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Agency to Transform: How Did a Grade 5 Community Co-Configure Dynamic Knowledge Building Practices in a Yearlong Science Inquiry? International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 16, 403–434.

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Abstract and Figures 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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To appear in International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning
Agency to Transform: How Did a Grade 5 Community Co-Configure Dynamic
Knowledge Building Practices in a Yearlong Science Inquiry?
Dan Tao
Beijing Normal University
Jianwei Zhang
University at Albany, State University of New York
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, which
visualizes the online knowledge building discourse based on temporal streams of
inquiry focusing on the “big questions.” Qualitative analyses 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 over time. Analyses of online discourse
and a pre-and post-test showed productive idea contributions, interactions, and
knowledge outcomes. Conceptual and practical implications are discussed.
Keywords: epistemic agency, knowledge building, opportunistic collaboration,
reflective structuration, socially shared regulation, transformative CSCL
At a time when the rapidly changing world enters a new era facing
extraordinary challenges, researchers in the field of computer-supported collaborative
learning (CSCL) call for critical effort to reflect on existing theories and designs in
this new context, address potential tensions and blind spots, and work towards
educational transformation (Cress, Oshima, Rosé, & Wise, in press; Roschelle, 2020;
Wise & Schwarz, 2017). In this paper, we argue for the need to investigate and
support more dynamic, creative, and transformative forms of collaborative inquiry
through which students continually address emergent challenges and move beyond
static frameworks and boundaries. In particular, the study reported here investigates
how members of a fifth-grade science classroom co-regulated their dynamic
knowledge building processes over a school year, leveraging co-constructed inquiry
structures that engaged student epistemic agency.
Envision Creative, Dynamic, and Transformative CSCL for a New Era
Our society is entering a new era featuring a hyper-connected “white-water
world” with constant rapid changes and ever-emerging complex challenges
(Pendleton-Jullian & Brown, 2018). This trend has been further intensified by the
current worldwide events, including the pandemic, climate change, racial and political
tensions, and technological transformation. To prepare students for the new
environment, educational reforms need to cultivate adaptive minds and competencies
for all students. These reforms must also address traditional gaps and inequalities
while leveraging student agency for shaping productive futures beyond established
expectations, structures, and boundaries (cf. Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2014; Gutierrez
& Barton, 2015; Sawyer, 2015).
To revive CSCL as a pedagogical option for this emerging reality, we argue
for the need to envision more creative, dynamic, and transformative forms of
collaborative learning and inquiry. Designs for such practices may tap into how
creative knowledge work is socially organized within knowledge organizations
embedded within a transformed social and technological environment. Major cultural
shifts are taking place in real-world knowledge work, changing from fixed to ever-
evolving visions and goals; from stable functional teams to flexible collaboration and
cross-boundary idea contact; from prescriptive management to opportunistic planning
based on emergent changes; and from centralized control to distributed leadership
(Engeström, 2008; Gloor, 2006; Hagel, Brown, & Davison, 2010; Sawyer, 2007). As
such cultural practices pervade the various social sectors, it becomes necessary for
society members to develop new adaptive competencies and mindsets. Pendleton-
Jullian and Brown (2018) use the metaphor of white-water kayaking to describe such
habits of mind. Instead of pushing forward along a fixed path, learners, like kayakers,
need to constantly read the landscape and reposition their center of gravity in order to
participate in and shape the flow of knowledge.
What might dynamic and transformative forms of collaborative inquiry look
like among students? We identify a few key features in light of the literature. First,
transformative inquiry requires students to take on creative roles to co-construct
shared knowledge goals, processes, and spaces (Damsa et al., 2019; Goodyear &
Dimitriadis, 2013; Hakkarainen, 2009; Kali et al., 2015; Zhang et al., 2018). Instead
of working with pre-scripted learning goals and activities, learners interact with one
another and their teacher to co-construct specific arrangements of collaborative
processes, which are adjusted based on emerging needs through students’ active
Accordingly, such transformative inquiry requires an “expansive framing”
(Engle et al., 2012) of sustained trajectories of inquiry (Tao & Zhang, 2018; Zhang et
al., 2009, 2011, 2018). Instead of framing the inquiry process as discrete, pre-
packaged tasks and activities, students engage in an ever-deepening inquiry journey
that extends and expands across different activity contexts. Their current work builds
on what they have done in the past and further informs future inquiries. They generate
progressive questions, navigate unfolding flows of ideas, and constantly connect with
different problems, ideas, and people for deeper inquiry, moving beyond the existing
conceptual frames and social boundaries.
Such transformative inquiry entails dynamic collaboration and improvisational
discourse (Sawyer, 2015). Instead of working in fixed small groups set up by the
teacher to complete various task components, students participate in “opportunistic
collaboration” (Zhang et al., 2009). Small groups are formed, disbanded, and
reformed over the whole course of the inquiry based on emergent needs and
connections, leading to dynamic idea contact, build-on, and advancement (Zhang et
al., 2009; Siqin, van Aalst, & Chu, 2015).
Such transformative inquiry processes are essential to the Knowledge Building
pedagogy (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014), which uses a principle-based approach to
organize student interactions for continual idea improvement (Zhang et al., 2011;
Scardamalia, 2002). In each knowledge building initiative that extends over several
months, students work with their teacher to identify what they need to understand,
plan and improvise various inquiry activities, and reflect on collective and personal
progress in light of a set of principles. As progress is made, they identify new and
deeper problems, spurring ever-deepening knowledge building actions and discourse.
A core challenge is understanding how the open-ended, ever-evolving process
of collaborative inquiry can be organized, regulated, and supported in a manner that
leverages students’ agency and creative imagination. Existing research has made
advances in examining students’ self- and socially shared regulation of collaborative
learning (Järvelä & Hadwin, 2013; Järvelä et al., 2016). The regulatory processes
extend metacognitive monitoring, goal setting, and adaptative control to group-level
practices. However, the type of collaborative activities investigated in this research
area tends to be relatively short (i.e., a few sessions) and pre-structured. Students are
asked to carry out well-defined collaborative tasks in fixed small groups using given
resources, tools, and collaboration scripts (Kirschner & Erkens, 2013). Working with
scripted activities, students’ self- and shared regulation are often limited to
understanding the requirements, dividing up the given tasks, and meeting the
requirements (Rogat & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2011); rarely do they have the chance to
make transformative changes in inquiry directions and group structures based on
emergent interests.
Moving forward, researchers call for investigations that attend to students’
strategic adaptation of shared goals and processes in temporally evolving learning
situations (Järvelä et al., 2019). As a step toward this direction, the current study
explores students’ adaptive regulation of knowledge building practices that
continually unfold and transform. Students not only regulate their collaborative
learning in pre-structured spaces but also reconfigure their collective work as
opportunities emerge and pursue new directions beyond the existing frames and
Reflective Structuration and Transformation of Dynamic Knowledge Practices
To address the above needs, we developed a new approach to shared
regulation of dynamic knowledge practices: reflective structuration and
transformation (Tao & Zhang, 2018; Zhang et al., 2018). Whereas the existing
theories of socially shared regulation primarily build on psychological constructs such
as metacognitive monitoring, goal setting, and decision making (Järvelä & Hadwin,
2013; Järvelä et al., 2016), reflective structuration adopts a sociocultural and
sociological view on the public organization of human action. Theories in sociology
(Archer, 1982; Giddens, 1984; Sewell, 1992) highlight that social actions and
practices are sustained and transformed through the interplay of human agency and
social structures. Giddens (1984) uses the term “structuration” to emphasize that
social structures, as systems of social action, are in the process of being continuously
produced and reproduced. Building on Giddens, Sewell (1992) defines social
structures as “sets of mutually sustaining schemas and resources that empower and
constrain social action and that tend to be reproduced by that social action.” (p. 19)
The shared structures, reified using various resources, serve to mediate and regulate
participants’ ongoing participation, enabling continuity of social practice across
people, time, and places. In the same process, the structures are reproduced and
transformed, driven by human agency. Goodwin’s (2017) research in cultural
archaeology further offers a detailed view of the cumulative transformation driven by
human agency and creativity. An actor can build new actions by performing
“structure-preserving transformations” on resources created by others’ actions in a
public environment. The actor reuses parts of an earlier pattern of action with
modification to build new actions, which generate new patterns and resources in the
public space, shaping the temporal unfolding of future actions by other actors.
