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Full text sharing: This study explores the reflective processes by which a grade 5 science community co-constructed shared inquiry structures to focus and guide its inquiry about human body systems over a school year supported by a collaborative online environment. The co-constructed structures included a list of collective wondering areas as the shared focus of inquiry and models of the inquiry process in the form of “research cycle.” Qualitative analyses of field notes, classroom videos, student notebooks and interviews elaborate the evolution of the inquiry areas and the “research cycle” model as well as students’ adaptive use of the structures to guide deeper inquiry. Content analyses of students’ individual research questions and collaborative online discourse indicate that students used the structures to develop more advanced inquiry and make productive contributions. The results contribute to elaborating a reflective structuration approach to co-organizing and sustaining long-term, open-ended inquiry in knowledge building communities.
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Tao, D., & Zhang, J. (2018). Forming Shared Inquiry Structures to Support Knowledge
Building in a Grade 5 Community. Instructional Science.
Forming Shared Inquiry Structures to Support Knowledge Building in a Grade 5
Dan Tao, Jianwei Zhang
University at Albany, SUNY
This study explores the reflective processes by which a Grade 5 science
community co-constructed shared inquiry structures to focus and guide its
inquiry about human body systems over a school year supported by a
collaborative online environment. The co-constructed structures included a list
of collective wondering areas as the shared focus of inquiry and models of the
inquiry process in the form of “research cycle.” Qualitative analyses of field
notes, classroom videos, student notebooks, and interviews elaborate the
evolution of the inquiry areas and the “research cycle” model as well as
students’ adaptive use of the structures to guide deeper inquiry. Content
analyses of students’ individual research questions and collaborative online
discourse indicate that students used the structures to develop more advanced
inquiry and make productive contributions. The results contribute to
elaborating a reflective structuration approach to co-organizing and sustaining
long-term, open-ended inquiry in knowledge building communities.
Keywords: learning community, knowledge building, reflective structuration,
inquiry structures
Research on learning communities suggests a model of education that engages students in
collaborative, inquiry-based practices to develop deep understanding (Bielaczyc & Collins,
1999). Beyond implementing collaborative, inquiry-based tasks, efforts to create learning
communities need to enable substantive classroom changes in line with how knowledge is
processed in real-world knowledge communities (Bielaczyc, 2006; Bielaczyc & Collins, 2006;
Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006). In authentic knowledge communities, members advance
collective knowledge through sustained, discursive, and inquiry-based practices. They
produce tentative theories and engage in idea-centered dialogues involving multiple
perspectives, constructive criticism, and distributed expertise. They also take on high-level
agency and collective responsibility for coordinating joint actions, monitoring their
knowledge progress, and planning for sustained inquiry (Scardamialia, 2002). Deeper
challenges and goals emerge as new solutions and ideas are developed, driving sustained idea
advancement (Zhang, Hong, Scardamalia, Teo, & Morley, 2011; Zhang, Scardamalia, Reeve,
& Messina, 2009). However, implementing sustained inquiry in classrooms in which students
take on high-level collective responsibility is challenging. Underlying this challenge is a
knowledge gap regarding how student-driven inquiry and collaboration may be socially
organized and pedagogically supported in the classroom to address educational goals and
contextual constraints. Our recent research reveals a socio-epistemic mechanism--reflective
structuration--through which classroom communities enact collective responsibility by
constructing shared inquiry structures to guide and support their knowledge building
practices (Zhang et al., 2018). The current study investigates the processes by which a Grade
5 science community co-constructed and adapted collective structures of inquiry to guide and
support its inquiry over a whole school year.
Supporting Authentic and Sustained Inquiry Practices in Learning Communities
Recent reforms in science education call for efforts to engage students in authentic
and sustained scientific practices in line with how scientific knowledge is constructed and
practiced in the real world (e.g. National Research Council, 2012; NGSS Lead States, 2013).
These include asking questions and defining problems, making observations, designing
experiments, refining scientific explanations through collaborative discourse, planning and
monitoring inquiry processes, and so forth. To make the inquiry-based processes authentic,
educators need to help students to take on high-level responsibility over each of these
components of inquiry (Chinn & Malhotra, 2002). Students identify their driving needs of
inquiry (Duggan & Gott, 2002; Flum & Kaplan, 2006; Kuhn, 2007), position and monitor
their inquiry actions, and pursue emergent goals as part of a long-term, purposeful inquiry
trajectory (Scardamalia, 2002). Through such efforts, students come to make sense of the
world around them and understand the epistemic nature of inquiry (Barzilai & Chinn, 2018;
Littleton & Kerawalla, 2012).
Despite the call for authentic and sustained inquiry, current inquiry-based learning
practices are often short and oversimplified, requiring students to finish given hands-on tasks
within a few lesson hours. Such practices may only result in a fragmented and disjointed
picture of science practices (Crawford, 2000; Osborne & Collins, 2000). Students miss the
opportunity to engage in high-level epistemic decision-making about what the inquiry should
focus on, how to pursue their inquiry and discourse, and who should play what types of roles
(Zhang et al., 2018; see also, Blanchard et al., 2010; Chinn & Malhotra, 2002).
Aligned with the need of authentic scientific practices, research on learning
communities has led to various research-based collaborative inquiry programs (e.g.,
Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Brown & Campione, 1996; Engle & Conant, 2002; Fong & Slotta,
this issue; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006; Slotta, Suthers, & Roschelle, 2014). Working as a
community, students engage in collaborative discourse and joint practices to advance
collective understandings, leveraging students’ personal growth and learning. Their
collaborative discourse and inquiry integrates specific socio-cognitive moves such as
generating progressive questions, theorizing and explaining, examining evidence, building on
peers’ ideas, and reflecting on progress (Damşa, 2014; Hakkarainen, 2003; Hmelo-Silver,
2003; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; van Aalst, 2009; Zhang, Scardamalia, Lamon, Messina, &
Reeve, 2007).
To enable deep classroom transformation in line with the principles of learning
communities, new designs are needed to support students’ engagement in sustained
collaborative inquiry over weeks or months; and, at the same time, to foster students’ high-
level agency and collective responsibility for dynamic idea advancement (Bielaczyc & Ow,
2014; Scardamalia, 2002). Research on learning communities underscores students’
responsibility and agency in collaborative, inquiry-based practices (Bielaczyc & Collins,
1999; Engle & Conant, 2002; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006). To implement collaborative
inquiry under ordinary classroom conditions and deal with students’ gaps in inquiry skills,
current dominant designs of collaborative inquiry tend to scaffold learners using carefully
designed structures and scripts, which specify, sequence, and distribute various task
operations among learners in order to guide effective interactions (Fischer, Kollar, Stegmann,
& Wecker, 2013; Kirschner & Erkens, 2013; Krajcik & Shin, 2014). While such carefully
designed structures and scripts have important pedagogical value, researchers need to deal
with the tension between the need to provide guidance structures and that to foster student
agency for charting and deepening the course of their inquiry. The structure-agency tension
has become a core issue in the ongoing debate about how to support students’ collaborative
learning and knowledge building (Bereiter et al., 2017; Dillenbourg, 2002; Hod, Basil-
Shachar, & Sagy, 2018). Addressing this tension is essential to enabling productive inquiry
with pedagogical effectiveness while avoiding oversimplified inquiry and collaboration.
This research explores new mechanisms and designs to support students’ long-term
collaborative inquiry in a way that engages their high-level agency. We conducted this
research in the context of knowledge building communities, a model of learning communities
aimed to engage students in authentic knowledge-creating processes to advance ideas of
value to their community (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006). In the larger family of inquiry-
based programs, Knowledge Building pedagogy is unique in adopting a principle-based, open
inquiry model for sustained idea improvement (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2007). Students are
expected to take over responsibility typically assumed by the teacher, such as defining
problems, planning and monitoring inquiry progress, generating and assessing theories and
explanations, and continually identifying deepening questions that drive long-term inquiry
(Scardamalia, 2002). Instead of following predefined project activities and procedures, the
teacher and students co-construct and reconstruct the flow of inquiry processes as their work
proceeds, guided by a set of knowledge building principles. The principles include authentic
problems and real ideas, knowledge building discourse, collective responsibility for the
community’s knowledge, epistemic agency, and so forth (Scardamalia, 2002). Research shows
that productive knowledge building communities are able to work with the flexible, principle-
based approach to classroom processes to achieve productive outcomes (Chen & Hong, 2016;
Zhang et al., 2011). A challenge for researchers is to demystify how the student-driven, open-
ended, and dynamic process of inquiry becomes sufficiently organized and supported without
extensive teacher pre-scripting and step-by-step guidance.
Forming Shared Inquiry Structures to Support Knowledge Building: A Reflective
Structuration Approach
To address the above-identified challenge, we developed a reflective structuration
perspective to explain how student-driven, dynamic knowledge practices become socially
organized and supported in a community (Zhang, 2013; Zhang et al., 2018). The notion has
grown out of our previous studies of knowledge building practices in primary school
classrooms (Tao, Zhang, & Huang, 2015; Zhang et al., 2009; Zhang & Messina, 2010). The
analyses revealed rich support structures used by the communities to guide student
participation and interactions. While some of the structures were primarily introduced by the
teacher, a substantial set of structures was co-constructed by students with their teacher’s
input. For example, in a Grade 5 inquiry about human body systems, students shared
individual, interest-driven questions and co-reviewed their questions to generate shared areas
of inquiry. The list of inquiry areas was recorded on a piece of chart paper, which was hung
on the classroom wall to highlight the scope and directions of collective inquiry. The inquiry
areas were used as a referential structure to form flexible groups, guide deepening research
efforts, and support reflection on knowledge progress in the unfolding lines of inquiry (Tao et
al., 2015). Guided by the co-constructed structures, students did not solely rely on their
teacher to tell them what to do and guide them through the inquiry process.
