Inquiring into the Unknown: Reconstructing Classroom Contexts through Mediated Discourse Analysis

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Inquiring into the Unknown: Reconstructing Classroom Contexts through Mediated Discourse Analysis

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Inquiry is often seen as a good thing, whose place in education both appears with increasing frequency and simultaneously seems elemental to learning (Anderson, 2002; Artigue & Blomhøj, 2013). The use of inquiry often involves, “thinking of a generalized image of inquiry...and assuming it will allow achieving multiple goals” (Abd-El-Khalick et al., 2004, p. , p. 415). According to Anderson (2002), “The research literature on inquiry, tends to lack precise definitions…[and]...inquiry teaching is defined differently by different researchers, or the researcher may choose to use a different term for an approach that others apparently would identify with the inquiry label” (p. 3). Overall, while research indicates a positive association between inquiry and learning, there is little clarity about how inquiry-based teaching and learning actually unfolds in the classroom. What happens to a concept like inquiry when it is taken up over and over again in school settings that are inherently full of contradictions between the theoretical and practical? This runs counter to what Dewey and Garrison have said about the role of inquiry in learning, where inquiry is seen as complicated, and involving, “feeling, reasoning, and environmental transaction[s] throughout the organic whole” (Garrison, 1997, p. , p. 99). There is a problem when schools see inquiry as a purely intellectual action, instead of seeing the benefits of creating a multi-dimensional approach to learning where “the child [is] not simply doing things, but getting also the idea of what he does; getting from the start some intellectual conception that enters into his practice and enriches it” (Dewey, 1900, p. , p. 76). The purpose of this study began with my desire to gain insight into the relational practices between teachers and students, around the concept of inquiry, through the use of Mediated Discourse Analysis (Scollon, 2001). It ended with an examination of the potential changes to classroom context as of a result of the intentional disorientation, examination, and utilization of informed instructional practices. I used Mediated Discourse Analysis, or MDA (Scollon 2001), in my attempts to highlight the connections between discourse and actions around the concept of inquiry. I located my observations specifically in moments of discursive interactions between teachers and students. According to Ron Scollon, understanding the role of context in the study of discourse is complicated, nuanced, and more about interpretation than “knowing.” Scollon and Scollon (2003) argue, “that there are multiple, partly overlapping, but nonetheless distinct discourses operating [interdiscursivity] within a semiotic aggregate [intersection of discourses and social actions]” for the purpose of making meaning (p. 185). Simply put, “all actions and all discourses are mediated” (Scollon, 2001, p.7). In this study I witnessed firsthand the relationship between how schools and individual experiences within schools affect educational processes, outcomes, and social change. It furthered my strong belief in the idea that schools are complex life forms, embedded with certain characteristics, stagnant and dynamic individuals and ideas, needs and desires, opportunities for growth, development, and, unfortunately, also places for hurt, alienation, and missed opportunities. Emerging from thus study was a robust and multi-faceted set of mediated actions around inquiry that demonstrated inquiry’s practical and potential effects on teachers’ instructional practices.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2018. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisors: Mark Vagle, Lori Helman. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 172 pages.

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Henning-Smith, Jeff. (2018). Inquiring into the Unknown: Reconstructing Classroom Contexts through Mediated Discourse Analysis. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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