Building upon the above theories, we define reflective structuration as a
reflective, emergent process by which students, with support from their teacher, co-
configure shared inquiry structures over time to channel their individual and
collaborative efforts for ever-deepening inquiry. As a core assumption, reflective
structuration engages students in double-cycle construction: together with the teacher,
students build not only content knowledge but also the social contexts and structures
in which they work, leading to emergent changes of shared structures that allow their
inquiry and collaboration to deepen, expand, and transform over time. This
assumption is empirically supported based on our previous analysis of a set of design-
based research studies conducted in elementary school classrooms with the
Knowledge Building approach (Tao & Zhang, 2018; Zhang, 2013; Zhang et al.,
2018). Detailed analysis revealed a unique type of inquiry structure that was not pre-
designed a priori, but rather co-constructed during the ongoing process of
collaborative inquiry. The co-constructed structures capture the systematic features of
the knowledge practices of a community and provide students with shared
interpretative frames for their unfolding actions, including shared knowledge goals,
inquiry processes, and social participatory roles, as informed by the guiding principles
and values of the knowledge building community (Zhang et al., 2018). Such
structures are reified and represented using various resources, such as using co-
constructed maps of inquiry directions and processes to guide student participation,
interaction, and reflection.
In light of the emergent process of reflective structuration, the design and
implementation of long-term knowledge building practices in classrooms require a
shift of from a prescriptive to emergent learning design. Prescriptive learning design
is akin to the way a designer specifies paths in a park based on a blueprint in order to
direct people’s movement, in part by setting up signs to discourage walking off-
course. In adopting an emergent design approach, the designer creates a relatively
open space in which participants are able to explore based on their specific contextual
needs. The trails left behind from these participants’ engagement reveal what we think
of as desire lines, which may then selectively be paved to guide subsequent people’s
movement. This emergent design approach represents a productive strategy to design
complex social systems and spaces (Johnson, 2001; Pendleton-Jullian & Brown,
2018; Sawyer, 2005). The reflective structuration framework leverages this emergent
design strategy for designing collective knowledge building practices as a complex,
dynamic system. While participating in the initial, exploratory inquiry faciliated by
their teacher, students generate “social trails” of inquiry in the form of inquiry
questions, interests and participatory roles. Building on the emergent inquiry trails,
the students and teacher work together to construct shared inquiry structures to frame
what they should inquire about and how, thus shaping the unfolding inquiry pathways.
Working with this emergent design requires the teacher to shift her/his focus from
instructional intentions to close attention to what is going on in the classroom, so as to
discover emergent inquiry interests and progress, and subsequently to seize on
opportunities to catalyze deeper inquiry and collaboration in existing areas or launch
new lines of inquiry possibly beyond the teacher’s initial plan.
Our prior studies have elaborated the iterative, emergent processes through
which students co-construct shared inquiry structures as their work proceeds (Tao &
Zhang, 2018; Zhang et al., 2018), featuring “structure-preserving transformations”
(Goodwin, 2017). Students work with the initial structures and conditions in their
context to carry out exploratory inquiry and discourse; co-monitor emergent inquiry
directions, idea progress, and social connections as the inquiry proceeds; and co-
create more elaborated/expanded inquiry structures over time to reshape their inquiry
actions and interactions. With the co-constructed structures mediating and reshaping
the unfolding flows of inquiry in a collaborative community, the teacher’s traditional
roles to structure, monitor, and orchestrate learning processes can be distributed to the
community in major ways. Students, with the support from their teacher, enact
collective dynamic control to monitor and chart the ever-deepening course of inquiry
as it evolves and transforms beyond initially set frames and boundaries.
The double-cycle constructive process to build shared structures for
knowledge building occurs within a public space, which is situated in the classroom
and further extended through online platforms such as Knowledge Forum (KF)
(Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014) and Idea Thread Mapper (ITM) (Zhang et al., 2018).
KF provides a communal knowledge space organized into different views
(workspaces). Within each view, students write and build on one another’s notes as
they participate in knowledge building discourse, mirroring and extending student
conversations that took place face-to-face in the classroom. As a meta-level support to
enable students to monitor collective discourse and form/reform shared inquiry
directions and connections, our research team (Zhang & Chen, 2019; Zhang et al.,
2018) designed Idea Thread Mapper, which interoperates with KF. Core features
include (a) visual tools for students to co-organize shared inquiry areas; (b) temporal
display of idea threads, each representing a conceptual stream of online discourse to
address a shared problem; (c) analytical support for tracing students’ individual
contributions and collaborative roles; (d) reflective syntheses (“super notes”) of each
thread of inquiry to highlight the progress made and deeper research needed; and (e) a
meta-space for cross-community sharing and discourse. We conducted design-based
research in a set of Grade 3-6 classrooms to elaborate the processes of reflective
structuration with ITM support. With their teacher’s support, students engaged in
“metacognitive meetings” (MM) to reflect on emerging interests and ideas,
form/reform shared areas of curiosity and inquiry directions, and organize themselves
into groups. Such reflective processes enhance student knowledge building, leading to
more interactive build-on contributions, cross-topic connections, and deeper
understandings (Zhang et al., 2018).
Leverage Student Agency for Transformative Knowledge Practices
As the above studies suggest, the co-construction and transformation of
inquiry structures offer a social and adaptive form of shared regulation for dynamic
knowledge practices in which students take on high-level epistemic agency. Unlike
prescriptive inquiry structures that often undermine students’ agency and freedom, co-
constructed inquiry structures may open opportunities for students to continually
deepen and adapt their knowledge building practices beyond preset frames and
boundaries. The current study intends to offer a more in-depth view of how young
students enact epistemic agency as they co-construct shared inquiry structures to
shape and reshape their knowledge building practices.
Scardamalia and Bereiter (1991, 2014) introduced the concept of epistemic
agency to highlight high-level student responsibility for charting knowledge building
goals and processes. Recently, scholars have further elaborated this concept to include
its social and cultural dimensions, such as mobilizing resources to achieve their goals,
shaping the social systems that they are working in, and transforming the structures
and resources as needed (Damsa et al., 2010; Gutierrez & Barton, 2015; Miller et al.,
2018; Varelas, Tucker-Raymond, & Richards, 2015). Drawing upon the literature, we
consider epistemic agency as a personal and collective capacity enacted by students to
shape their courses and contexts of joint inquiry for valued outcomes. This capacity
includes creating projected (imagined) futures in light of the present and past
progress; constructing, evaluating, and modifying courses of personal and
collaborative actions; and reconfiguring the social structures and spaces (e.g., visions,
norms, relationships, resources) for valued outcomes, which may lead to
consequential changes affecting other individuals and the community as a whole.
Underlying such moves is a set of cultural and epistemic dispositions, such as a zest
for inquiry and problem finding, the tendency to be open-minded and to look beyond
what is given, the desire to play with new ideas and tinker with boundaries, the ability
to formulate provocative questions and persist in a line of inquiry, and a sense of
empowerment to co-design one’s own learning trajectories (Gutierrez & Barton,
2015; Perkins, Jay, & Tishman, 1993).
Research Goal and Questions
This study was intended to investigate how reflective structuration and
transformation may afford opportunities for students to enact epistemic agency for
ever-deepening inquiry with the support of their teacher. The context was a Grade 5
science classroom that engaged in a yearlong inquiry on how human body systems
work. The inquiry process was organized using a reflective structuration approach
guided by the core principles of knowledge building (Scardamalia, 2002). Students
worked with their teacher to frame/reframe what they should investigate as progress
was made through student interactions within the collaborative discourse. As an
iterative, dynamic inquiry structure, their teacher engaged students to co-construct and
update a chart of “big questions” to guide their inquiry. The evolving “big questions”
were used as a reference framework for both students and the teacher to monitor and
navigate the collaborative knowledge space, form flexible groups, and reflect on
emergent progress and needs.
