Journal of Science Teacher Education

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 159-175

First online:

Elementary Teacher’s Conceptions of Inquiry Teaching: Messages for Teacher Development

  • Joseph E. IrelandAffiliated withQueensland University of Technology Email author 
  • , James J. WattersAffiliated withQueensland University of Technology
  • , Jo BrownleeAffiliated withQueensland University of Technology
  • , Mandy LuptonAffiliated withQueensland University of Technology

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


This study explored practicing elementary school teacher’s conceptions of teaching in ways that foster inquiry-based learning in the science curriculum (inquiry teaching). The advocacy for inquiry-based learning in contemporary curricula assumes the principle that students learn in their own way by drawing on direct experience fostered by the teacher. That students should be able to discover answers themselves through active engagement with new experiences was central to the thinking of eminent educators such as Pestalozzi, Dewey and Montessori. However, even after many years of research and practice, inquiry learning as a referent for teaching still struggles to find expression in the average teachers’ pedagogy. This study drew on interview data from 20 elementary teachers. A phenomenographic analysis revealed three conceptions of teaching for inquiry learning in science in the elementary years of schooling: (a) The Experience-centered conception where teachers focused on providing interesting sensory experiences to students; (b) The Problem-centered conception where teachers focused on engaging students with challenging problems; and (c) The Question-centered conception where teachers focused on helping students to ask and answer their own questions. Understanding teachers’ conceptions has implications for both the enactment of inquiry teaching in the classroom as well as the uptake of new teaching behaviors during professional development, with enhanced outcomes for engaging students in Science.


Inquiry based learning Primary science Phenomenography Student engagement Elementary science