A critical responsibility for teacher educators is engaging beginning teachers in reflection on children's learning, particularly with regard to their prior knowledge and the structure of their ideas in specific subjects. This can be a daunting task. Action research seems a more promising avenue for developing this kind of reflection and understanding than classroom lectures, yet beginning teachers have many things on their minds besides children's cognition, and they rarely have the knowledge or skills to develop investigations into students' disciplinary ideas on their own. Unfortunately (and ironically), an increasing emphasis on high-stakes testing and accountability may make such undertakings even less palatable: Content coverage and test preparation may seem more pressing concerns than open-ended and potentially messy investigations of children's thought processes.
However, understanding how children think is no luxury. It is a crucial component of successful teaching and a necessary prerequisite to any gains in student achievement. In this article, we explore one way critical reflection can take place even within the prevailing culture of accountability as well as become a means for introducing beginning teachers to the challenging task of classroom-based inquiry. We do this through consideration of a small-scale, task-based intervention that required beginning elementary teachers in Northern Ireland and the United States to investigate and reflect on young children's understanding of history, geography, economics, and other aspects of social studies. Our experiences in these two settings suggests that efforts such as this have the potential to increase teachers' pedagogical knowledge in a way that honors their developing professionalism.
To plan and implement constructivist approaches to education, teachers need insight into children's thinking. Only by becoming familiar with children's cognition will they be able to design instruction that expands their students' conceptual understanding. As Ball and Cohen (1999) noted, teachers need to see instructional procedures through the eyes of their students, to become adept at listening to their ideas, and to see them as "more capable of thinking and reasoning, and less as blank slates who lack knowledge" (p. 8). Although a number of studies have addressed teachers' general beliefs about the nature of learners and learning (see, for example, Prawat, 1992, and the review in Borko & Putnam, 1995), recent work has emphasized the need for familiarity with the disciplinary features of students' thinking: Acquainting beginning teachers with the content-area thinking of children has come to be regarded as a critical component of initial teacher preparation (Borko & Putnam, 1995).
From this standpoint, changes in teachers' instructional practices depend, in part, on their engagement with "concrete tasks of teaching, assessment, observation, and reflection that illuminate the processes of learning and development" (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1996, p. 203). When teachers have the chance to examine children's performance in meaningful classroom contexts, they often develop new understandings of how children learn (Falk & Ort, 1998). These reconceptualizations are not simply the result of having acquired new pedagogical techniques (through in-services or course work, for example) but derive instead from the conflicts teachers experience between their prior ideas about learning and their observations of children's reasoning as they engage in instructional activities (Nelson & Hammerman, 1996). Such observations play a crucial role in expanding teachers' understanding of "what is possible" (Lieberman, 1996, p. 190).
This process of reflection typically involves three interrelated aspects of teachers' pedagogical understanding--their ideas about how students think in specific subject areas, their beliefs about instructional techniques in those subjects, and their conceptualization of the subject matter itself. A substantial body of research on each of these aspects of teacher thinking now exists in mathematics (Nelson & Hammerman, 1996), and scholarship in the language arts has long been concerned with promoting teachers' awareness of the development of student literacy and the resulting implications for instructional practice (e.g., Genishi & Dyson, 1984; Goodman, 1973; Heath, 1983; Pappas, Kiefer, & Levstik, 1990). In the field of social studies education, however, research on teachers' thinking has been limited to investigations of their understanding of the discipline of history (Bohan & Davis, 1998; Hartzler-Miller, 2001; Seixas, 1998; VanSledright & Afflerbach, 2000; Yeager & Davis, 1995), or of their ideas about instructional purposes and methods in history and social studies (Brophy & VanSledright, 1997; Evans, 1990; Fickel, 2000; Grant, 2001; Wilson & Wineburg, 1988, 1993). Largely missing have been investigations of teachers' ideas about children's ideas. Only Seixas (1994) directly addressed this topic, in a brief description of a university course assignment designed to give preservice teachers a better understanding of how secondary students located themselves with reference to history. In that assignment, teachers conducted interviews with small groups of students to assess their prior historical understanding. Seixas suggested that this experience led participants to a better understanding of students' epistemological assumptions about history, their ideas about progress and decline, and their perceptions of what is interesting or significant in history.
We believe Seixas's assignment points the way toward a productive avenue for engaging beginning teachers in meaningful forms of inquiry into children's disciplinary understandings. In history education, recent research provides an impressive resource for enlivening teachers' perceptions of how children make sense of historical information. Yet the idea that teacher education programs can simply transmit this body of knowledge to prospective teachers has become almost as outdated as the corresponding transmission theories of elementary and secondary schooling. Teachers' views of learning are heavily influenced by their own past experiences, and these experiences lead to a set of beliefs and expectations that can be highly resistant to change (Borko & Putnam, 1996). A developing consensus holds that effective teacher education programs (or professional development programs for experienced teachers) must engage teachers in the same kinds of reflective, inquiry-oriented learning as they are expected to implement in their own classrooms. From this perspective, teachers can no longer be seen as passive consumers of other people's ideas but must become engaged themselves in the active construction of knowledge about teaching and learning (Wells, 1993).