In the above context, we investigated three research questions. (a) How did
students and their teacher formulate/adapt the chart of “big questions” to co-organize
and sustain its inquiry over a school year? (b) How did students’ agentic inquiry
moves result in emergent and transformative changes, such as shaping, expanding,
reframing, and re-organizing of their collective inquiry? And (c) to what extent did
such dynamic processes support productive knowledge building, as reflected through
analyses of students’ collaborative discourse and expressed personal understandings?
Participants and Classroom Contexts
This study was conducted in a Grade 5 classroom at a public elementary
school in the northeast region of the United States. The participants comprised 22
students in the fall and 21 in winter/spring (three students left and two new students
joined this class in the middle of the school year). Students investigated the human
body systems over a whole school year with two science lessons each week. Although
human body study was a routine topic in the science curriculum, it offered rich
opportunities for students to develop personally relevant inquiries (about themselves)
and understand the human body as an example of inter-connected complex systems.
The teacher, Mr. S, had 15 years of teaching experience. Before this study,
Mr. S and two other Grade 5 teachers from the same school participated in a three-day
workshop organized by our research team focused on a principle-based design of
knowledge building. Five guiding principles were adopted from the Knowledge
Building pedagogy (Scardamalia, 2002; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014), including 1)
Idea-centered community: Each student is a valued member who is willing to share
diverse ideas and questions for peer comment and build-on contributions; 2)
Epistemic agency: Students work as epistemic agents to identify problems, develop
ideas, evaluate knowledge progress, and chart the pathway of learning; 3) Continual
idea improvement: Ideas are continually generated and improved to address deepening
questions and challenges; 4) Collective efforts: Students make collaborative and
complementary contributions to advance the community’s understanding; and 5) Rise-
above: Students work with diverse questions and ideas to generate coherent
understandings and higher-level formulations of problems. These principles were used
to guide the teacher’s emergent design and ongoing reflection during the human body
inquiry. Weekly/biweekly teacher-researcher meetings were held to reflect on student
knowledge building progress and discuss possible strategies to facilitate more in-
depth work.
Classroom Implementation
Based on the school’s science curriculum arrangement, understanding how
human body systems work was identified as the overarching theme for Grade 5
science inquiry in the new school year. The human body inquiry unfolded as an open
and dynamic process based on students’ emerging problems and interests.
Specifically, a teacher-planned kick-off activity was implemented in mid-September.
Students watched a short video about the amazing functions of the human body,
which triggered deep interest among students. Mr. S facilitated “metacognitive
meetings” during which students sat in a circle to engage in reflective dialogue about
their inquiry work. Students shared personal questions and interests about the human
body, out of which they subsequently co-formulated a set of overarching “big
questions” for their community to investigate (see Results). Students with shared
interests formed opportunistic groups to investigate each “big question.” Their inquiry
activities involved student-directed experiments and observations, individual and
group reading and note-taking, small group work, and whole-class knowledge
building talks. The knowledge building discourse was extended through the use of KF
as a public and collaborative space. Students wrote notes to contribute questions,
ideas, and information from relevant sources and built on one another’s notes to
engage in interactive discourse.
As the inquiry proceeded, around mid-December and early January, the
community conducted metacognitive meetings to review progress in the existing
inquiry areas and further identify new problems and challenges. This reflection was
supported by ITM, which displayed online discourse based on the existing inquiry
areas (i.e., “big questions”) to show the temporal progress, interactive build-on within
and across areas, and student participation in each area. Students further discussed
new questions and interests for further inquiry. A set of new “big questions” formed
while some of the existing questions were reframed to highlight the deeper issues
about each body system. New flexible small groups were set up based on the
restructured inquiry directions.
From February to June, students conducted further collaborative inquiry based
on the updated “big questions.In mid-May, students working on each new “big
question” reviewed their online discourse using ITM and synthesized what they had
learned and what they still needed to know. In late June, students from the five Grade
5 classrooms participated in a cross-classroom event to share their knowledge
progress and questions with peers, teachers, and parents.
Data Sources and Analyses
The data sources included observations and video/audio recordings of
classroom activities, classroom artifacts, student interviews, online discourse (a total
of 667 KF notes), and pre-and post-test. The first author observed every science
lesson and used a classroom observation sheet to record the classroom activities,
student ideas, and notable teacher scaffolding. Major collaborative activities such as
whole class meetings and small-group sessions were video- or audio-recorded.
To investigate how the community (students and the teacher) worked together
to adapt the chart of “big questions” to sustain its collective inquiry over the school
year, we conducted a qualitative analysis to trace the formulation of the initial
questions, addition of new questions, and reframing of existing questions. The
analysis was based on the observation notes and further elaborated using the
video/audio recordings. Videos of reflective classroom meetings were transcribed and
analyzed using a narrative approach (Derry et al. 2010) to build a detailed storyline of
how each “big question” was formulated and adapted. To further trace how students’
inquiry and discourse unfolded in light of the evolving inquiry directions, we
conducted content analysis (Chi, 1997) of online discourse by coding each KF note
based on the “big questions” addressed. Two raters independently coded 20% of the
notes, resulting in an inter-rater agreement of 98.5% (Cohen’s Kappa = .95).
To understand how students’ agentic moves led to transformative changes in
their knowledge building work, we conducted qualitative analyses of the major
structure changes in the human body inquiry. In light of the whole journey of inquiry
depicted by analyzing the first research question, we identified critical episodes when
changes and adaptions were made to the chart of “big questions.” The episodes
included (a) the emergence of the initial “big questions” based on student interests in
late September; (b) expanding the “big questions” in early October to accommodate
new emergent interests, (c) reframing shared inquiry directions in mid-December to
early January based on updated knowledge and emergent problems, and (d)
formulating “rise-above” conceptual topics at the intersection of the different body
systems. For each episode, we analyzed the related classroom observation notes,
videos, and artifacts to examine how students’ interactive input led to the framing and
reframing of shared inquiry directions with the teacher’s facilitation. We transcribed
and analyzed the video records of whole class metacognitive meetings in which a new
framing of inquiry directions was negotiated. Findings from the video analysis were
cross-linked with student work recorded in other data sources, including student
notebooks, classroom artifacts, student interviews, online discourse, and the threads of
ideas organized by students in ITM.
To analyze student knowledge building enabled by the dynamic organization
of the inquiry process, we conducted social network analysis (Carolan, 2014) and
content analysis (Chi, 1997) of online discourse. The social network analysis
examined who built on whose notes in the online discourse in the first and second half
of the yearlong inquiry. Drawing upon our previous studies (Tao & Zhang, 2018;
Zhang et al., 2007), the content analysis coded student notes based on different types
of knowledge contributions, including questioning, explaining, using evidence,
referencing sources, and connecting and integrating (see Table 1). Student questions
were further coded based on (a) fact-seeking versus explanation-seeking questions,
(b) initial wondering versus idea-deepening questions, and (c) single-area versus
cross-area questions. For KF notes offering personal explanations, we coded the
scientific quality of student ideas on a four-point scale: 1: pre-scientific, 2: hybrid, 3:
basically scientific, and 4: scientific.
<Insert Table 1 here>
A pre-and post-test was used to assess students’ personal understandings of
human body systems. The test included nine open-ended questions, each requiring
students to explain a specific issue or phenomenon related to a body system connected
with other systems. For example, a question focusing on the skeleton and muscular
system in connection with nervous control asks: “One day a little boy, Jack, placed
his hand on a hot stove, and he quickly moved his hand away, so he did not get
burned. Draw a picture below to show the important body parts that were involved in
this process. How did these body parts work together to help Jack avoid a possible
burn?” This test was first administered in mid-September and then again in mid-
March. Due to changes in the student population and absenteeism, only 13 students
took both tests. Using the rubric presented in Table 2, we coded their responses to
each question based on levels of scientific quality (1: pre-scientific to 4: scientific) as
well as exploratory coherence and connectedness (from 1: describing the body parts
involved, to 2: explaining the processes based on a single system, and 3: integrated
explanations involving multiple systems working together). Two raters independently
coded all answers, resulting in an inter-rater agreement of 99.15% (Cohen’s Kappa
= .98).