Drawing upon these analyses, we identified reflective structuration as a socio-
epistemic mechanism by which inquiry-based knowledge practices become organized and
supported over time (Zhang et al., 2018). Reflective structuration refers to the reflective
processes by which members of a community co-construct shared inquiry structures over
time to channel their personal and collaborative actions, as a dynamic social system. The co-
constructed inquiry structures function as what sociologists call social structures: schemas of
social actions that are reified with various resources to sustain the enactment, reproduction
and transformation of social practices (Archer, 1982; Giddens, 1984; Sewell, 1992). The co-
constructed inquiry structures can be used to inform and guide students’ ongoing knowledge
building actions and interactions, which, over time, may give rise to further elaboration and
adaptation of the inquiry structures.
Our recent research elaborates three key points of reflective structuration (Zhang et al.,
2018). First, members in a community can co-construct inquiry structures as they build
domain knowledge. The inquiry structures provide shared interpretative frames of the
unfolding inquiry practices, including (a) shared frames about what the community needs to
investigate and pursue in a knowledge building initiative, such as the overarching focus and
unfolding directions/strands of inquiry; (b) social configurations about who work on what in
connection with whom; (c) process structure about how the community should conduct
research and collaborate to advance collective knowledge; and (d) principled values and
beliefs used to justify why the community should operate in certain ways. The structures are
reified and represented using various structure-bearing artifacts and resources, such as using a
chart of high-potential problems, which were called “juicy questions” by teachers and
students, to highlight the inquiry foci and directions (Tao et al., 2015; Zhang et al., 2018).
Second, there is a dynamic temporal interplay between the two layers of construction
to build collective inquiry structures while building and advancing domain knowledge. A
classroom community appropriates and builds on existing structures (e.g. a curriculum area)
to formulate initial inquiry structures. The initial structures serve to set up a largely open
stage for students to carry out exploratory inquiry and discourse. The structures mediate
students’ actions and interactions through their reflective use of the structure to plan and
monitor their work. The ongoing interactions driven by students’ diverse ideas give rise to
new inquiry directions and processes. Such changes in turn lead to further structural
elaboration and modification as intended or unintended consequences. New structures are
progressively constructed and adapted to address the emergent needs and opportunities.
Third, co-constructing shared inquiry structures provides a means to progressively
engage students’ agency and collective responsibility. In an inquiry initiative that may last
over several weeks or months, students may start their work with initial structures
incorporated by their teacher. As their work proceeds, they can review emergent changes in
their community and form new and more elaborated structures to organize their collaborative
inquiry. Supported by the structures, students can direct their ongoing inquiry efforts in
concert with the evolving agenda of their community to make intentional contributions,
monitor progress, and reshape the inquiry structures over time together with their teacher.
Thus, reflective structuration renders new classroom dynamics essential to sustaining
creative inquiry practices. Different from pre-scripted inquiry structures, which are analogous
to designed paths in a public space to direct people’s actions, co-constructed structures are
similar to emergent desire lines (or social trails) formed naturally by pedestrians as they take
the best paths to get to their points of interest (cf. Sawyer, 2005). The reflective structuration
approach captures and builds on emergent desire linesstudent-generated inquiry interests,
directions, and process patternsin the shared knowledge space to organize and reorganize
the inquiry practices of a community.
To examine the process and impact of reflective structuration, we recently conducted
a study in two upper primary school classrooms that investigated electricity. One classroom
implemented systematic processes of reflective structuration. Members began their inquiry
with a general overarching area of inquiry—electricity—appropriated from the school’s
curriculum. Drawing upon students’ initial questions and interests, they co-formulated a
network of core “juicy” topics of inquiry, each of which became the focus of an unfolding
strand of inquiry involving a cluster of contributing members. Students further documented
their idea progress and problems in each line of inquiry, planned for deeper actions over time,
and highlighted cross-topic connections to inform collaboration. With reflective structuration,
students made more active and connected contributions, leading to deeper and more coherent
understandings of a broader set of inquiry topics (Zhang et al., 2018). The teacher played
important roles in co-constructing the inquiry structures with students. These included
mediating the appropriation of the overarching inquiry area from the school’s curriculum,
seeding potential directions of inquiry through selected learning materials and activities,
facilitating and modeling reflective conversations, capturing and reifying the structures
emerged using online and classroom artifacts, and ongoing referencing of the “juicy” topics
in classroom conversations to guide student participation and reflection.
Through the above study as well as other analyses (e.g. Tao et al., 2015; Zhang, 2013),
we have investigated how students co-construct structures to frame their inquiry focus and
areas, focusing on what their community needs to investigate. Further research needs to
examine the construction of process-oriented structures to frame how the inquiry process can
be approached and organized to achieve the community’s goals. Inquiry-based programs
often structure the inquiry process as pre-defined stages and procedural steps to complete the
driving tasks. The knowledge building pedagogy approaches student inquiry as an idea-
centered, ever-deepening process consistent with knowledge work in scientific research
communities or knowledge-creating organizations (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006).
Socializing students into such dynamic and authentic practice is challenging. To scaffold
students’ inquiry for idea improvement, Bielaczyc and Ow (2014) designed various “think
cards” to help explicate the epistemic operations, such as Our Problem, Initial Theories,
Investigative Work, Exchange of Ideas, Improved Theories, Pull-Together, and so forth. A
meaningful further step is to explore how students, with support from their teacher, may take
on the initiative to frame the essential components of the inquiry process for progressive idea
Research Goal and Questions
The current study aims to further elaborate classroom processes by which students
and their teacher co-construct inquiry structures to support their knowledge building. It is part
of a multi-year, design-based research program in a set of Grade 5 classrooms. The
aforementioned analysis (Tao et al., 2015) documented the work conducted in the first year of
this research, focusing on how a Grade 5 science community co-generated collective inquiry
areas and goals to guide its knowledge building about human body systems over a school
year. The current study analyzes data collected from the same classroom in the following
school year. The same teacher worked with a different cohort of students to investigate
human body systems using knowledge building pedagogy and Knowledge Forum
(Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006), an online collaborative platform that supports students’
knowledge building work and collaborative discourse. The purpose of this study is to provide
an elaborated account of how the teacher worked with the students to co-construct inquiry
structures concerning what the community should investigate and how the community should
conduct its inquiry. The research questions are:
(a) How did the students and their teacher work together to co-construct and adapt
inquiry structures to frame what they should research in terms of inquiry areas and big “juicy”
(b) How did they co-construct and adapt inquiry structures about how to do research,
represented as a model of “research cycle”?
(c) In what ways did students use the co-constructed “research cycles” to deepen their
inquiry and support their participation in knowledge building?
Participants and Contexts
This study was conducted in a Grade 5 classroom at a public elementary school
located in a suburban school district in northeastern U.S. The classroom had 19 students who
were 10-11 years old. The students investigated human body systems over a whole school
year (2014-2015) as the focus of their science curriculum. There were two science lessons
each week. The teacher had 18 years of experience teaching elementary school students and
one year of prior experience with knowledge building pedagogy and Knowledge Forum. In
the summer of 2014, the teacher participated in a one-day workshop with our research team
to understand the knowledge building principles (Scardamalia, 2002) and apply them to the
design of the human body inquiry.
Instead of following teacher’s pre-specified inquiry goals and inquiry procedures,
students were expected to take on collective responsibility for co-identifying problems of
inquiry and conducting spontaneous inquiry activities to address the problems, with support
from their teacher. The whole inquiry unfolded as an open and dynamic process based on the
questions that emerged from knowledge building interactions and gave rise to shared
directions of inquiry. The knowledge building processes integrated individual and small
group readings and note-taking, searching of library and online resources, small group
discussions, whole class face-to-face conversations, model-building, and student-directed
presentations. Meanwhile, major questions and findings generated through these classroom-
based activities were contributed to Knowledge Forum for continual knowledge building
discourse and idea improvement. Their online space was organized as different views
(workspaces) corresponding to their major areas of research (see Figure 1). Students wrote
notes to contribute questions, ideas, and information sources, and built on one another’s notes
to engage in interactive discourse, which mirrored and extended students’ interactive
conversations in the classroom.
Figure 1. A Knowledge Forum (version 4.8) view about “Blood and Bone Marrow” with two
example notes.
In the various inquiry activities, the teacher positioned himself as a facilitator and co-
learner. He encouraged students to take on collective responsibility to co-identify research
goals, plan for collaborative activities, and reflect on ongoing progress. As a specific strategy
to support collective planning and reflection, the teachers facilitated “metacognitive meetings
(MMs for short by students): face-to-face class meetings in which all students discussed what
important questions they needed to research, what knowledge progress had been made, and
how they should conduct research to address emergent problems. As an important product of
the metacognitive meetings, the class generated various artifacts to highlight shared structures
of inquiry. These included constructing a list of wondering areas and big “juicy” questions to
highlight the collective focus of inquiry and creating a “research cycle” chart to frame the
processes of the inquiry. Detailed classroom processes to generate and adapt these structures
are elaborated in the results section.
