the slaves. At the same time, we dealt with the external conflict between slaver and slave, trying to understand how the slaves could survive such terror. “Mark keeps asking how an African could just curl up and die, how they could kill themselves just because they wanted to die.” (Teacher Journal, 5/16/92) These were deep human experiences we were involved in describing, and the students responded with empathy and a desire to understand.

The riots in Los Angeles over the Rodney King beatings occurred this same week and became an important topic of discussion in our class. Our study of slavery was propitiously timed as politics and students’ experiences and concerns at home paralleled our historical study in class. Moving back and forth from our school study to the events in the world created a real link between our burgeoning historical knowledge and the events unfolding around us. Thus, the lines between school knowledge and personal knowledge seemed to fall away. School knowledge became important to the students for understanding their world, a part of the cultural content they were experiencing outside school walls. We were not creating answers so much as understanding what the problems were.

Teacher: . . . There is still some coming together, and there is more freedom, but there is still separateness too. What about in terms of money, do you think there is anything left over from slavery days?
Linda: Black people are a lot poorer . . .
Ted: . . . more on welfare . . .
Mark: . . . below the poverty line.
Teacher: So there is still a lot of poverty that black people have not gotten out of, while lots of white people have gotten out of it.
Bob: There are no white people living in the projects . . .
Mark: The government seems like it, the Rodney King thing, it doesn’t seem right, we should be able to trust our justice system and our courts.
Nate: Actually the blacks don’t have much money. It was the same in the slave years. They didn’t have much money then and most of them don’t have much money now.
Teacher: So . . . never quite gotten out of it.
Mark: Some people just hate each other. (Videotape transcription, 5/14/92)

Excitement in the quest for knowledge is an extremely important part of both teaching and learning. Knowledge needs to be alive to be negotiated. It is when the teacher and the student both hold identifiable stakes in the knowledge that real conversation and negotiation can occur. We had all become stakeholders in this knowledge negotiation and creation, committed to understanding the relationship between our school studies and the world around us. That link to the outside world was quite clear and made our studies all the more vital. Knowledge came alive as students actively created questions from their interests, enthusiastically launched into researching slavery, and seriously committed themselves to a questioning approach. Source documents and events in the world around us propelled the class toward intersubjectivity as we became inquirers in truly “big” questions.

Findings: Changing Conceptions of Knowledge

This study focused on how knowledge was approached in my classroom. It began with discontent with the knowledge-transmission analogy for education. Readings and experiences led to my interest in the knowledge-construction analogy which asserts that knowledge is constructed through reciprocal negotiation between the learner and the environment (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). As I grew in understanding my own relationship to knowledge and the student as knower (Lyons, 1990), I began to feel it more important to move students toward a more inquisitory and active approach to learning.

Initially, I was interested in creating more of a balance between school knowledge and student knowledge. Through my study, I struggled with accepting that knowledge was not a thing to be balanced, but a process to be negotiated. The dialogical nature of knowledge construction became apparent as I both influenced and was influenced by student approaches to knowledge construction. In developing stronger explicit beliefs about knowledge as a process of negotiation, I was able to acknowledge the contradictions existent in my practice and to struggle more explicitly with the opposing tendencies within myself, as Lampert (1985) likewise noted in her research. I attempted to give students voice as knowers, affirming their knowledge as the basis for knowledge construction within the classroom. I continued to grapple with sharing my role as teacher/expert, sometimes allowing students the freedom to assume instructional authority, other times reverting to a knowledge-transmitter role. Societal and institutional definitions of subject matter continued to exert a strong influence on my stance toward knowledge (Popkewitz, 1988).

Interacting with my conceptions of knowledge were the roles I negotiated with students in the process of making them stakeholders in the instructional conversation. My explicit goal was to move away from a view of students acquiring knowledge as “theoretical spectators” (Dewey, 1916, p. 140), where students ingest knowledge whole through the work of their intellect. There needed to be an active phase, where students were connecting to the knowledge in an active and questioning manner. I add “questioning” here purposefully. Merely being active with knowledge is not enough to ensure that students are probing their understandings about the knowledge with which they are interacting.