<Insert Table 2 here>
How Did the Community Formulate and Adapt the Chart of “Big Questions” to
Co-Organize Its Collective Inquiry?
Our analysis traced the initial formation and ongoing adaptation of the “big
questions” used to frame shared inquiry directions. Figure 1 summarizes the evolution
of the “big questions.As brief highlights, the community first formulated a set of
four guiding questions (Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4) in late September based on students’
personal questions and interests generated through the kick-off activity. Mr. S
recorded the “big questions” on a chart paper, with students writing down their names
next to the related “big question” to trace their personal interests and roles. The chart
of “big questions” was hung on the classroom wall to guide students’ planning,
participation, and reflection. The initial list of inquiry questions was then expanded
based on students’ initial inquiry in October, with three additional questions formed
(see Q5, Q6, and Q7 in Figure 1). Emergent groups were formed to carry out inquiry
and discourse focusing on the new problem areas. With the progress made in each
area, students further reflected on their knowledge advances and needs from mid-
December to early January (with a holiday break in between). The reflective process
led to the emergence of new “big questions” focusing on integrated cross-cutting
themes (e.g., Q8 about the impact of drugs and Q9 about cells) as well as the
reframing of several existing questions (Q1, Q2, Q4, and Q6) to address deeper issues
about the various systems. For example, Q2 “How does the brain function?” was
reframed as “How does our nervous system work?”. Collaborative groups were
reformed based on the modified and reframed inquiry directions for further
knowledge building.
<Insert Figure 1 here>
The “big questions” that had emerged from students’ initial interests and
ongoing inquiry were used to guide their collaborative inquiry and discourse. Students
collaborated in flexible groups formed and adapted based on emergent goals. They
contributed to the discourse in the most relevant areas while also reading and
occasionally adding to the discourse in the other areas. We analyzed their online
discourse based on the “big questions” to trace how students developed sustained
inquiry to address the existing goals while also seeding new directions. Using the date
when each “big question” was formally added to the collective chart as a boundary
point, we traced students’ early-phase conversations seeding the formation of each
new “big question” as well as the streams of collaborative discourse to address the
“big question” once identified. Table 3 shows the number of student contributors
involved in each inquiry area and the number of notes posted before and after the
formation of each “big question.”
<Insert Table 3 here>
As Table 3 suggests, the initial four questions, especially Q2, Q3, and Q4, led
to extensive online discourse among students. Each new emergent “big question”
(Q5-Q9) involved a sample of early-phase seed ideas posted as part of the online
discourse in related areas. More active online discourse occurred after the community
officially added the “big questions” to its collective chart, inviting student
contributions in these new areas. Several of the inquiry directions that investigated
core and interconnected human body systems, such as Q2, Q3, Q4, Q6, and Q9,
involved extensive contributions from almost all students, enabling overlapping
collaboration across the boundaries of the different inquiry areas and student groups.
Meanwhile, Q8 about drugs only led to limited discourse contributions (seven notes
by six students), partly due to the challenging nature of this topic and a lack of
resources suitable for fifth graders.
How Did Students’ Inquiry Moves Give Rise to Transformative Changes in the
Collective Inquiry?
Within the above-depicted whole process of the human body inquiry, we
conducted deeper analyses of the critical episodes when major changes and adaptions
were made to the chart of “big questions.” For each episode, our analysis drawn upon
classroom observation notes, videos, and artifacts that revealed how students’
interactive input supported by the teacher’s facilitation led to the structural changes.
(a) The formulation of the initial “big questions” based on student
In the kick-off activity, Mr. S selected and showed a short video about the
amazing functions of the human body for students. Students watched the video and
recorded their personal interests and questions on post-it notes. The teacher then
facilitated a whole-class metacognitive meeting to develop collective inquiry goals
based on students’ interests and questions. Mr. S collected and read the questions to
the class. Noticing that some of the questions focused on similar issues, the class
decided to cluster the questions based on conceptual themes. Mr. S suggested that
students with similar or related questions work as a group to discuss their personal
questions and formulate an overarching “big question.” The whole class then
reconvened for the small groups to share and refine their “big questions.Mr. S
encouraged students to offer feedback in return to students who offered them
feedback while modeling ways to clarify some of the questions. The teacher recorded
the “big questions” on a chart paper (see the image in Figure 1). He used the metaphor
of a “community tree” to describe the collective inquiry. Each “big question” was
considered as a branch connected with the overarching goal to understand how the
human body works. Students wrote their names next to each question to indicate their
interests and commitments. Mr. S also reminded students that they could add more
branches to the “community tree” as their inquiry proceeded. The chart of “big
questions” was hung on the classroom wall as a guidance to the community. While
the above kick-off activity was largely pre-planned by the teacher, the activity served
as a context to solicit students’ interests and ideas, giving emergence to shared inquiry
directions and collaboration structures.
(b) Expanding the chart of “big questions” to accommodate emergent
interests of inquiry. With the initial set of “big questions” framing what the
community needed to investigate, students with shared interests formed opportunistic
groups to conduct inquiry in the focal areas, supported by books and online resources
identified by the teacher and his students. Alongside their classroom-based inquiry
activities as individuals and in small groups, students posted ideas, information, and
questions in KF. A critical episode happened in early October when students reflected
on their initial work and pushed for an expanded framing of the community’s inquiry
directions. In a whole class metacognitive meeting facilitated by Mr. S, with their KF
notes projected on a screen, students sat in a circle to discuss the initial progress, thus
enabling challenging issues and questions to emerge. Several students pointed out that
some of their questions and ideas posted on KF were beyond the scope of the existing
“big questions,” suggesting that they needed to add new branches to the “community
tree.” Mr. S acknowledged this need and asked for students to offer proposals. New
optional questions and directions were suggested and discussed as part of the
classroom work over the subsequent two lesson periods, leading to the formulation of
three additional “big questions.” These included Q5 regarding the digestive system
formulated based on students’ notes about food and water, Q6 regarding circulation
based on notes posted about heart and blood, and, a bit later, the addition of Q7
focusing on how vocal cords work. Below we analyze the formation of Q7 to
understand how a group of students reshaped the community’s inquiry directions to
include a special inquiry on vocal cords, which is a non-routine topic for their science
By early October, the community formulated six “big questions” (Q1-Q6). As
students took these up, they formed small flexible groups to conduct collaborative
inquiry. A series of somewhat accidental events led to the emergence of Q7 regarding
vocal cords. On October 3rd, Oliver (all names are pseudonyms), working on Q3
(human body development), posted a question on KF about how people talk, though
this note did not receive much attention. On October 8th, Riley, who volunteered for
the Q4 (immune system) inquiry, read a book entitled Kids InfoBits (published by
Cengage). A section in the book about vocal cords drew her interest. She took some
notes in her notebook. On the same day, Julia, who was yet to decide on a “big
question,read a magazine called Science Spin (Primary). She took some notes about
how sound is produced through air vibration. Mr. S chatted with Julia to understand
her inquiry interest and suggested that she start with what she was working on. Sitting
next to Julia was Nathan, who had not decided which area to work on yet. Nathan
expressed interest in Julia’s work. While doing online research using the BrainPop
video site, Nathan found a video on vocal cords and jotted down notes about how our
vocal cords work in his notebook.