Data Collection and Analyses
The first author observed every science lesson and collected various forms of data.
The data sources included (a) classroom observation notes that recorded major activities,
important ideas from students, and notable teacher scaffolding in each lesson; (b) video and
audio recordings of whole class meetings and small-group sessions; (c) photos of classroom
artifacts and student notebooks; (d) student interviews focusing on how they used the
collective structure represented as “research cycle” to guide their inquiry; and (e) online
discourse records in Knowledge Forum.
To address the first two research questions about how the community constructed and
adapted inquiry structures, we used our classroom observation notes to identify major
structure elements generated. To structure what they should investigate, members of the
community co-generated and adapted a collective list of inquiry areas and questions. As a
structure about how to do research, they co-developed and adapted a “research cyclemodel
that included important actions of knowledge building. Based on our observation notes, we
identified the critical moments when the inquiry areas/questions and “research cycles” were
formed, adapted, and shared using the related classroom artifacts. We then selectively
zoomed into the video records of the classroom moments to understand the processes by
which these structures were constructed, adapted and used. The classroom videos were
transcribed and analyzed using a narrative approach to video analysis (Derry et al., 2010)
supported by other related classroom data, including pictures of students’ notebooks and
classroom artifacts (e.g. small group research cycles). The construction of the narrative based
on the videos and other data focused on capturing the reflective processes enacted by the
students and teacher to appropriate, produce, use, and modify various collective structures to
frame the focus and processes of inquiry. Specifically, we first browsed the videos and
transcriptions to develop an overall sense of the reflective processes, and then identified
“digestible” chunks in the videos—major episodes of the reflective conversations in which
students negotiated overarching “juicy” questions, generated the “research cycles,” and
planned for deeper inquiries. These chunks of videos were analyzed to capture who enacted
what kinds of reflective processes to develop what sorts of structures and related artifacts or
resources. The video episodes were further contextualized through building chronological
links among the episodes and with our observation notes to construct a storyline.
To understand how students used the “research cycles” to support and guide their
inquiry, we interviewed seven students who agreed to share their comments on their inquiry.
The interviews were transcribed and analyzed with open coding (Charmaz, 2006) to identify
the ways in which students used the structure to support their inquiry. Complementing the
analysis of student interviews, we further examined the patterns of inquiry reflected in their
notebooks and in the online discourse before and after the formation of the “research cycles.”
The “research cycles” highlighted the action for students to formulate progressively deeper
questions through their inquiry. Therefore, we traced each student’s research questions
recorded in their notebooks in September and later in May and coded the questions using a
“Structure-Behavior-Function” (SBF) framework (Hmelo-Silver & Pfeffer, 2004; Hmelo-
Silver et al., 2007) (see Table 1). Deeper questions about human body systems need to go
beyond factual information about the body parts (body structure) to focus on the processes
(system behavior) by which the body parts work together to achieve their functions. Two
raters independently coded students’ individual research questions, resulting in an inter-rater
agreement of 97.1% (Cohen’s Kappa=0.95).
Table 1. Structure-Behavior-Function coding of students’ inquiry questions
Structure refers to the “what” or the elements
of a system.
What are the different parts
of brain?
Behaviors refer to the “how”, the mechanisms
that enable structures to achieve their function
and mechanisms of how the structures of a
system achieve their outcome or function.
How does bone marrow
make blood?
Functions focus on the aspects of the system
relating to how particular components enable
overall system function/role of an element in
a system.
What causes schizophrenia?
We further analyzed student contributions to their collective discourse in Knowledge
Forum as related to the action components highlighted in the “research cycle.” Using content
analysis (Chi, 1997), we coded each Knowledge Forum note (n = 874) based on the coding
scheme shown in Table 2. In line with the actions in the “research cycle,” the level 1 coding
categories included questioning, theorizing and explaining, collecting evidence and
referencing sources as two primary ways of doing research, and connecting/integrating ideas
for knowledge sharing. Under the level 1 categories, a set of codes were included to capture
more specific patterns of discourse (Hmelo-Silver, 2003; Zhang et al., 2007): factual question
versus explanatory question; idea initiating wonderment versus idea deepening question;
intuitive explanation, alternative explanation versus. refined explanation, and evidence. A
second coder coded 20% of the notes to assess inter-rater reliability, with an inter-rater
agreement of 94.7% (Cohen’s Kappa = 0.94).
Table 2. Coding scheme for students’ online knowledge building discourse
Level 1
Questions asking
for factual
What does the word “Immune”
Questions in
search of
Why do we get migraines?
Questions that
search for general
information about
a theme-based
... How do you think allergies
Questions that
search for deeper
and more specific
information on the
basis of ideas
Nerves might help with sending
messages to the brain or receiving
messages…But do you have nerves
in your brain?
An intuitive theory
to explain certain
phenomenon or
issue based on
experience using
informal language.
You basically tell the brain what
you want it to do and then your
body will do it. I'm not a hundred
percent sure how the brain sends
messages to the body but this was
just my theory.
A statement that
suggests a possible
explanation in
disagreement or
conflict with
We disagree because bacteria are
not allergies. It’s something that is
totally different. And there are also
different ways to release bacteria.
On the note of allergies, the Epi-
pen releases a medication a little
like Benadryl, except way more
powerful that helps open up your
An elaborated
account of the
specific processes
and mechanisms
using disciplinary
I think that your brain sends
messages through the nerves. The
nerves notice something in need of
a message, they send it through the
nerves in the spine and in to the
brain. The brain finds a solution,
and sends the answer back through
the nerves. Like if the surface
under your hand gets hot...
Collecting Evidence
A posting that
experiments or
observations to
either support or
challenge an
The evidence shows that shorter
words and words that are
somewhat about the same thing are
much easier to understand than
longer words or completely random
Referencing sources
A posting that
information from
readings or
websites and uses
the information to
deepen ideas and
generate questions.
The brain is divided into three main
sections: the forebrain, cerebellum
and the brain stem. The main part
of the forebrain is the cerebrum
which makes up about 85% of the
brains mass... As well part of the
forebrain is the hypothalamus,
which controls many of the body’s
automatic processes such as eating
and sleeping...
Connecting and integrating
A posting that
connects different
ideas to generate a
or integrated
We think the sensory neurons,
muscles, and the brain all help you
prevent a burn. We think this
because the sensory neurons feel
that an object is to hot or warm.
Then the sensory neurons send
signals to the brain to move your
hand (or other part of the body) ...
In conclusion, we think the sensory
neurons, muscles, brain, and
afferent and efferent nerves all help
you prevent a burn…
We report our analyses to address the three research questions. As noted earlier, the
processes to build shared inquiry structures and to use the structures to conduct inquiry are
deeply intertwined. Therefore, the analyses of the three questions are interconnected.
How Did the Students and Their Teacher Co-Construct the Inquiry Areas and “Juicy”
Questions to Focus Their Knowledge Building?
Through the analysis of the classroom videos supported by other data, we identified
the following reflective processes by which the community co-generated inquiry structures to
frame what they should investigate: (a) co-generating initial inquiry areas based on students’
individual research questions; (b) elaborating and expanding the list of inquiry areas based on
new emergent questions as the knowledge building work proceeded; and (c) developing
specialized research topics to guide and sustain more advanced inquiry. Table 3 summarizes
the participation of the teacher and his students in the reflective processes together with the
structures formed and adapted. We further describe the detailed processes below, with
detailed accounts of how the various elements of the structures were formed and, then, used
by students and their teacher.
Table 3. Processes by which the community co-generated structures about what the
community should investigate
Teacher and Student Input to the Reflective Processes
Inquiry Structures
identified the Human
Body as the content area
based on the school’s
prepared 10 outdoor
games involving various
human body functions;
prepared a collection of
books about human body
facilitated whole class
discussions to reflect on
the outdoor games and
share questions related to
human body systems.
participated in the outdoor
games to experience various
body functions;
shared experience and
questions in the class
listed their questions in
notebooks and shared with
discussed connections
among the questions to form
wondering areas;
formed four initial groups
based on interest and created
four big questions.
individual research
questions in science
four inquiry areas recorded
on a chart paper: “How do
bone marrow, blood and
veins work?” “How does
the brain do its jobs[SIC]?”
“How do muscles, bone,
and vocal cords work?” and
“How does your body react
to radiation, acids and
four initial groups with four
workspaces created in
Knowledge Forum
monitored knowledge
progress in the four
chatted with individuals
and small groups about
new questions generated
from the ongoing inquiry;
facilitated small group
and whole class
discussions to share new
conducted individual and
group inquiry to address the
focal questions;
generated more specific
shared new emergent
questions in classroom
reflection and online;
formed new groups to work
on new topics.
the “human body reaction”
group updated their
question as “How does the
immune system work?”
the “muscles, bones, and
vocal cords” group updated
their question as “How do
parts of the throat and
mouth work together?”
three small groups formed;
three inquiry areas added to
the chart paper; three
workspaces created in
Knowledge Forum.
monitored knowledge
progress in all the areas
of inquiry;
modeled how to plan
inquiry based on the
specialized questions.
identified overarching
questions for specialized
drew a map of the sub-
questions (themes) they
planned to work on;
shared individual maps of
inquiry in classroom talks
and online.
individual questions shared
in whole class meetings and
maps of sub-questions for
specialized inquiry;
an “Advanced Research”
view in Knowledge Forum.