As a result of experiences in the classroom, I began to see a differentiation in relationships with knowledge. Much of what we did in the classroom involved the students actively in their learning. On occasion, students took a further step toward questioning knowledge, taking a more active role in its construction. Giving the students agency became an important part of this process. Agency involves recognizing oneself as the source of causal power, able to act purposefully toward a goal (Okshevsky, 1992). I attempted to give both implicit and explicit messages which would allow the students to develop a sense of agency in our approach to knowledge. Sometimes I was successful, but at other times the traditional didactic view prevailed over the best of my intentions. Differing relationships to knowledge resulted from these various aspects of our classroom life.

Three perspectives of knowledge became apparent in the roles students took (see Table 2). Students had a stable/passive relationship with knowledge when they viewed themselves as spectators of knowledge, actively interpreting knowledge through their prior experiences but not as decision-makers about that knowledge. I deem this passive, in the sense that students accept the knowledge without developing a sense of agency toward the knowledge. At its extreme, this relationship existed when the classroom reverted to a traditional model of education, concerned primarily with the accumulation of information (Goodlad, 1984). Sometimes in presenting math skills, language rules or geography facts, I would present information purely to be acquired whole without relation to student experience or interest. Often, students viewed knowledge passively in their role as cognitive apprentices (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). “Sitting at the master’s feet,” students were active in their engagement with the information, yet passive in their relationship to that knowledge. Knowledge was something to be understood and accepted, learned from an expert and then incorporated internally in a decontextualized form. Observation plays a key role in apprenticeship. Students often saw me as the teacher/expert, the one who made decisions and provided them with knowledge. I too easily acquiesced to this defined role, deciding for them when they hesitated to decide for themselves.

Table 2. Students’ Relationship with Knowledge
1. Stable/Passive: Apprentices
–Knowledge seen as something to be understood and accepted, not questioned and reinterpreted.
–Students as spectators of knowledge, actively interpreting knowledge through their prior experiences, but not as decision-makers.
–Literature effective at connecting knowledge to student interest, developing understanding as a part of themselves.

2. Inquisitory/Active: Experts/ Questioners
–Students able to question knowledge, making decisions about validity and importance.
–Students become experts, with knowledge translated into their own structures.
–Teacher roles & expectations made possible through modeling critical attitude toward knowledge and its sources.

3. Communal: Community of Learners
–Learning redefined as having purpose beyond the self.
–Classroom ethic developed requiring sharing of expertise with community.
–Students as teachers, questioners, experts; teacher as protagonist.
–Joint problem solving in atmosphere of instructional conversation: all involved in defining knowledge for themselves and for the group.

There seemed to be a relationship between the nature of knowledge and the approaches one could take to share that knowledge. Facts, skills, and information that were decontextualized fostered a passive relationship, as students were fed information without reflecting on its purpose. Math computation skills, spelling words, and social studies facts were sometimes taught in this way. Other approaches to knowledge, such as literature circles, involved students in actively interpreting the knowledge through their prior experiences, making their developing understanding a part of themselves.

The power of story worked within this stable/passive relationship to knowledge. Students were immersed in literature as they experienced the tribulations of the characters in the book, related them to their own experiences, and created new meanings. Through the stories we read and the related stories we told from our own lives, the facts of science and social studies assumed meaning. Students seemed able to construct deeper understandings of other cultures, historical periods, and human themes through their active negotiation with the teacher and the text. But the books and themes used were mostly of the teacher’s choice. As others have also found, students generally are not critical of literary or historical sources except through the suggestion of the teacher (Levstik, 1986).

An inquisitory/active relationship with knowledge was approached when students were able to question knowledge, making decisions about its validity and importance. Questioning and justifying knowledge within a community of learners enables the student to be an active participant in her/his learning (Nowell, 1992). Questioning knowledge, inquiring into the meanings behind the facts, was part of the enterprise that I began to see as primary in my classroom. As the year progressed, I saw the theme study approach pale in comparison to inquiry as the focus for the relationship to knowledge. Inquiring into “big” ideas, investigating problems that allowed for alternative interpretations, set the tone for this relationship to knowledge. When the students and I began to discuss inherently problematic areas with no one right answer but rather multiple interpretations, then questioning knowledge became acceptable in open discussion. Knowledge became personal through identification with students’ prior experience, but became intellectual through the decision-making in which students were involved.