In the science lesson on October 10th, Riley, Julia, and Nathan quickly
exchanged what they had learned. They then approached Mr. S to talk about their
findings and requested to add a new “big question” for their topic. Mr. S called for a
short whole-class meeting to introduce their exciting work on vocal cords. The
student audience responded positively and agreed that vocal cords could be a new
branch beyond the six existing “big questions.Riley, Julia, and Nathan suggested
phrasing their question as How do vocal cords work?Mr. S added this question to
the collective chart of “big questions.The three students then signed their names
next to the question to indicate their commitment (see Figure 2). Later, Caleb, who
had signed up for Q4, also expressed his interest in this topic and joined as the fourth
<Insert Figure 2 here>
After the formulation of Q7 as a branch of the community’s inquiry, the four
group members conducted individual and collaborative inquiry on various issues,
including the structure and location of the vocal cords, the manner in which the vocal
cords produce sound through vibration, and the way they control the pitch of the
voice. They shared their knowledge advances on KF and also responded to the early
question asked by Oliver about how people talk. Students who focused on other
inquiry areas read their online posts and occasionally shared ideas and questions. For
example, Jacob, who was focusing on Q2, asked for more detail about the larynx’s
role. This question prompted the group members to do more research, with more in-
depth knowledge and questions generated around this topic.
Title: Vocal cords by Riley, Oct 17
Vocal cords are the membranes that surround your air tube or larynx. They are
located in your throat and are similar to rubber bands because they are very stretchy.
[Build on] Title: That's something new I didn't know about by Jacob, Oct 17
Your information about the vocal cords [is] very interesting... But could you tell
me what the word "larynx" means?
[Build on] Title: Larynx by Riley, Oct 17
Larynx are the voice box. They are the hollow muscular organ that forms
an air passage to the lungs and holding the vocal cords.
[Build on] Title: Size by Maya, Dec 17
[I need to understand] how big is the larynx? It fits in our body's neck
so it must be pretty small. But how small?
[Build on] When you get older by Joseph, Feb 27
When you get older your larynx might get bigger that how your voice
Bella, a member of the Q6 group, read some of these notes and joined in the
conversation, asking about the relationship between the thickness of the larynx and
the changes of voice at different ages. Meanwhile, Nathan, who was originally a
group member of Q7, asked a deeper question: “Vocal cords vibrate to make sounds,
but what makes the vocal cords vibrate?” Jayden from the Q3 group responded to
share an idea, explaining that fast-moving air rushes through the vocal cords creating
the vibration. As reported in Table 3, the online discourse about how vocal cords
work eventually involved 25 notes contributed by 11 students.
We interviewed Riley, an initiator of Q7, about her experiences. Reflecting on
how the “big questions” helped organize the community’s inquiry, she described that
it was like “baking a community cake together”: The community used the “big
questions” to monitor the cake under baking and finding the needed ingredients. Riley
recognized that the open questions allowed her to pursue her passion and contribute to
the collaborative inquiry: “So I ventured off for that. I decided maybe I’ll try that
because it’s just fascinating. Sometimes you just have that feeling that you like
something, and you want to learn about it.” The evolving chart of the “big questions”
also helped her monitor the flow of inquiry among her peers. “Some people, like
Maya, I think she was like on a direct path. She started with bones. Then she
connected bones to the circulatory system, and she made bone marrow... But then
there were like other people…like Bella. She started with the circulatory system, but
then she ended up with the digestive system, drugs, and food disorders. That’s a big
(c) Reframing shared inquiry directions based on updated knowledge and
emergent problems
Students worked in and across the seven inquiry areas to
advance their understandings from October to early December. New knowledge and
questions were shared on KF for online discourse. In a whole-class reflection
organized by Mr. S, a set of new questions were raised in the various areas related to
Why the human body can be so flexible?” “How muscles work?” and “How do our
five senses work?” and so forth. Another major episode of structure transformation
occurred from mid-December to early January (with a holiday break in between)
when the teacher and students reviewed their collective progress and identified new
problems and directions to further their inquiry. The collaborative reflection was
supported by ITM. With the help from Mr. S, students first worked in their small
groups to identify important notes related to their focal “big questions.” Using ITM,
small group members co-identified the keywords for their search, screened the notes
found, and added the selected notes to an “idea thread” as a conceptual line of inquiry.
Mr. S displayed selected notes with ITM in each idea thread on a timeline to show the
temporal progress and further generated a whole class map of the idea threads (see
Figure 3).
<Insert Figure 3 here>
Supported by the map of idea threads projected on a screen by Mr. S, the class
discussed their progress and needs. Students noticed that they had more intensive and
connected postings in several areas (e.g., brain and digestion), but there were not
enough notes in some other threads. Based on their review of the note content and
emergent questions in each area, the teacher organized a whole-class meeting to
discuss possible ways to deepen their inquiry in the next phase. They identified new
and deeper issues to be explored and realized that many of the issues were beyond the
scope of the “big questions.With the teacher’s input, students in each group then
updated their “big question” to reframe their inquiry direction. For example, students
working on Q1 (bones) rephrased their focal question from “Why do we have bones?”
to “How does the muscular & skeleton system work?” Their new framing applied the
new scientific knowledge and language (e.g., “muscular & skeleton system”) that they
had gained in the inquiry so far. It further accommodated emergent new interests in
the community to better understand how muscles work and why the human body can
be so flexible. Similarly, students working on Q2 modified their focal question from
“How does our brain function?” to “How does the nervous system work?”
recognizing the needs of deeper inquiry about senses, nerves, and the whole nervous
system. Q4 was adapted from “How does the immune system work? “to “How does
disease affect the immune system?” driven by students’ new interests to understand
the specific diseases they cared about (e.g., diseases their family members had been
diagnosed with). Q6 was also adjusted to highlight the entire circulatory system
identified by students.
(d) Formulating “rise-above” conceptual topics at the intersection of
multiple streams of inquiry
As part of the reflection to identify new inquiry
directions in the middle of the school year, we analyzed the emergence of Q9 about
cells, which represents a deep conceptual topic interconnecting the different human
body systems. Understandably, the topic about cells was missing from the initial set
of inquiry questions generated by the fifth graders, who did not have the knowledge
needed to ask questions in this direction. As students investigated the various body
systems from October to December, the theme of cells started to emerge in their
personal work and collaborative discourse about the specific body systems. In KF,
students used the word “cell” frequently in the inquiry of Q6 (blood): Blood is red
because of the red blood cells, which carry oxygen to every cell in your body. At the
same time, students working on Q1(bones) posted about the different types of bone
cells and discussed the interesting role of bone marrow: “bone marrow, which is
inside bones, makes most of the body's blood cells.” The inquiry about Q4 (immune
system) involved an extensive discussion about how white blood cells fight germs.
The online discourse related to Q2 (brain) mentioned support cells (glial cells) that
protect neurons (nerve cells). The discussion about Q3 (body development and traits)
included notes about skin cells, which “are always dying and being replaced.”
Mr. S noticed students’ emergent interests and ideas related to cells in the
different lines of inquiry. In mid-December, he facilitated a reflective discussion in
which students shared what they had learned in different areas and their new
questions. Many of the questions about the different body systems included the word
“cells.” Students saw the connection, noting that all questions were about cells, and
expressed an interest to better understand cells in the next phase of inquiry. In a
follow-up whole class metacognitive meeting in early January, Mr. S asked students
to think of a possible “big, juicy question” about cells to guide their collaborative
inquiry. Specific questions were first shared, such as “how do glial cells work?” Then
students’ input moved toward broader framings, such as: What are cells? What are the
types of cells? How does each type of cell help the human body? Building on these
suggestions, Jayden, a boy from the Q2 group, suggested, “Why are different cells
important?” This suggestion received positive responses from peers and was
acknowledged by Mr. S, saying: “I kind of like that. And then you can go with all
other questions (underneath it). Wow...all those little questions are leading us to a
better question... Like someone said, you are not really strapped down by one body
system, one question...You really break that rule.”
The question of “Why are different cells important?” was added as a “big
question” in early January. Given the cross-cutting nature of this new topic, many
students working on different body systems were pulled into the inquiry and discourse
about cells. They read relevant materials and took notes in their notebooks using
“Cells” as a new subject label to organize their notebooks. They also contributed to
the classroom and online discussions and designed models and posters. As Table 3
reports, 18 students contributed 60 notes in the collaborative conversation about cells
with connections to their previous focal areas. For example, Maya, a girl working on
Q1 (bones), joined the newly formed group. She shared her understanding and further
raised a deeper question: “My theory is that bones are also made of cells. Some bone
cells are star shaped. How many different types of bone cells are there and what do
they look like?” A number of students continued investigating the different types of
cells related to the various body systems, while several others discussed issues about
the cells themselves, including their structural parts and functions and different types.