Co-generating initial inquiry areas based on students’ individual questions. The teacher
identified the human body systems as the science topic based on the school’s curriculum. The
human body inquiry began with a kick-off event in mid-September that included a series of
outdoor activities. The teacher worked with two other Grade 5 teachers to design the
activities with the goal of engaging student interest in and experiences with various human
body systems (e.g. movement control, senses, memory). Each activity required students to
use certain body parts to perform challenging tasks. Following the outdoor activities, a whole
class reflection was organized in the classroom for students to share their experiences and
questions. Students showed deep interest in the functions of the human body. The teacher
also introduced students to a collection of books placed in the classroom related to various
human body systems.
To consolidate student interest into shared areas of inquiry, the teacher asked students
to reflect on “What am I really curious about?” Each student listed all the questions that
she/he was curious about in the first page of her/his notebook (see an example in Figure 2-a).
Most of the students wrote down approximately eight to ten questions. The teacher then
suggested that each student select a question to start with: “Where do I want to begin my
knowledge building journey?” Students reviewed their questions in their notebooks, marked
questions they were most interested in, and then wrote them down on sticky notes.
The teacher collected the individual questions, read them one by one and posted them
on the blackboard. He further asked for students’ opinions about how to organize the sticky
notes. Students proposed that the questions should be organized based on the connections.
Questions about the same or related topics were placed in one section. For example, the
teacher read the question “What is bone marrow?He placed it on the board and asked
students to find questions that were close to it. The teacher then read the question “Why is
some blood blue?” Students commented that it was about blood, not about bones. The teacher
read the question “How does bone marrow make new blood?” Students realized that the
topics about bone marrows and blood were actually connected, eliciting further discussion
about the specific connection. Students suggested that another question, “How many veins are
in your body?” was also related to blood. The above four questions were clustered together as
an area of inquiry, with the four students formed into an emergent group to work in this area.
Through similar processes, the community identified three other areas of inquiry, each of
which became the focus of a temporary small group. Then the teacher suggested the four
small groups meet to develop a big “juicy” question as their overarching focus. For example,
the small group working on blood and bone marrows generated the question of “How do bone
marrow, blood, and veins work?” And the other three big juicy questions generated were:
How does the brain do its jobs? How do muscles, bones, nerves, teeth, and vocal chords
work together to speak and eat?” “How does your body react to radiation, acids and
chemicals, and scary things?” (see Figure 2-b) To highlight these big “juicy” questions to the
whole class, the teacher listed the four big questions on a large chart paper, which was hung
on a wall in the classroom. Four corresponding views (workspaces) were set up in
Knowledge Forum to support the online knowledge building discourse.
(a) (b)
Figure 2. Formation of the initial four big “juicy” questions.
Conducting inquiry while further elaborating and expanding the inquiry areas. Guided
by the initial “juicy” questions, students worked with their peers to carry out research using
books, websites, and models. In their science class, members interested in each “juicy”
question found a spot in the classroom to meet. With their notebooks open, they shared new
advances including new facts, theories, questions, as well as possible strategies to do deeper
work or share their findings. As the inquiry proceeded, students generated more specific
questions. For instance, the three students who worked on “How does your body react to
radiation, acids and chemicals, and scary things?” shared their initial research. As examples
of the human body reactions, they mentioned the various allergies that their family members
had, triggering their interest in how allergies work. As an agreement, they planned to narrow
down their broad inquiry about the human body reactions to allergies. The three individual
students tried searching online to see what information they could find. A member found a
video explaining the causes of allergies, from which she took notes in her notebook. Another
student read a few webpages explaining “How children might get allergies from their
parents?” The three students shared their information and generated three specific questions
as their focus: What are allergies? Why do we get allergies? How can we protect ourselves
from allergies?
The teacher reviewed student ideas and questions in the four areas of inquiry as he
talked with individuals and small groups and read their online postings. Groups that had new
insights or deep questions were invited to share their progress and questions at whole
classroom meetings. Through sharing progress and reviewing their new questions, students
developed updated understandings of the inquiry foci, leading to the reframing of some of the
inquiry areas. For example, after working on allergies for a while, the students reframed their
research focus as “How does the immune system work?” Students working on “muscles,
bones, and vocal chords” also developed a more specific focus on “How do parts of the
throat and mouth work together?”
The updated foci and questions continued to guide student knowledge building
actions in the classroom and online. For example, the updated inquiry areas and questions
were used to focus and organize whole class meetings to share and deepen knowledge related
to each “juicy” question. Collective meetings were organized to discuss knowledge progress
about the blood and heart in late October, about the brain in early November, about the throat
and mouth in mid-November, and about allergies in early December.
While there were small groups developed based on the inquiry areas, students were
free to interact with different peers as needed or work on other areas related to their research.
Based on the updated inquiry areas and “juicy” questions, the teacher created a two-
dimensional area-student mapping chart (see Figure 3), which was hung on the classroom
wall to help students plan and keep track of their participation on a daily basis. Student names
were listed in the columns following the “juicy” questions. In the beginning of every science
class, each student indicated the inquiry area(s) she/he planned to work on by placing a small
magnet next to the inquiry question(s). They were also encouraged to write new specific
questions on sticky notes put under any of the existing “juicy” question or suggest new
research areas and directions. Blank rows were left on the chart for possible new research
areas. For example, two students in the brain group were fascinated about dreams. After a
discussion with the teacher, they proposed sleep as the fifth area of inquiry, which was
phrased as What’s happening in your body while you sleep?” Several students who had been
working on the other areas became interested in this new area too. Through similar processes,
two additional “juicy” questions were added to the chart, each with an emergent group
formed: “How does the digestive system work?” and “How does the respiratory system
Figure 3. A mapping chart to keep track of student participation in the collective
inquiry areas.
Students continued their inquiry with the seven “juicy” questions until February 2015.
Each student engaged in research while generating deeper and more specific research
questions in their notebooks. For example, a student studying the brain generated the
following research questions: How do the nerves catch signals from the brain?” “What side
effects happen to your body when you get a concussion? Another student studying the brain
continued his journey of research on colorblindness driven by the following questions:
What’s the cause of colorblindness and why does it affect our vision?” “Why does
colorblindness happen and affect people?”
Student names
Developing specialized directions for more advanced inquiry. By late February, students
had carried out extensive work in the seven inquiry areas that they had formulated, with new
knowledge progress shared in their face-to-face meetings and Knowledge Forum notes.
Building on this foundational knowledge, students began working on more specialized
problems of the human body that related to their personal experiences. For example, a girl,
who often got sick in winter began to research how doing exercise helps our bodies. Another
girl, who broke her leg during the winter break, got interested in “How do bones heal?”
Noticing the new specialized interests developing among his students, the teacher envisioned
that the community could move into a new phase of research where students engaged in more
advanced inquiry. Therefore, he facilitated a whole class meeting for students to develop
ideas about where the community should go next. Students shared their research directions
and questions at this meeting.
After this meeting, the teacher worked with the students to plan out their
specialized/advanced inquiry based on how the community approached their initial “juicy”
questions. The teacher modeled using a mind map to approach a big question through
generating sub-questions and inquiry directions. And, then, each student wrote down their
own advanced inquiry question in the center of a piece of paper and added branch questions
as possible directions. Figure 4 shows the map of a student who worked on mitochondrial
disease. The focal question for her advanced inquiry was What is the mitochondrial disease?”
She also developed a series of branch questions to guide her work on this topic, such as:
How do you get it?” “What would happen to your cells?” “How can you eat when you have
mitochondrial (disease)?” A new view (workspace) was created in Knowledge Forum named
“Advanced Research.” Student shared their mind maps in this view and used the maps to
guide their specialized inquiry from late March to mid-June.
Figure 4. A student’s map of inquiry directions focusing on her research question
about mitochondrial disease.
How Did the Teacher and Students Co-Construct and Adapt the “Research Cycles” to
Guide Their Inquiry Process?
The analysis of the classroom videos and observation notes identified the reflective
processes by which the community generated and adapted a “research cycle” model to inform
members’ inquiry actions. These processes are summarized in Table 4 and elaborated below.
Table 4. Processes by which the community co-generated inquiry structures about how to do
Teacher and Student Input to the Reflective Processes
Inquiry Structures
(a) Reflecting on
intuitive inquiry
experiences to
develop a shared
sense of the
research journey
monitored students’ inquiry
actions and knowledge
supported students’ reflection
on inquiry actions and plans;
facilitated a whole class
reflection on their journey of
carried out inquiry based
on previous experience;
reflected on their research
journeys in notebooks;
contributed to whole class
reflection on their journey
of research.
implicit structures of
inquiry from prior
learning experience;
individual research
journeys in science
a shared sense of
research as a
continual journey
reflected on the chart
(b) Co-generating
a more systematic
representation of
the research cycle
through small-
group reflection
monitored students’ progress
in light of the continual
research journey;
supported small group
reflection to create research
reminded students to use and
revisit their research cycles in
their subsequent learning.
shared individual research
journey with peers;
participated in group
discussion to create
research cycles;
conducted inquiry in focal
areas guided by their
research cycles;
refined group research
cycles based on research
experience gained.
initial small group
research cycles;
refined small group
research cycles.