Such inquiry-oriented approaches to the education of teachers--particularly under the general rubric of action research--have received increasing attention, and this popularity is reflected in an outpouring of rationales for this approach (e.g., Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Elliott, 1991; Goswami & Stillman, 1987), howto manuals (Hubbard & Power, 1993; McNiff, Lomax, & Whitehead, 1996; Mills, 2000), and collections of the results of teacher research (Pierce & Gilles, 1993; Wells, 1993). At this relatively early stage of development, the field of action research is characterized by a wide variety of purposes, theoretical orientations, methodologies, settings, and types of reflective activity (Noffke, 1997; Rearick & Feldman, 1999). Perhaps the two clearest points of agreement among these diverse perspectives are that action research is a desirable procedure for promoting reflection, and that it should play a role in the education of teachers (Dinkelman, 1997).
Yet in our informal conversations with educators who engage teachers in action research projects--particularly at the stage of initial preparation--we often have heard expressions of lingering frustration with the process. Despite their commitment to teacher inquiry, and their acceptance of diverse means of engaging in that inquiry, educators often report dissatisfaction with the quality of beginning teachers' questions, their plans for collecting information, and the depth of their reflection. These difficulties are hardly surprising, for these action researchers are only beginners--beginners at teaching, beginners at classroom inquiry, and, given the likelihood that they have gone through an examination-based, transmission-oriented educational system themselves, beginners at the very process of systematically asking and answering meaningful questions in any academic field. Helping them become successful teacher researchers surely requires that we provide as much scaffolding as we expect them to provide for children in their own classrooms. This scaffolding requires a delicate balancing act that provides the structure necessary for success but avoids overdetermining the process or results of inquiry.
We suggest that one potentially effective way of promoting success for teachers engaged in classroom inquiry is to involve them in structured projects that focus on children's thought processes in specific academic disciplines. Such projects can develop the critical reflection that will serve teachers well throughout their careers and provide a platform on which they may base later, more extensive efforts at teacher research. At the same time, this kind of project has the capacity for increasing familiarity with children's discipline-specific thinking--as noted earlier, a critical component of initial preparation programs--but within a context that honors these teachers' nascent professionalism, including their developing commitment to the inquiry process. In addition, when these projects occur within university courses that emphasize discipline-specific teaching methods, they can provide students the chance to reflect in a collaborative setting of fellow researchers and to link their findings to the broader community of scholarship--both of which are important components of meaningful action research (Wells, 1993). In this article, we reflect on our own experience with one such effort, in an attempt to illustrate some of the potential benefits of engaging beginning teachers in structured inquiry into children's thinking in a single academic field.
To explore this issue, we conducted two separate case studies. One of these took part in Northern Ireland, the other in a large Midwestern city in the United States. The studies shared a concern with developing beginning teachers' understanding of children's thinking in history/social studies, however some differences in methodology were necessitated by the unique characteristics of the two settings (including differences in school curriculum, instructors' teaching styles, extent of participants' previous experiences, and participants' additional responsibilities). In addition, the Northern Ireland study served as a pilot for work in the United States, so the scale and design of the two studies differed somewhat. Both, however, were guided by the same basic questions:
* How will a structured inquiry project affect beginning teachers' ideas about children's cognition in history and social studies?
* How will beginning teachers themselves evaluate the usefulness of such a project?
Setting, Participants, and Sampling Procedures
We conducted this study with two sets of beginning teachers, one group in Northern Ireland and one in the United States. Those in Northern Ireland were enrolled in a specialist "Curriculum Studies: History" course as part of the 4th and final year of a B.A. program in Primary Education at one of the province's two major state-supported institutions of teacher training. In the 1st year of their program, students participated in a course that provided an introduction to history teaching. The emphasis of that course was to establish classroom history as a form of inquiry. This was followed in the 2nd year by a course concentrating on the key ideas of change through time, causation, evidence, and differing interpretations as foundations on which to build history lessons. The 4th-year course built on previous provision to give students an in-depth understanding of the teaching and learning associated with the history curriculum in Northern Ireland. This prepared teachers, in the short term, for an 8-week teaching experience and, in the longer term, to assume responsibility for a post as history coordinator in a school. (History and geography are taught as distinct subjects in primary schools in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom; there is no integrated "social studies" of the kind that exists in the United States.)
The U.S. portion of the study took place as part of a graduate social studies methods course (the second on the topic) for beginning teachers at a large Midwestern university. Teachers were in the final year of a 5-year elementary teacher education program (or, for some, the 2nd year of a postbaccalaureate program), in which they worked as interns for a full year in professional development schools and took university courses in the evenings. Some were compensated "teachers of record," with complete responsibility for their classrooms for one half of each day, whereas others worked under mentor teachers who gradually …