We conducted qualitative analysis of the KF notes to identify the key questions and
understandings generated by students about cells as related to specific body systems.
Figure 4 summarizes the results, showing the extensive conceptual connections
developed by the community.
<Insert Figure 4 here>
From January to May, students continued their personal and collaborative
inquiry guided by the updated “big questions.” Each area involved a group of core
students and other occasional contributors who were simultaneously working on other
related problems. Students also had the freedom to shift their main foci based on their
evolving interests and connections. Another collaborative reflection session was
organized by Mr. S in late May. Each area’s core members used ITM to select and
review the important notes related to their “big question,” which were organized as an
idea thread. Figure 5 shows the collective map of idea threads organized by students.
Two of the areas related to Q2 and Q4 respectively each had two idea threads set up
to reflect on the discourse on sub-topics (e.g., diseases and immune system for Q4).
Mr. S projected the new idea thread map on a screen. Reflecting on their progress,
students were impressed by the extensive build-on connections revealed in each idea
thread, spreading across different periods and inquiry areas. Following the reflection,
students further wrote reflective notes (“journey of thinking”) to reflect on what they
had learned and what they still needed to clarify in preparation for the final event for
cross-classroom exchange.
<Insert Figure 5 here>
To What Extent Did Such Dynamically Organized Processes Support Productive
Knowledge Building?
For this research question, we conducted social network analysis and content
analysis of online discourse and analyzed student responses in the pre-and post-test.
Social network analysis of online discourse. We analyzed student online
discourse entries during the school year, considering the reorganization of the “big
questions” in early January (January 9th) as the midpoint of the whole inquiry.
Students posted a total of 667 notes. On average, each student posted 31.76 notes,
including 11.76 before and 20 notes after the mid-year reorganization. Social network
analysis was conducted to examine who had built on whose notes in the online
discourse. In Table 4, we report the primary measures of analysis. Figure 6 shows the
sociograms of student interactions in the first and second half of the inquiry. The label
of each node (student) in Figure 6 also indicated the “big question” area(s) that the
student had focused on. Overall, students developed extensive build-on connections
with their peers, with the density and degree of social contact further increased after
the reorganization of the community’s inquiry. Most of the students worked on more
than one inquiry area each. They developed build-on connections with peers who
worked on the same area(s) and those who focused on other areas, with broader (more
expansive) connections formed in the second half of the inquiry after the reflective
<Insert Table 4 here>
<Insert Figure 6 here>
Content analysis of online discourse. Table 5 reports our content analysis of
student notes based on contribution types, including questioning, theorizing and
explaining, incorporating evidence, referencing sources, and connecting and
integrating ideas. In the first half of the inquiry, a majority of student notes shared
questions (37.25%) and personal theories/explanations (37.65%). In the second half of
the inquiry, students had more notes generating personal theories and explanations
(50.71%) supported by using information sources (21.90%) while posing questions,
incorporating evidence, and connecting the different concepts and topics for
integrated understanding.
<Insert Table 5 here>
Further content analysis was conducted for the two most extensive
contribution types: questioning and theorizing/explaining. As Table 6 indicates, in the
first half of the human body inquiry, students asked a large number of explanation-
seeking questions that represented their initial wonderings within each “big question”
area, such as “How do vocal cords function?” In the second half of the inquiry,
students raised an equivalent amount of fact-seeking and explanation-seeking
questions, primarily for deepening existing inquiry topics and ideas. For example,
Nathan asked: “Vocal cords vibrate to make sounds but what makes the vocal cords
vibrate?” The second half of the inquiry also revealed more questions addressing
connections between two or more body systems as opposed to single area questions.
For example, Mila, who was working on Q2 (brain), commented on a note about
vocal cords (Q7): “WOW! Julia, I never knew…the vocal cords. Really nice job. I
didn’t even know that the vocal cords could get DISEASES!!! And Julia, how do you
get diseases?The question about how the vocal cords may suffer from disease
created a connection between Q4 and Q7.
<Insert Table 6 here>
To further gauge students’ idea improvement in the interactive inquiry and
discourse, we traced their notes that offered personal explanations, which were coded
based on four levels of scientific sophistication (from 1 pre-scientific to 4 scientific).
As noted above, the purpose of the knowledge building discourse was not for students
to only share “correct” ideas that they felt sure about but to take the risk to explore
issues of uncertainty and propose tentative ideas (and guesses) for peers to continually
improve upon. As a whole, the average rating of student explanations was 2.49 for the
first half of the human body inquiry (till early January, n = 93) and 2.62 for the
second half of the inquiry (n = 213).
For a more detailed view of student idea improvement, we examined how their
explanations changed over time in each of the “big question” areas. For the feasibility
of cross-time comparison, the analysis focused on the “big question” areas with
extensive online discourse, each involving more than 20 notes offering personal
explanations. Based on this criterion, we selected Q2, Q3, Q4, and Q6. The four lines
of inquiry had a total of 252 notes that shared personal understandings. For the notes
in the four areas, we first sequenced the notes based on the time of creation and then
divided the notes into four “phases,” each having an equivalent proportion of notes.
Table 7 reports the mean scientific rating of students’ explanations across the four
phases in each line of inquiry. A one-way ANOVA analysis comparing the average
scientific sophistication levels of ideas suggests a significant improvement across the
four phases (F(3, 248)=12.48, p<.001, η²=.13). Post-hoc comparisons using the least
significant difference (LSD) test indicated significantly higher ratings for Phase 4
(p<.001, Cohen’s d =1.04) and Phase 3 (p<.001, Cohen’s d =.64) than Phase 1, for
Phase 4 (p<.001, Cohen’s d =.77) and Phase 3 (p<.05, Cohen’s d =.36) than Phase 2,
and for Phase 4 than Phase 3 (p<.05, Cohen’s d =.36). These results suggest that
students were able to improve their understandings toward a more scientific account.
<Insert Table 7 here>
Analysis of individual student understanding based on the pre-and post-
test. We graded student responses to each question based on two measures: level of
scientific sophistication (1 - pre-scientific to 4 - scientific) and exploratory coherence
(from 1 - describing the body parts involved, to 2- explaining the processes based on a
single system, and 3 - integrated explanations involving multiple systems). The
average scientific rating of student answers was 1.43 (SD = 0.63) for the pre-test and
2.99 (SD = 0.78) in the post-test, with a significant difference as revealed by a paired
sample t-test (t(13) = -7.61, p < .001). Students’ understandings improved from
between “1 - pre-scientific” and “2 - hybrid” to close to “3 - basically scientific.
Besides, the rating of ideas based on explanatory coherence also improved from the
pre-test (M = 0.98, SD = 0.53) to the post-test (M = 2.29, SD = 0.53), with a
significant difference (t(13) = -10.56, p < .001). Their initial responses were close to
1, focusing on body parts without process-based explanation. In the post-test,
students’ ideas were rated between 2 (explanation of processes based on one body
system) and 3 (integrated explanation of how multiple systems work together). For
example, in the test, a question asked students to explain how the body parts worked
together to help Jack avoid a possible burn. Grayson responded in the pre-test with a
drawing mentioning merely the hand and arm. He explained: “Jack’s hand felt the
heat from the stove and once he realized that the stove was hot, he pulled his hand
away from the stove.” However, in the post-test, Grayson drew a picture involving the
nervous system, muscles, hand, and skin and provided a detailed explanation of
nervous system control and hand movement. “The nerves in the skin felt the heat and
sent the message to pull away up to the brain. The message travelled through the
nerves and up the brain stem to the brain. The reflex kicked on and the muscles pulled
This research investigated how students and their teacher worked together to
co-configure knowledge building practices through reflective structuration and
transformation, focusing on students’ epistemic agency for deepening, expanding, and
re-organizing shared inquiry directions. We discuss a few insights gained through the
data analyses.