This personal connection to knowledge, this process of becoming knowledgeable, can become the opening for inquiry. Assuming the role of teacher as well as learner allowed students to perceive themselves and others as resources. They could learn from all, not just the teacher. Key to developing a community of inquiry was students’ changing perceptions of expertise in the classroom. Expertise was valued, but at the same time, it began to be something to be questioned. Students began to realize that expertise did not necessarily equate with truth. For the students, the acquisition of expertise began to involve sharing developing knowledge in a questioning atmosphere. This is a key difference from the psychological definition of expertise. Psychology tends to ignore the acquisition of values toward knowledge that always accompanies learning (Goodnow, 1990). My goal for the students was understanding, not through attaining truths, but through participation in the active questioning of expertise.

Nontraditional roles and expectations were essential in the process of developing a learning environment in which expertise was both shared and subjected to critical evaluation by the students. I attempted to move toward becoming the organizer of questioning, modeling for the students a critical attitude toward knowledge and its sources. The students, while being accountable for the knowledge shared, also were encouraged to become critical questioners themselves, to move the discussions in the directions of their own interests. During the planet presentations, for example, students began to ask questions that tied their developing knowledge to concerns for their own world. Debates and simulations encouraged students to question simplistic solutions to complex questions. Literature study became an opportunity for students to begin challenging meanings. We began to move away from the view that knowledge is not to be questioned, toward seeing knowledge as open to interpretation and critique. In our explorer debates, questioning standard interpretations began to be encouraged. It continued intermittently in discussions which accompanied the various student presentations throughout the year. “This was my aim, to create that sense of authorship of knowledge, where each had their role to contribute to the knowledge base of the whole.” (Teacher Journal, 4/12/92)

Toward the end of the year, as we were trying to understand the source documents about slavery along with the racial riots occurring in the students’ present world, we struggled as a group to construct our understandings. Negotiating meanings began to become important for the group. My stance was not one of “I’m the expert,” but of “Let’s figure this out together.” The students brought to the conversation a desire to understand, a purpose in gaining knowledge. We shared this purpose, both in terms of understanding but also in terms of the types of questioning we saw necessary. There were no easy answers to the historical and socioeconomic struggles we discussed. Yet both the students and I held identifiable stakes in the knowledge we negotiated. Our conversations aimed at mediating our personal knowledge with societal and school knowledge, negotiating meaning out of an unsettling world.

Students gradually began to take a communal approach to knowledge, relating to knowledge as part of a community of learners. A community of inquiry was just beginning to develop. Students and teacher could communicate with each other impartially and consistently, willing to “submit their views to the self-correcting process of further inquiry” (Sharp, 1987, p. 42). In our math problem-solving groups, students were responsible for all agreeing upon and understanding the processes which led to solutions. The wagon train and other simulations emphasized public reasoning as an important element of group processes. Small group discussions about literature involved students in coming to common understandings. Experiences such as our planet discussions and slavery explorations, as delineated above, encouraged the sharing of our understandings. Learning began to be redefined as having a purpose beyond the self. Small steps were made toward a developing ethic requiring the sharing of expertise with the community. Within this community, the group could jointly construct meaning from everyone’s growing knowledge. Students were varyingly teachers, questioners, and experts. The teacher was occasionally a protagonist, moving from the role of questioner to that of teacher or learner. At these times, the members of the group aided each other in the process of transforming information into knowledge, together constructing knowledge in an atmosphere consistent with a zone of proximal development.

As the year progressed, the group became more able to carry on instructional conversations. All participants were involved in defining knowledge for themselves and for the group (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). We were able to move back and forth from our studies to the events in the world around the students. The lines between school knowledge and personal knowledge were becoming less clear as students became stakeholders in knowledge negotiation and creation. Knowledge needs to be alive to be negotiated. Our studies of slavery and racism came closest to approaching this. In the excitement of the quest for understanding the events in the world around us were found the stakes in that living knowledge. During conversations in our final studies of greed and charity, students began to mediate school knowledge with personal knowledge. It was only in this study that individualistic approaches began to break down. Prior to this, there were only fleeting glimpses of a communal approach to knowledge within our classroom.

Over the course of the school year, there appeared to be some movement by the students in my class from a stable/passive approach to knowledge toward an inquisitory/active and communal relationship with knowledge. What made this movement possible? The social construction of the classroom and the meaning of schooling appeared to have changed.