(c) Creating a
research cycle
model based on
refined research
cycles from small
monitored students’ inquiry
facilitated a whole class
reflection to generate a
collective research cycle.
shared small groups’
research cycles;
participated in a whole
class reflection to create
the collective research
cycle according to
accumulated inquiry
a collective research
cycle chart hung on
the classroom wall.
(d) Ongoing
adaptive use of
the inquiry
structures by
engaged in noticing and
highlighting of strong inquiry
modeled how to plan and
monitor their inquiry using the
research cycle.
planned and monitored
group and individual
inquiry with the collective
research cycle;
adapted the collective
research cycle to guide
strong examples of
research cycle use;
personalized models
of research cycles.
Reflecting on intuitive inquiry experiences to develop a shared sense of the research
journey. Students began their inquiry about the human body in mid-September. Without
teacher-specified inquiry procedures, students worked on their focal questions based on their
prior experiences with science learning and information collection. Notably, students applied
various reading strategies (e.g. note taking) acquired in their previous classes as they
searched books and other materials for information. The teacher observed student research
activities in the classroom and occasionally asked questions to help students further articulate
their thoughts and actions, such as: What led you to that question? So you found facts, and
then you said, organize them…why would you do that? What would you do after that?
In a whole class discussion about brain damage in mid-October, students engaged in
active responses to one another’s ideas to offer further information, make connections, and
raise deeper questions. The teacher seized the opportunity to facilitate a reflection on how to
conduct inquiry. He shared his observation of how student ideas had grown in this discussion
and shared a metaphor that research is like a journey. He asked students to reflect on their
own journey in terms of where they were now and where to go next in their research. The
following two guiding reflection questions were written on the blackboard, with examples
taken from students' notebooks for each:
(Q1) Once you have learned a lot of fascinating information, what has begun
to happen?
What has begun to happen is that we are starting to form opinions, and
hypotheses about our topics. While we keep getting more questions, we try to
answer them. You eventually get too many questions and not enough answers.
So we have some more work to do to answer those questions.
(Q2) What are the next steps in a research journey?
The next steps in a research journey are to find more information about our
key topics, then eventually try to find a way of sharing them. That is at least
what you wish do when you have just done a lot of research on something.
Students shared their responses in their small groups and, then, as a whole class. The
main points were recorded by the teacher on two pieces of chart paper (see Table 5 for a
summary). As Table 5 suggests, the students’ reflection showed a shared sense of the inquiry
process as a continual journey: Once you have learned a lot in an area of inquiry, you can
create new theories, ask further questions, and find out even more complex information.
Table 5. Student reflection on where they were and where to go next based on the teachers
two guiding questions
Teacher’s guiding questions
Collective summary based on individual reflection
(Q1) Once you have learned a
lot of fascinating information,
what has begun to happen?
l Finding more complex information;
l Organizing information to answer questions;
l Making theories and hypotheses from resources;
l Helping others to answer their questions;
(Q2) What are the next steps
in a research journey?
l Making new questions out of facts collected;
l Taking theories to make new questions and then
make new theories;
l Sharing or demonstrating learning in different
l Answering questions, asking questions…
Co-generating a more systematic group representation of the “research cycle.” With a
shared sense of inquiry as a deepening journey, students continued to carry out their inquiry
and knowledge building discourse in their focal areas. With richer experiences accumulated
in the inquiry processes, the teacher suggested that each group reflect on their research
journey and create a more systematic research cycle to help guide their daily actions. Below
is an excerpt from the discussion of four students working on the brain where they reflected
on the components of their research cycle:
S1(Student 1): So a research cycle is a circle? So what do you think is the first?
Find a fact?
S2: Find a topic, or topic…
S3: No, this is a cycle! [erases the small circle in the middle and drew a larger
S2: Find a question?
S3: No, find a fact about your topic.
S1: Okay, and we will do arrows [draws a small cycle on the large cycle and
uses arrows to show the steps]. Okay. And then what’s that?
S2: Then find a question?
S4: Make a question about your fact?
S3: Share?
S2: Like on Knowledge Forum……
S1: [writes “share with people” on the poster] and then, how about “making a
S2: In your notebook or on Knowledge Forum…
S1: Okay, how to spell theory?
S3: T-H-E-O-R-Y.
S1: Okay, what’s next?
S4: Research about your question…Yeah. [S1 writes on the poster]
S1: Okay, now what? Find a fact about your topic, make a question, share with
people, and make a theory…so what’s the, what’s the…scientific method?
What’s the next?
S4: Okay, so share your information on Knowledge Forum… [S1 writes on
the poster]
S2: Start again?
S4: And then, make a question, get a fact……what should it be?
S2: Start again.
S3: Yeah, it’s a cycle.
In the above discussion, the students proposed components of inquiry actions and
ways to organize them. Some of the components were adopted and written on the poster;
others were rejected or rephrased by other members with agreement. The students reflected
on their own inquiry process in light of their sense of the authentic practices of scientists,
such by asking: “What’s the…scientific method?”
The small groups’ initial “research cycle” models included several shared components:
asking a question, collecting facts, answering the question, making theories, sharing
information and resources, generating more theories, building onto theories, and finding new
questions. The teacher reminded his students that the actions in their cycles were not linear or
fixed, and that they could update the research cycles whenever needed. Each small group
referred to their own model to plan their work and decided what they needed to do for deeper
inquiry. It was also used by the teacher to understand where each individual or small group
was in their inquiry process and support their planning. Below is an excerpt from a
conversation between the teacher and a few students who were researching the throat and
T: So while we are here [the throat and mouth area], where are you? … kind
of…put yourself in your cycle that you have here? [points to the research
cycle created by this group]
S1: I would say about…here [points to “Making theories”]
T: So you are somewhere between Making theories about the question on KF
and… you have some information that you can make some theories. That’s
great. So make some theories that you share in the (classroom) meeting. So
where are you guys seeing yourself in this cycle?
S2 and S3 (talk together): Making theories…
T: So you are all with the similar pace…. Great! Maybe you guys can make
theories and then…meet
S2: So we can make a better theory?
T: Yeah! Like something that you can…say…like… “Hey, we have the same
theory…” So I think you guys are more or less on the same page…Awesome!
Around mid-December, students worked as groups to re-visit and refine their initial
research based on their accumulated experience and updated understandings. For instance,
one of the small groups revisited their initial cycle created in November, in which they had
five components: Ask a question; Answer the question; Make theories about the question;
Share theories, information and resources with your group; Then get more theories from
your group (and start over) (see Figure 5-a). They generated an updated cycle (see Figure 5-b)
with the following components: Ask questions; Research topic; Make theories; Share info
with group; Get more theories/questions (and start over). The updated cycle highlighted the
importance of collecting information through research, and finding deeper research questions
as students developed their theories.
Figure 5. The initial (a) and refined (b) research (information) cycle from a small group.
Creating a collective research cycle model based on refined research cycles from small
groups. In January, with progress made in their focal areas of inquiry, students shared their
knowledge through whole class meetings and interactions in Knowledge Forum. The original
groups disbanded or reformed as students started to work on new topics of research. The
teacher suggested that the whole class synthesize the research cycles created/refined by the
groups into a collective model that everyone could use to guide their research. Through a
whole class discussion, students reviewed all the small groups’ models, identified common
components, and suggested additional components, leading to creation of a collective
research cycle that had seven components (Figure 6). In the above discussion, the teacher
challenged students to rethink about their inquiry actions and rephrase their actions using
scientific terminology, such as asking, “harder, you mean more difficult to understand or
complex like that?”Take my theories and make a…Can I say ‘a new question?’” The
collective research cycle chart was hung on the wall as a guiding tool for students to plan and
conduct their specialized inquiry from February to June.
Figure 6. The collective research cycle model generated by the community.
Ongoing adaptive use of the inquiry structures by students. The structures generated
through the above reflective processes, including the initial framing of the research journey,
small group research cycles and the collective research cycle, assisted students as they
planned their research and reflected on progress. The teacher modeled reflective monitoring
of inquiry practices using the research cycles and purposefully identified examples of strong
practices. For example, the teacher noticed that a student was taking notes in her notebook to
summarize new information and generate new questions and theories (see Figure 7). He
advertised this practice to the whole class, by saying:
I saw Lily’s (pseudonym) notebook. I want to show how she organized
(notebook page) …very much like …a fifth grader scientist’s notebook… and
I see here she’s got a few different questions that she asked. But at the bottom
she has theories, right? So the questions/theory she got was “how does the
neurons work?” …Awesome question! This word right here in fact shows me
that she’s made great progress…What I really loved is how it was organized:
questions, theories, those things are right there.
In this example, the teacher pointed out specific features in this notebook to showcase
key actions of inquiry: layers of questions (how to make a question), theories (initial
understanding), and organized facts and information.
Figure 7. A student’s note-taking aligned with the actions in the research cycle.
In What Ways Did Students Use the “Research Cycles” to Deepen Their Inquiry and
Support Their Participation?