Dynamic, Ever-Deepening Inquiry Can Be Co-Configured and Regulated
through Reflective Structuration and Transformation
The data analysis generated an elaborated account of how students and their
teacher co-configured their unfolding pathways of inquiry over a whole school year.
The evolving chart of “big questions” served as a publicly shared structure-bearing
resource (Sewell, 1992) that signified collective inquiry directions. This co-
constructed structure played a social regulation role in framing and reframing what
students needed to investigate over time, guiding individual focus of inquiry, and
facilitating the emergence and adaptation of collaborative groups. An initial set of
four “big questions” was co-formulated based on student personal interests and
questions. These “big questions” guided students’ initial inquiry and discourse in
which new ideas, questions, and connections were constructed. Responding to the
emergent changes, the community went through a series of structural elaboration and
modifications. The “big questions” were expanded and adapted to accommodate new
directions, reframe existing inquiries in light of new understanding, and formulate
cross-cutting themes at the intersection of the different body systems (see Figure 1).
The co-constructed “big questions” represented by classroom artifacts served
as a public reference framework to guide students’ joint attention, participation, and
reflection. Individually, students signed their names next to the “big question(s)” to
position their personal contribution in the context of the community’s inquiry. At the
small group and community level, opportunistic groups formed based on students’
shared and evolving interests. Students reflected on unfolding lines of inquiry and
knowledge progress in the community with the support of the ITM tool, monitoring
the emergence of new inquiry directions and connections. Such reflection enhanced
students’ personal and collaborative efforts to address their community’s evolving
goals, leading to extensive knowledge building discourse focusing on the core
problem areas (Table 3). The social network analysis revealed expansive and
opportunistic connections among the students (Figure 6). They not only built on the
ideas of their close peers who worked on the same “big questions” but also those
working on broader areas, rendering dynamic information flows and idea contact that
are needed for transformative inquiry practices.
Reflective Structuration and Transformation Provide a Temporal and Relational
Context for Students to Enact Epistemic Agency with the Teacher’s Support
The data analysis documented students’ interactive, agentic moves to monitor
emerging interests and needs in their inquiry and participate in reflective
conversations with their peers and the teacher to expand, reframe, and re-organize the
directions of the community’s inquiry. These actions gave emergence to
new/modified inquiry directions and collaboration structures over time, with students
taking on increasing control. Combining findings from this and our previous work
(Tao & Zhang, 2018), we summarize the interactive input from the teacher and
students to co-configure and adapt their collective inquiry (see Table 8).
<Insert Table 8 here>
Specifically, the whole inquiry started with a kick-off activity designed by the
teacher, taking into account the school’s curriculum requirements, prior science
teaching and learning practices, and the changes needed to implement knowledge
building. The kick-off activity served to elicit diverse interests, ideas and
wonderments as the input to shared metacognitive processes for building shared
inquiry directions, which were represented using the chart of “big questions.”
Students worked with the initial structures to start open exploration and co-
constructed new/elaborated structures as their inquiry proceeded. The teacher was an
attentive listener and observer working to understand students’ diverse ideas,
questions, and new progress across individual and collaborative settings. He
facilitated reflective conversations about evolving goals and inquiry strategies,
including ways to address student needs for resources and support. Together, they
engaged in reflectively capturing emergent directions, connections, and patterns of
inquiry as they created/adapted shared structures accordingly. New “big questions”
were added (e.g., Q5, Q6, and Q7), existing directions were reframed, and cross-
cutting inquiry themes emerged (e.g., Q9), thus leading to an ongoing reconfiguration
of student participation and collaboration. The co-constructed inquiry structures, such
as the “big questions,” then provided a referential frame for the teacher and students
to monitor the ongoing flow of ideas in their community, plan for deeper inquiry, and
make accountable contributions. At the same time, the frame is not fixed but remains
open for students’ creative input, as they had the opportunity to expand and reframe
the landscape of their collective work and adjust their personal roles. With the
expansive framing of ever-deepening inquiry, they could grapple with new challenges
and develop new lines of work, including non-routine science topics such as vocal
cords; leverage emergent connections across the different areas to work on integrative
rise-above concepts (e.g., cells); and reform group structures as needed. Supporting
students to enact such transformative agency is essential to dynamic knowledge
building that continually unfolds over time, thus breaking traditional classroom
barriers and curriculum boundaries. On a related note, such agency is also essential
for enhancing equitable participation, as it gives students the power to work as co-
designers of their learning pathways and respective futures (Gutierrez & Barton,
Co-Configured Dynamic Inquiry Practices Enable Productive Knowledge
Building Interactions and Outcomes
The analyses suggest that the co-configured dynamic inquiry practices enabled
productive knowledge building processes and outcomes. Students made active and
continual contributions to the collaborative discourse related to the core “big
questions” (Table 3), with extensive connections built among students including those
who worked on different areas (Figure 6). Their online discourse integrated a diverse
range of epistemic contributions with progressive questioning and explaining as two
core moves (Table 5). Students continually asked deeper questions as the inquiry
progressed, pushing the boundary of their knowledge to seek further facts and
explanations, initiate new problems while deepening their inquiry of the existing ones,
and search for cross-area connections over time, especially in the second half of the
inquiry (Table 6). The dynamic inquiry process enabled continual improvement of
ideas toward deeper and more coherent understandings, as gauged based on the
content analysis of the collaborative discourse (Table 7) and individual assessments.
These findings are consistent with the results of our recent research conducted in
other classrooms (Tao & Zhang, 2018; Zhang et al., 2018). Students co-constructed
structures in the form of shared directions and research cycles to organize and guide
collaborative inquiry, leading to productive knowledge building.
This study has a few limitations. First, as noted above, the pre- to post-test
comparison was based on a small sample of 13 students who took both tests. Second,
this study, which focused on understanding students’ agentic participation, did not
make systematic analysis of the teacher’s ongoing planning and scaffolding. A more
detailed analysis of teacher support for shared structure building can be found in our
previous analysis (Tao & Zhang, 2018), with deeper studies underway to trace and
support teachers’ ongoing noticing of classroom dynamics and emergent planning
(Park & Zhang, 2020; Tao & Zhang, 2021). Third, the findings reported here were
based on students’ inquiry work in a single classroom in one content area. In the
larger design-based research project, we have been testing using reflective
structuration to organize student-driven knowledge building in other interdisciplinary
areas (e.g., ecosystems and environment) in a network of classrooms.
Conclusions and Implications
Creative and transformative CSCL practices require agentic and dynamic
forms of learning regulation and classroom design. The results of this study elaborate
reflective structuration and transformation as a socio-epistemic mechanism for co-
configuring dynamic inquiry practices that unfold over long periods of time, with
students taking on high-level agency. Building on our previous work (Tao & Zhang,
2018; Zhang et al., 2018), the findings suggest that students as young as fifth graders
can work as epistemic agents to co-construct shared inquiry structures while
continually deepening their knowledge in a domain area.
In this study, students co-constructed an evolving chart of “big questions” as
their inquiry proceeded: to co-identify shared directions of inquiry based on their
initial interests, expand a list of “big questions” to accommodate emergent interests,
reframe shared directions based on knowledge progress, and formulate cross-cutting
themes at the intersection of the different areas. The chart of “big questions” as an
emergent structure represented the community’s evolving goals and directions,
serving to guide members’ intention and attention as they navigated dynamic flows of
knowledge within their community. Students monitored emergent ideas and
opportunities, took responsive inquiry actions and discourse moves, and developed
flexible small groups and idea connections. Whereas pre-defined structures tend to
limit student agency, the emergent progress to co-construct shared inquiry structures
leverages students’ epistemic agency for continually advancing their knowledge
practices beyond the status quo (Sardamalia & Bereiter, 2014). Students not only
direct and regulate their efforts in the preset scope and structures but also reshape and
transform the landscape of their collective work in response to emergent interests and
opportunities. Such personal and collective agency is critically needed for students to
navigate the white-water world and influence it (Pendleton-Jullian & Brown, 2018).
