Many students in secondary schools consider the sciences difficult and unattractive. This applies to physics in particular, a subject in which students attempt to learn and understand numerous theoretical concepts, often without much success. A case in point is the understanding of the concepts current, voltage and resistance in simple electric circuits. In response to these problems, reform initiatives in education strive for a change of the classroom culture, putting emphasis on more authentic contexts and student activities containing elements of inquiry. The challenge then becomes choosing and combining these elements in such a manner that they foster an understanding of theoretical concepts. In this article we reflect on data collected and analyzed from a series of 12 grade 9 physics lessons on simple electric circuits. Drawing from a theoretical framework based on individual (conceptual change based) and socio-cultural views on learning, instruction was designed addressing known conceptual problems and attempting to create a physics (research) culture in the classroom. As the success of the lessons was limited, the focus of the study became to understand which inherent characteristics of inquiry based instruction complicate the process of constructing conceptual understanding. From the analysis of the data collected during the enactment of the lessons three tensions emerged: the tension between open inquiry and student guidance, the tension between students developing their own ideas and getting to know accepted scientific theories, and the tension between fostering scientific interest as part of a scientific research culture and the task oriented school culture. An outlook will be given on the implications for science lessons.