We conducted further analyses of how students used the “research cycles” to guide
and support their inquiry. Based on the interview data, we found that all of the interviewed
students commented that the research cycle was helpful in guiding their knowledge building
process. Six of them were able to recall all the exact components in the cycle and describe
individual or small group inquiry processes aligned with the cycle. A few of the students
commented that the research cycle worked “pretty well,” so they usually followed the
components in order as they investigated different research topics. For example, a student
mentioned: “All of the topics I did, I always did that order…” Some of the students used the
cycle flexibly in different situations or used the collective cycle to develop their own cycles
for deeper research. When a certain component was unnecessary for their research, they
would “kick that part out.” As a student doing specialized inquiry on kinetics in speed skating
reflected, because her topic was so specialized, she could not get much input from her peers
and needed to spend most of her time collecting information and doing initial research.
Another student said: “I would use the cycle to guide me…But I would use just like
baseline…I have my own research cycle (created based on the collective research cycle) …
Students also considered different factors that might affect how the research cycle would be
used, such as shorter cycles for smaller topics; longer and more complex cycles for broader
As noted above, generating deeper and more advanced inquiry questions was
essential to formulating the research directions. It was also a major component in the research
cycles. Therefore, we traced student research questions written individually in September and
again in May and coded the questions using the “structure-behavior-function” framework
(see Figure 8). The proportions of students’ questions differ significantly between September
and May (χ² = 14.97, df = 2, p = .001). In May, students generated more research questions,
all of which went beyond factual information about the body parts (structure) to explain how
the various body parts achieve their functions or result in malfunctions.
Figure 8. Different types of student individual research questions in September and May.
To trace student inquiry work reflected in their collective discourse, we further
analyzed their online discourse contributions as related to the various actions highlighted in
the “research cycle.” We chose the date when students began to negotiate their small group
“research cycles” as the cutting point for comparison, as students spent approximately equal
amounts of time online before and after this point. We examined the various types of
contributions and traced changes from before to after the negotiation of the research cycle. As
Table 6 shows, before the construction of the “research cycles,” the most compelling types of
online contributions posted relatively broad explanatory questions about the body systems,
generated intuitive explanations, and refined the explanations. After the negotiation of the
“research cycles” that highlighted a diverse range of specific knowledge building actions,
students had a larger number of posts raising idea-initiating questions and idea-deepening
questions, elaborating ideas using referential sources of information, using evidence to
support or challenge ideas, providing alternative explanations, and connecting and integrating
ideas to develop coherent understandings.
Table 6. Students’ knowledge building contributions in Knowledge Forum
Contribution Type
Before constructing
the initial group
research cycles
After the formation
of the initial group
research cycles
Factual question
Explanatory question
Idea initiating question
Idea-deepening question
2. Theorizing/
Intuitive explanation
Alternative explanation
Refined explanation
3. Evidence
4. Referencing sources
5. Connecting & integrating
To demystify how student-driven, open-ended, and dynamic process of inquiry may
be sufficiently organized and supported, this study examined the reflective structuration
processes in a Grade 5 community. Deepening our prior study (Zhang et al., 2018), the
findings of the current study provided a more elaborated account of how the students and
their teacher worked together to co-construct shared inquiry structures to shape and guide
their ongoing knowledge building interactions over a school year. We discuss the findings in
light of the three key points of the reflective structuration framework.
Students Can Co-Construct Inquiry Structures with Their Teacher as They Build
Domain Knowledge.
Consistent with our previous studies (Tao et al., 2015; Zhang et al., 2018), the
findings of this study suggest that the fifth-graders were able to work with their teacher to
construct collective inquiry structures as they carried out collaborative efforts to build and
deepen their scientific knowledge. They constructed an evolving set of structures to frame
what their community should investigate for deeper inquiry and how the inquiry process
should be effectively approached. To structure what the community should investigate, the
community created and adapted a list of shared inquiry areas, represented as big “juicy”
questions, with students in each area generating more specific questions to guide their
directions of inquiry. The shared areas of inquiry were formulated and elaborated over time
through students’ engagement in individual monitoring of ongoing inquiry and reflective
conversation about what they needed to research. The structures evolved from the
overarching focus on human body systems introduced by the teacher, to forming an initial list
of four overarching questions rising above students’ diverse interests and questions,
elaborating deeper inquiry foci and new areas (e.g. the immune system and dreaming) that
emerged from individual and collaborative work, and developing specialized directions of
inquiry. These shared structures of inquiry were represented and highlighted using classroom
artifacts to guide student attention and participation. Individually, each student moved a
magnet on the collective questions chart to position his/her daily research in the context of
the community’s inquiry directions. At the small group level, flexible groups were formed
based on the “juicy” questions involving members who had shared interests. Collectively, the
community organized whole-class meetings as needed focusing on advances and issues that
emerged in each inquiry area.
As the structure to frame the process of inquiry, the community co-constructed and
adapted a research cycle model through individual monitoring and reflective conversations.
Students monitored their ongoing inquiry actions to reflect on their personal research
journeys and formulate group research cycles, which were used to guide student inquiry in
the following weeks. With accumulated experience, students then reconvened as a whole
community to generate a collective research cycle model based on the small group research
cycles. Students referred to components of the research cycles to communicate their work and
reflect on how they might deepen their inquiry.
The two types of structures to frame what should be researched as well as how to
research appeared mutually supportive of each other, with a shared focus on idea
improvement through progressive problem solving (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006). Efforts to
build shared structures about the inquiry focus and directions involved framing initial “juicy”
questions and generating deeper and more elaborated questions as the inquiry advanced.
Reflecting on their shared experience with the progressive journey of inquiry, students
generated the research cycles that highlighted inquiry as progressive problem finding for
continual theory refinement. Interestingly, the components of the student-generated research
cycle showed a high-level consistency with the epistemic operations for progressive idea
improvement identified by researchers (Bielaczyc & Ow, 2014).
There is a Temporal Interplay between the Two Layers of Construction.
The Grade 5 community appropriated structures from its prior practices and from their
school’s context to focus and guide members’ initial exploratory inquiry to build scientific
understandings, which gave rise to further structure building and adaptation for deeper
inquiry. The co-constructed structures served to capture emergent directions and processes of
inquiry in the community, and then became a guiding resource to inform and support
members’ efforts for further inquiry. For instance, students used the research cycles
adaptively to guide their personal work and reflected on their inquiry progress in light of the
components of their research cycle (see Figure 7). The research cycle supported their search
of deeper questions to guide their inquiry (Figure 8) and informed their contributions to the
knowledge building discourse. In reflection of the components of the research actions, their
online discourse involved asking questions to deepen existing ideas and initiate new ideas,
elaborating ideas using information sources, collecting evidence, and providing alternative
explanations (Table 6). The co-constructed structures helped to inform students’ knowledge
building directions and actions in this yearlong inquiry.
Co-Constructing Inquiry Structures Works as a Means to Foster Student Agency and
Collective Responsibility.
Over time and with the co-constructed structures mediating the community’s inquiry
practices, traditional roles of the teacher to guide classroom processes can be largely
distributed to the community. In this study, the teacher played various important roles in the
co-construction, adaptation, and reflective use of the inquiry structures. These included
mediating the adoption of the human body as the science topic, seeding potential inquiry
directions through reading materials and activities, facilitating reflective conversations to
frame “juicy” questions, capturing and reifying the structures emerged using online and
classroom artifacts, modeling how to organize focal research questions and sub-questions,
ongoing monitoring of inquiry practices, and supporting students’ meaningful and adaptive
use of the structures. The teacher input and scaffolding was directed toward helping students
to develop their own agency and control over the knowledge building process in connections
with (but not limited by) the expectations of school’s curriculum. Students took on high-level
responsibilities as they engaged in the reflective monitoring and conversations to formulate
shared inquiry goals and frame the inquiry processes. The co-constructed structures were then
used by students to direct their inquiry, deepen their discourse, and reflect on progress,
fostering intentional advancement of their community’s knowledge.
Notably, this study has several limitations. First, the analysis focused on depicting a
whole picture of the how the community co-constructed the inquiry structures to sustain its
knowledge building over a school year. In the current study, we did not have the data needed
to look into students’ moment-to-moment decision making in relation to their inquiry
directions and research cycles. Future research and analysis need to provide more detailed
analyses of students’ interactions that contribute to the formation and evolvement of the
structures. Second, the analysis of the role of the co-constructed structures relied on the
tracing of question types and discourse patterns across time periods; this could not tease out
the impact of student experience on the refinements of their inquiry and discourse
contributions. The impact of the co-constructed structures was examined in the
aforementioned study using a cross-classroom comparison design (Zhang et al., 2018).
Similar to the findings of the current study, the classroom engaged in reflective structuration
showed more active and connected contributions to the knowledge building discourse. Finally,
further research also needs to investigate what kinds of co-constructed structures of inquiry
may exist in broad knowledge building communities, conduct more systematic coding of
various elements of the structures, and conduct more in-depth analysis of student uses of the
structures in individual, small-group, and collective work.
Conclusions and Implications
This study provides an elaborated account of how the grade 5 community co-
constructed shared structures of inquiry to support and sustain its knowledge building
practices over time. Extending our prior work that analyzed co-constructed structures to
frame the inquiry focus and directions (Tao et al., 2015; Zhang et al., 2018), the results
additionally examined the construction of process-oriented structures in the form of research
cycles. The co-construction of inquiry structures involved working with existing structures
(e.g. curriculum area) appropriated into the community and went through further structural
elaboration and adaptation to frame/reframe what the community should research and how to
conduct inquiry. Structure-bearing classroom artifacts were generated and used to make the
structures visible to the community. The structures were then used as a means to monitoring
personal and collective inquiry practices and deliberating deeper inquiry actions, as reflected
in student personal work and collaborative discourse. As their ongoing knowledge building
actions and interactions led to deeper inquiry opportunities, members revisited their inquiry
structures for further refinements.