Reflective structuration offers new strategies for classroom
regulation/orchestration of dynamic CSCL and knowledge building. Different from
traditional prescriptive designs, reflective structuration of knowledge building
practices leverages “designing for emergence” (Pendleton-Jullian & Brown, 2018): to
recognize the socio-ecological constraints of the classroom and introduce a context
for exploratory inquiry and participation, then discover emergent trails of inquiry
(e.g., high-potential interests and ideas, social roles and relationships) upon which
productive pathways of inquiry and participation may be co-constructed, thereby
reconfiguring the context of inquiry, which in turn opens up new possibilities of
creative inquiry and participation (Zhang et al., 2018). While a whole inquiry may
have its overarching goal and time frame, the evolving directions of what students
should investigate and the overall shape of the inquiry are driven by students’ shared
interest emerged from ongoing collaborative inquiry, guided by the core values and
principles of the community, such as the principles of knowledge building (Zhang et
al., 2011; Scardamalia, 2002). Reflective structuration provides a socio-epistemic
mechanism to translate the principles into knowledge building practices. Core
principles are translated into daily flows of knowledge building activities as
classroom members co-construct shared framing of their joint inquiry as it unfolds,
including what they should investigate, how, and by/with whom.
Drawing upon the insights gained from this and other studies, our team has
been upgrading the ITM tool to support dynamic knowledge building practices.
Learning analytics are integrated to provide reflective feedback on emerging inquiry
directions, idea progress, and connections. Future studies will explore ITM-supported
interventions to catalyze dynamic knowledge building in broader classrooms and
support teachers’ improvisational scaffolding in this context.
This research was supported by the U. S. National Science Foundation
(#1122573, #1441479 awarded to the second author) and the China Postdoctoral
Science Foundation (# 2019M660522 awarded to the first author). We owe special
thanks to the teacher and students for their creative work enabling this research, and
to Dr. Mei-Hwa Chen and her team for their work on software development. We also
extend our gratitude to the editors and reviewers who provided constructive feedback
and suggestions. Part of the analysis was presented at the International Conference of
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Figure 1. The chart of “big questions” co-formulated and adapted by the community.
Figure 2. The addition of Q7 to the collective chart of “big question.”
Figure 3. Seven idea threads organized by students in the ITM-aided reflection. Each
color stripe represents an idea thread (a line of inquiry) focusing on a “big
question.” Each small square in an idea thread shows a note, and an arrowed
line connecting two notes shows a build-on connection.
Figure 4. A summary of students’ understandings and questions generated in the
inquiry of cells as related to the other inquiry areas.
Figure 5. Idea threads organized by students in the second ITM-aided reflection. Each
color stripe represents an idea thread (a line of inquiry). Each small square in an idea
thread shows a note, and an arrowed line connecting two notes shows a build-on
Figure 6. The sociograms of student interactions in the 1st half (a) and 2nd half (b) of
the yearlong inquiry.
Table 1
Coding schemes for analyzing online discourse
Level 1
Level 2
Fact seeking
Questions asking for factual
Questions in search of
Questions searching for general
information about a theme-based
Questions searching for deeper
and more specific information
based on ideas discussed.
Questions focusing on
addressing one single “big
Questions focusing on
addressing two or more “big
Pre-scientific (1)
Misconceptions based on naïve
framework of understanding.
Hybrid (2)
Misconceptions that have
incorporated scientific
information but show mixed
Basically scientific (3)
Ideas based on scientific
framework, but not precisely
Scientific (4)
Explanations that are consistent
with scientific knowledge.
Using evidence
A posting that describes
experiments, and observations to
either support or challenge an
Referencing sources
A posting that introduces
information from
readings/websites and uses the
information to deepen ideas and
generate questions.
Connecting and integrating
A posting that connects different
ideas to generate a synthesis,
summary, or integrated solution.
Table 2
Coding scheme for each open-ended question in the pre-/post-test
quality of
No answer or not relevant
Student provides no or irrelevant
Pre-scientific (1)
Misconceptions based on naïve
conceptual framework.
Hybrid (2)
Misconceptions that have
incorporated scientific
information but show mixed
Basically scientific (3)
Ideas based on scientific
framework, but not precisely
Scientific (4)
Explanations that are consistent
with scientific knowledge.
coherence and
No answer or not relevant
Student provides no or irrelevant
A focus on body parts (1)
An answer that describes
relevant body parts without
explaining the process.
Single system explanation
An answer that describes the
body parts and process focusing
on one particular body system.
Integrated explanation (3)
An answer that describes the
body parts and process involving
multiple body systems working
Table 3
The number of notes and contributors before/ after the formation of each “big question”
Inquiry directions framed using
“Big Questions”
Early-phase input
before the formation of
the “big question”
After the formation
of the “big question”
Q1: Why do we have bones?
(later reframed to include the
muscular system)
Q2: How does our brain function?
(later reframed as the nervous
Q3: How does the human body
develop? (including body traits)
Q4: How does the immune system
work(later reframed to include
Q5: Why do we have digestive
Q6: Why does blood circulate
through the human body? (later
reframed as the circulatory
Q7: How do vocal cords work?
Q8: How do drugs affect the
human body?
Q9: Why are different cells
Note: The first four “big questions” were formed at the beginning of the human body
inquiry. So they did not have any prior note. A few of the inquiry areas involved more
than 22 students because of student changes at various points during the school year,
with three students moving away and two new students joining this class.
Table 4
Social network analysis of student interactions in Knowledge Forum
1st half
2nd half
Table 5
The number and percentage of different discourse moves in Knowledge Forum
Connecting &
1st half
2nd half
Table 6
The number and percentage of different types of questions posted in the 1st and 2nd
half of the human body inquiry
Dimension a
Dimension b
Dimension c
1st half
2nd half
Table 7
The scientific ratings of student explanations over time (focusing on Q2, Q3, Q4, and
Phase 1
Phase 2
Phase 3
Phase 4
Table 8
Students enacting epistemic agency to co-organize and re-organize what the community
should investigate with the teacher’s support
Teacher input
Student input
(a) Formulating
initial “big
questions” based
on student
Identified focal theme of inquiry
based on the school’s curriculum
Prepared relevant activities and
resources to stimulate student
interest in the focal area of
Facilitated whole class
discussions for students to share
their initial individual questions
about the focal area of inquiry
and organize them in small
group “big questions”
Participated in kick-off
activities to experience the
topic of inquiry
Shared individual
experience and questions in
the whole class discussions
and listed the questions in
Discussed connections
among the questions to co-
identify initial “big
Formed initial small groups
based on their interest
(b) Expanding “big
questions” list to
emergent interests
of inquiry
Monitored knowledge progress
in the initial “big questions”
Chatted with individuals and
small groups about new
questions/directions emerged
from ongoing inquiry
Facilitated small group and
whole class meetings to share,
discuss, and frame new “big
Conducted individual and
small group inquiry to
address the “big questions”
Generated more new and
emergent questions
shared new emergent
questions in the classroom
meetings or online in KF
Formed new small groups
based on new inquiry areas
(c) Reframing shared
inquiry directions
based updated
knowledge and
Monitored knowledge progress in
all areas of inquiry
Organized whole class reflection
to position where they are in
inquiry and where they need go
Reflected on the knowledge
progress in their focal areas
of inquiry and identified new
areas of inquiry
Re-framed existing “big
questions” and formed new
small groups
(d) Formulating “rise-
above” topic at
the intersection of
multiple streams
of inquiry
Chatted with individuals and
small groups about new
questions/directions emerged
from ongoing inquiry
Facilitated whole class discussion
to help students see the
connections among different
small groups and frame new
questions of inquiry
Shared new individual/small
questions of inquiry
Co-framed new “big
questions” of inquiry at the
intersection of existing focal
Formed opportunistic groups
to work on newly identified
areas of inquiry
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