Maine Schools in Focus: Critical Inquiry Stance to Promote Deeper Learning For Preservice Teachers

MSinF critical inquiry
Tammy Mills, Assistant Professor of Education

Because of the changing nature of schools and schooling (e.g. demographic shifts, challenges related to poverty, pervasiveness of digital technology) teacher education reform efforts have focused on better developing the classroom practices of preservice teachers for when they enter the profession. The call to improve the practice of teachers new to the profession has forwarded the need for preservice teachers to spend more time in classrooms, observing teachers and interacting with children. One of the most important tools they can develop to make sense of those classroom experiences is what Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) defined as a critical inquiry stance. A critical inquiry stance is having an open mind and a questioning, curious attitude toward the familiar contexts in which preservice teachers find themselves (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). According to Dana (2015), a critical inquiry stance is a “way to live one’s life as an educator to maximize impact, making life and learning conditions better for all students” (p. 163). It is a way of teacher learning that has the potential to transform teachers’ work from possibly perpetuating the status quo system in which some students are better served than others (Dana, 2015; Kinechloe, 1991).

Current school reform efforts and recommendations to raise professional standards for teacher certification also suggest that preservice teachers develop new understandings through deep thinking and critical inquiry (CAEP, 2015). To meet the current CAEP standards that govern teacher education, teacher educators must help preservice teachers view learning to teach as a process that demands life-long learning, reflection, and renewal (Goodlad, 1990). Thus, teacher education programs are urged to adopt critical inquiry-oriented approaches (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009).

In keeping with CAEP standards, teacher educators are charged with the task to create programs of study that prepare preservice teachers with both the mindset, a need to know, and the tools, or “processes for knowing” (Togano & Moran, 2005, p. 288; Lincoln & Guba, 1985) that promote this critical inquiry stance. To accomplish this goal, preservice teachers need to engage in the various, supported types of intellectual and professional growth that are aimed at providing equitable educational opportunities for all students (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Teacher educators must also provide preservice teachers with multiple chances to use the tools of continuous, critical inquiry. These tools include, but are not limited to, frameworks for asking critical questions of dominant contexts and ideas, protocols for engaging in difficult, but necessary, discussions, and counternarratives or different ways of knowing the world. By employing these tools of critical inquiry, preservice teachers begin to shift their perspective; differently understand their own identity as a student; study, question, and theorize issues related to problems of practice, including the role of power; and consider how they might act on those issues in the best interests of the students and their communities (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009).

To that end, teacher educators must also develop their own stance of critical inquiry. The questions they could ask themselves include:

  • How do we educate future teachers to teach all students, from all backgrounds and experiences, in service of equity?
  • How do we help them understand the interconnected nature of schools, communities, and families from the perspective of a teacher?
  • How do we help them understand the need to provide equitable education for all students?
  • How do we create experiences that allow preservice teachers to critically inquire about their world and about their lives and roles as students-what was school like for them and why?

Additionally, teacher educators need to help preservice teachers develop a critical inquiry stance by asking:

  • Why might schools be organized and run in particular ways?
  • Why are teachers (and administrators) positioned in particular ways and have certain roles?
  • How are schools funded?
  • What are the roles of policies and governmental structures?

As teacher educators heed the call of CAEP and strive to meet governing standards, preservice teachers will continue to learn teacher practice in those same educational contexts in which they learned as students. Teacher educators can develop preservice teachers’ critical inquiry stance to spark their commitment to lifelong learning by:

  • Helping preservice teachers develop an understanding of the complex nature of schools and how to educate students whose backgrounds and experiences differ from their own.
  • Dedicating time and focus in each course and field experience for preservice teachers to foster their critical inquiry stance, to develop questions, to engage with their interests, and to focus on their sense of wonder.
  • Grasping that a critical inquiry stance means recognizing and questioning the most obvious, common sense realities that, left unquestioned, perpetuate inequities.


CAEP (2015). In Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Retrieved from
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation. New York: Teachers College Press.
Fitchman-Dana, N. (2015). Understanding inquiry as stance: Illustration and analysis of one teacher researcher’s work. Learning Landscapes, 8(2), 161-170.
Goodlad, J.I. (1990). Better teachers for our nation’s schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(3), 184–194.
Kincheloe, J. (1991). Teachers as researchers: Qualitative inquiry as a path to empowerment. New York: Falmer. Lincoln, Y., & Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Tegano, D. W., & Moran, M. J. (2005). Conditions and contexts for teacher Inquiry: Systematic approaches to preservice teacher collaborative experiences. The New Educator, 1(4), 287-310.

Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.