As a conceptual implication, this research highlights the importance of co-constructed
inquiry structures in learning communities. Such structures provide a socio-epistemic
mechanism to address the two competing needs that are both essential to sustaining inquiry
and knowledge building practices: to encourage student high-level agency as the course of
the inquiry unfolds, and at the same time, to incorporate support structures that orient
students about what they need to research and how to carry out deep inquiry. Co-constructing
inquiry structures helps to empower student control over the unfolding courses of inquiry and
at the same time hold students accountable for making purposeful and responsible
contributions. Inquiry structures in a community are progressively generated and elaborated
over time in light of the evolving knowledge of the community,
As a practical implication, the reflective structuration approach can be adopted and
developed as a new classroom strategy to implement long-term, collaborative inquiry and
knowledge building without extensive pre-scripting. High-level issues, such as what to
investigate, through what processes, by whom, can be co-structured by students with their
teacher as the inquiry unfolds over time. To support the co-construction of inquiry structures
in sustained knowledge building, we designed a timeline-based, collaborative platform: Idea
Thread Mapper (ITM) (Zhang et al., 2018). The core features support students’ reflective
efforts to capture emerging directions in extended discourse, formulate unfolding strands of
inquiry, and track students’ collaborative roles in the unfolding strands of inquiry. We are
upgrading ITM to further include process-oriented structures and incorporate learning
analytics to trace the various inquiry actions and contributions, such as those analyzed in this
This research was sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation (#1441479). We owe
special thanks to the teacher and students for their creative work enabling this research; and
to the special issue editors and anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and
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... 8year olds can identify promising ideas in their discourse to revise existing ideas and pursue novel areas of interest that enrich the scientific sophistication of their community knowledge . 10-year olds can identify connections across inquiry threads on the Idea Thread Mapper and co-organize social structures based on emergent interests to channel more collaborative and productive knowledge practices (Tao & Zhang, 2018). These research advances have informed the latest iteration of the suite of analytic tools in Knowledge Forum (Scardamalia & Bereiter, in press), which support embedded assessment in daily classroom practices so that teachers as well as students can initiate metadiscourse during Knowledge Building. ...
... In addition to encouraging students to identify key concepts in their discourse, it was the students themselves who identified gaps in their community knowledge, found promising areas that could be expanded into new pursuits, and planned next steps to advance their community knowledge. It is interesting to note that although Darlene did not use the promising ideas tool or Idea Thread Mapper (Tao & Zhang, 2018), her students engaged in similar reflection processes. Moreover, her students' reflections around the different visualizations enabled them to take ownership over their Knowledge Building in a broader sense: After critically examining the state of their community knowledge, they deconstructed and reconstructed their interaction dynamics and discourse moves in order to operate more powerfully as a community. ...
... By adopting an "improvable ideas" mindset, they were quick to offer creative ways to use those tools to support their learning. We find it fascinating how their metadiscourse sessions about improving their community knowledge and community dynamics evolved into design sessions for improving assessment tools to provide feedback for their community -past research has identified the role of metadiscourse in helping students revise their knowledge goals but not necessarily refine their assessment methods (e.g., Tao & Zhang, 2018). Of course, we are not suggesting that every metadiscourse session should unfold in such a manner, and we are well aware of the potential risk of reinforcing performativity in schools when too much value is given to prescriptive assessments derived from superficially-constructed quantitative measures. ...
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One of the core aims of Knowledge Building is to move students toward higher levels of agency. The design challenge for Knowledge Forum is to provide supports "attuned to the self-organizing character of learning" through powerful feedback mechanisms that enable students to make reflexive and progress-oriented decisions that sustain collective knowledge advancement. This study follows three design iterations of metadiscourse with 8-and 11-year old students, culminating in a cross-community discussion of next-generation analytics for Knowledge Forum at the 2019 Knowledge Building Summer Institute. Through metadiscourse, students demonstrated sophisticated interpretations of their online activities with the Knowledge Forum analytic tools. Not only were they honest and open about receiving feedback through novel forms of data visualization, they were also aware of the potential limitations of these tools and offered thoughtful and insightful feedback for our engineers. Pedagogical and technological implications are discussed within the context of nurturing the emergence of new competencies, such as design thinking and computational literacy.
... Students who participate in collaborative learning, including KB, experience cognitive and emotional interactions (Isohätälä et al., 2020a,b). Previous studies suggest that engaging in metadiscourse will help sustain and deepen KB (e.g., Resendes et al., 2015;Yang et al., 2016;Tao and Zhang, 2018;Zhang et al., 2018). What remains unknown are the effects of engaging in metadiscourse on students' emotions. ...
... and Are we putting our knowledge together? Tao and Zhang (2018) and Zhang et al. (2018) examined how Idea Thread Mapper (ITM), a timebased inquiry-structuring tool (Chen et al., 2013), helped teachers and students to monitor their community status and decide which threads to focus on. In Lei and Chan's (2018) study, the students wrote group e-portfolios as their KB unfolded as a way of engaging in collaborative reflective assessment. ...
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This paper explores the possibility that knowledge building metadiscourse-discourse about knowledge building-can produce a positive feedback loop, with positive emotional state and knowledge advancement serving to increase each other. Grades 2 and 3 students’ utterances over several months were analyzed as a unit of study, starting with identification of each discourse move and corresponding emotion, defined as a state. These states were then analyzed over time, with a focus on metadiscourse sessions in which students reflected on earlier discourse to identify questions and ideas to be pursued in greater depth. Each discourse move-emotional state was analyzed to determine frequency, transition from one state to another, and spread of each state such as “reflection and positive” and “proposing new directions for inquiry and curiosity.” These two states were among the most frequently occurring in the metadiscourse sessions and virtually absent in other discourse sessions. Transition rates indicated that reflection tended to trigger more reflection, and proposing a new direction led to more proposals for new directions. Sequential pattern analysis suggested sub-sequences specific to metadiscourse sessions. Overall, results indicate that engaging in metadiscourse contributes to students’ productive KB and positive emotions.
... By conducting process-based analysis, the situations that emerged in students' learner autonomy and learning conceptions, both during one level of inquiry and when moving from one level to another, were presented. Previous studies had compared the effects of structured, guided or open inquiry levels on students' cognitive outcomes (Maxwell et al., 2015;Tao & Zhang, 2018). This study, however, instead of comparing the effects of inquiry on different groups, presents the effects of different levels of inquiry on the same group. ...
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The purpose of this study is to compare the effects of inquiry-based learning and the regular science curriculum on students’ learner autonomy and conceptions of learning. The students in the experimental group engaged in inquiry beginning with structured, continuing with guided and ending with open, while the students in the comparison group followed the materials used in the regular science curriculum. All students individually participated in three times 40-minute weekly sessions during a 14-week period. Data were gathered through individual interviews which were conducted with six students in total (three from the experimental group and three from the control group). Results showed that the inquiry-based learning caused students to move from participatory roles towards constructive ones, whereas the regular science curriculum did not alter participatory roles. Inquiry-based learning also enabled students’ reproductive conceptions to change towards constructive conceptions. Students in the control group did not change their reproductive conceptions.
... However, although students' work can be accomplished through collaboration with peers and supervision, a heavy emphasis lies in "sharedness and joint action of an epistemic nature" (Damşa et al., 2010, p. 180). In classroom practices, students build and adopt structures of shared inquiry to create collaborative knowledge, sustain idea improvement, and generate deeper questions (Damşa et al., 2010;Tao & Zhang, 2018). They create deepening ideas that are valuable to the community, while individual knowledge development is in line with the community's inquiry progress (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2010). ...
Accumulating evidence underscores the imperative role of family discourse in supporting children's engagement with science and, in turn, children's science learning. However, little research explores children's roles and agency in everyday family discourse in various unstructured settings. This study explores discourse genres, which are routine ways of using language for particular purposes. I examined what discourse genres one family employed to engage with science and how these genres supported or hindered the children's agentic engagement. By analyzing audio recordings obtained over a year of self-ethnography and employing linguistics ethnography methods, I characterized seven discourse genres: (1) scientific exploration; (2) classroom; (3) ask-the-expert; (4) wildlife viewing; (5) guided reading; (6) sports broadcasting; and (7) magic trick. The analysis demonstrates how the enactment of genres allowed family members to recruit resources from science and other domains to support science engagement for themselves and others. The findings illustrate how children exercised epistemic agency by introducing certain genres, taking agentic roles within genres (navigating the inquiry process, regulating the focus of conversation, creating shared object of attention), and undermining genres parents introduce. The study suggests more attention should be paid to genres in everyday family science discourse and children's roles and agency in them.
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The development of student epistemic agency is a vitally important goal for science education across all grade levels. This case study aims to provide a detailed account of the implementation of student epistemic agency-driven science practices over a whole school year with an emergent design approach. Qualitative analyses of teacher-researcher co-design meetings, classroom observation notes, and student-created artifacts elaborated the dynamic processes of how student agency-driven science practices were planned, initiated, and reorganized in the classroom over time. Qualitative and content analysis of the teacher's weekly reflection journals characterized the teacher's roles in facilitating student-directed science inquiry. These results shed light on an emergent design approach to support and sustain student epistemic agency-driven science practices in science classrooms.