Schooling is a social construction, created symbolically by the mind through social interaction (McLaren, 1989). Schooling represents the institutionalization of habitualized social actions, taken-for-granted routines that take on the appearance of objective reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Within a classroom, routine is the glue that holds together a diverse group of individuals with differing personal goals. The teacher and students together construct a background of routine that serves “to stabilize both their separate actions and their interaction” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, p. 57). Life in schools becomes habitualized through the reciprocal interaction between students and teacher. Habit and routine become the lifeblood of schooling.

In my classroom, I attempted to change this social construction of schooling. My goals included promoting a inquisitory approach to knowledge and a democratic approach to classroom relations. I negotiated with the students to find a middle ground between their expectations of schooling and my goals. At the same time that routines were established and habitualized, I attempted to push both the students and myself to make questioning and inquiry a part of our routines. I did not feel prepared to go beyond certain routine aspects of school, nor to deal with the classroom control issues raised by students transgressing the socially constructed boundaries of classroom behavior.

My classroom was historically situated both within the larger world of schooling and within the smaller history of my particular school. The school prided itself on being child-centered, providing an opening for viewing learning within a metaphor somewhat different from traditional school settings. At the same time, our culturally mediated definition of schooling continued to limit what both the students and I viewed as possible in the classroom. The students conceived of learning as something given to them. I was to teach them, and they would learn, maintaining passivity. I attempted to encourage a process that allowed the actors in the classroom to take a personally active stance toward knowledge. The classroom was defined in this dialectical process of interaction between us as individuals, our classroom world, and the larger society. As social actors within our particular situation, we both created our situation and were created by the larger social universe (McLaren, 1989).

Even though a conscious goal was to view learning as active construction within the social context of the classroom, a process of negotiation between the students and myself, there were many instances throughout the year when I controlled the world view and acted to minimize any student resistance to my view. The dialectic between control and freedom was at issue from the beginning of the year. I was continually struggling with the balance between open-ended assignments and perceived off-task behavior. My role as facilitator opened the stage for negotiation with students yet was counterbalanced by my role as classroom manager. During student presentations, I juggled conflicting demands to invite students into the process of knowledge construction while maintaining order in the classroom. I tended to fall back on routine to create a structure within which classroom life could be defined. The structure of routine set a tone for habitualized actions where students had voice, but within tacit boundaries established by the teacher. Some students, seeing an opening in power relations within the classroom, attempted to wield their power in more explicit ways. I often responded by re-exerting control in a more obvious manner, yet struggled with balancing this role with my curricular goals.

The changes I sought involved moving past the creation of curricula to the creation of a social context where theme provided a focus for change in the forms of discourse within the classroom. Delineating “big” questions began the process of redefining the discourse, viewing subject matter as a source for inquiry. As questioning became important during theme study, powerful crosscutting ideas within the content could become apparent. The students and I could then both hold stakes in the conversation and negotiation of knowledge. Although it was difficult to maintain this inquiry orientation, its power to connect to student experience and the world around us became obvious.


In altering the social context in the classroom, changing forms of discourse appeared to be possible. The social construction of the classroom appeared to be the decisive variable in promoting inquisitory and active approaches to knowledge in my classroom. The interaction that occurred between and among students and teacher created a classroom environment that could allow or restrict student voice. The classroom was defined in a dialectical process between control and freedom (Morais & Neves, 1991). When teacher control weakened, discussions and presentations moved toward conversation and dialogue. As traditional control mechanisms were reestablished, teaching reverted to one-way communication. It was through the empowering of student voice and the disempowering of teacher control that progress toward an inquisitory and active approach to knowledge seemed possible.

Giving students voice has implications for classroom structure, curriculum, and instruction. This study presented one example of a teacher struggling with the issues involved in giving students voice. As educators and researchers, we need to focus more on making visible the aspects of the social construction of classrooms that either allow or restrict student voice. Teacher reflection can be a powerful vehicle for promoting the understanding of classroom contexts which form relationships of knowledge. Reflection provided the insightful observations which allowed me to see beyond the patina of daily life. In my reflections, I was able to question my beliefs and compare them to my practice and the context in which enaction occurred. Yet reflection continues to be challenging for many teachers (O’Loughlin, 1990). Research inside classrooms needs to continue to explore the relationship between students’ conceptions of knowledge and the social construction of classrooms.


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