FREE FULL TEXT access at As a hallmark of authentic science practices, students need to enact epistemic agency to shape/reshape the key aspects of their inquiry work as a collaborative community. This study elaborates an emergent temporal mechanism for engaging students' epistemic agency: "reflective structuration" by which members of a classroom community co-construct ever-evolving inquiry directions and group structures as their collective inquiry work proceeds. Using an interactional ethnography method, we examined how students (n = 22) in a Grade 5 classroom co-constructed shared inquiry directions and flexible group structures to guide their sustained inquiry about human body systems over seven months supported by a collaborative online environment. Rich data were collected to trace the work of the eye inquiry group as a telling case. With their teacher's support, students took agentic moves to construct an evolving set of wondering areas as a way to frame what their whole class needed to investigate. Flexible groups, such as the eye inquiry group, emerged and evolved in the various areas, leading to progressively deepening inquiry and extensive idea exchanges among students. Implications for research and practice are discussed.
This study explores emergent reflective structuration as a new form of shared regulation. The purpose is to support students in taking on high-level epistemic agency as they co-configure dynamic inquiry pathways that unfold over long periods of time. With the teacher’s support, students not only regulate their inquiry and collaboration following pre-scripted structures, but they also co-construct shared inquiry pathways to frame and reframe their community practices in response to progress and needs that emerge over time. Our data analysis investigates the temporal and interactional processes by which members of a Grade 5 classroom co-configured their knowledge building pathways in a yearlong science inquiry focusing on the human body systems. As a co-constructed structure, students co-formulated an evolving chart of “big questions” that signified shared inquiry directions with the teacher’s support. The inquiry process was supported by Knowledge Form and Idea Thread Mapper, which visualizes the online knowledge building discourse based on temporal streams of inquiry focusing on the “big questions.” Qualitative analysis of classroom observation notes, videos, student artifacts, online discourse, and student interviews documented nine “big questions” co-formulated by the community over time. Further analysis revealed students’ agentic moves to expand, deepen, and reframe the knowledge building work of their community. Analyses of online discourse and a pre-and post-test showed productive idea contributions, interactions, and knowledge outcomes. Conceptual and practical implications are discussed. Full text at:
Full-text available This study explores emergent reflective structuration as a new form of shared regulation. The purpose is to support students in taking on high-level epistemic agency as they co-configure dynamic inquiry pathways that unfold over long periods of time. With the teacher's support, students not only regulate their inquiry and collaboration following pre-scripted structures but they also co-construct shared inquiry pathways to frame and reframe their community practices in response to emergent progress and needs. Our data analysis investigates the temporal and interactional processes by which members of a Grade 5 classroom co-configured their knowledge building pathways in a yearlong science inquiry focusing on human body systems. As a co-constructed structure, students co-formulated an evolving chart of "big questions" that signified shared inquiry directions with the teacher's support. The inquiry process was supported by Knowledge Form and Idea Thread Mapper.
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Advances in scripting theory and advances in support for student-driven knowledge construction call for a reconsideration of long-standing issues of guidance, control, and agency. This symposium undertakes a fresh analysis based on the relations between two widely adopted approaches that may be poles apart but arguably viewed as variations within a common applied epistemological framework. The two approaches are scripted collaboration and Knowledge Building. Rather than focusing on similarities and differences, the symposium will address deeper problems such as reconciling external supports of all kinds with the self-organizing character of knowledge construction and integrating such supports into classrooms viewed as knowledge-creating communities. The centerpiece of the symposium is a panel discussion that includes experts who provide different theoretical viewpoints. In its synthesis the symposium will capture and make sense of what is strongest in the two approaches and provide a broad conceptual basis for next-generation initiatives.
Full-text available This research integrates theory building, technology design, and design-based research to address a central challenge pertaining to collective inquiry and knowledge building: how can student-driven, ever-deepening inquiry processes become socially organized and pedagogically supported in a community? Different from supporting inquiry using pre-designed structures, we propose reflective structuration as a social and temporal mechanism by which members of a community co-construct/re-construct shared inquiry structures to shape and guide their ongoing knowledge building processes. Idea Thread Mapper (ITM) was designed to help students and their teacher monitor emergent directions and co-organize the unfolding inquiry processes over time. A study was conducted in two upper primary school classrooms that investigated electricity with the support of ITM. Qualitative analyses of classroom videos and observational data documented the formation and elaboration of shared inquiry structures. Content analysis of the online discourse and student reflective summaries showed that in the classroom with reflective structuration, students made more active and connected contributions to their online discourse, leading to deeper and more coherent scientific understandings.
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In this article we review the Knowledge-Building literature, unpacking its conceptual framework, principle-based pedagogy, distinctive features, and issues regarding scalability and sustainability. The Knowledge-Building goal is to reframe education as a knowledge-creating enterprise, engaging students from the earliest years of schooling. Despite a 30-year program of research and development and recognition that there is a close fit between Knowledge Building and efforts to meet knowledge society needs, Knowledge Building is frequently reinterpreted along the general lines of bringing constructivist learning into schooling rather than means to reframing education as a knowledge-creating enterprise. This article aims to clarify Knowledge-Building goals and to make the opportunities afforded by Knowledge Building more accessible.
This study explores the role that failure can play in the development of classroom learning communities that seek to enculturate students into the creative collaboration practices involved in knowledge building cultures. We investigated an innovative course for graduate students in an educational technologies program where students were given progressively greater social responsibility over their learning. The results of our grounded theoretical analysis elucidate three general phases of productive social failure. In the first phase, two different emergent approaches to collaborative learning – coordinated collaboration and free collaboration – were found. In the second phase, we describe four possible reasons why these different approaches could lead to social failures. These include crossing a red line, a context of growing tensions, more developed cognitive frameworks, and closer interpersonal relationships. In the last phase, we found how having learning communities work through conflicts can result in three types of creative collaboration – about the community, others in the community, and oneself in the community. This paper advances the understanding of how non-directive approaches regarding the social aspects of learning communities can be productive.
The interdisciplinary field of the learning sciences encompasses educational psychology, cognitive science, computer science, and anthropology, among other disciplines. The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, first published in 2006, is the definitive introduction to this innovative approach to teaching, learning, and educational technology. In this dramatically revised second edition, leading scholars incorporate the latest research to provide practical advice on a wide range of issues. The authors address the best ways to write textbooks, design educational software, prepare effective teachers, organize classrooms, and use the Internet to enhance student learning. They illustrate the importance of creating productive learning environments both inside and outside school, including after school clubs, libraries, and museums. Accessible and engaging, the Handbook has proven to be an essential resource for graduate students, researchers, teachers, administrators, consultants, software designers, and policy makers on a global scale.
Recent years have seen a surge in educational efforts to foster the development of learners’ epistemologies. Our first aim is to problematize some current assumptions about the goals of epistemic education and to argue that existing models of lay or expert epistemologies cannot directly translate into educational goals. Our second aim is to present a fresh integrative analysis of the goals of epistemic education, based on both philosophical arguments and empirical research. Synthesizing these sources, we propose that the overarching purpose of epistemic education is to promote learners’ apt epistemic performance, defined as performance that achieves valuable epistemic aims through competence. We identify five key aspects of epistemic performance that are important to achieving this goal: engaging in reliable cognitive processes that lead to achievement of epistemic aims; adapting epistemic performance to diverse situations; metacognitively regulating and understanding epistemic performance; caring about and enjoying epistemic performance; and achieving epistemic aims together with others. Each of these aspects involves competent engagement with epistemic aims and value, epistemic ideals, and reliable epistemic processes. Our analysis can help educators plan and evaluate epistemic education and suggests ways in which current curricula might be better designed to promote epistemic growth.
Students living in today’s 21st-century society will experience dramatic scientific and technological breakthroughs. These students will also face social and global problems that can only be solved with widespread scientific and technological literacy. The science education community has long argued that society needs scientifically literate citizens, and yet research shows that many educational systems throughout the world are failing to graduate such students (OECD, 2007). To prepare children to live in a global 21st-century society, we need to dramatically change how we educate students. Learning sciences research can show us how to educate students for these 21st-century developments. Drawing on the cognitive sciences and other disciplines, learning scientists are uncovering the cognitive structure of deeper conceptual understanding and discovering principles that govern learning. This research has found that too many schools teach superficial knowledge rather than integrated knowledge that will allow students to draw on their understanding to solve problems, make decisions, and learn new ideas. Drawing on this research, many learning scientists are developing new types of curricula with the goal of increasing students’ engagement and helping them develop deeper understanding of important ideas. One such curricular effort is project-based learning (Blumenfeld, Fishman, Krajcik, Marx, & Soloway, 2000; Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Krajcik, Blumenfeld, Marx, & Soloway, 1994). Project-based learning allows students to learn by doing, to apply ideas, and to solve problems. In so doing, students engage in real-world activities similar to those of professional scientists.
Sociologists have long believed that psychology alone can't explain what happens when people work together in complex modern societies. In contrast, most psychologists and economists believe that we can explain much about social life with an accurate theory of how individuals make choices and act on them. R. Keith Sawyer argues, however, that societies are complex dynamical systems, and that the best way to resolve these debates is by developing the concept of emergence, paying attention to multiple levels of analysis--individuals, interactions, and groups--with a dynamic focus on how social group phenomena emerge from communication processes among individual members.