The average American student now takes 112 standardized tests through their K-12 career. In preparation for these tests, too many schools spend hours on test-prep or skill-based drills.
Despite this investment of time and money, today’s students may not be prepared for college, careers, or the complex problems life presents. How can we ensure all our students are prepared for these challenges — the academic ones and those beyond the classroom? How can we help them learn to live a good life?
In the ancient world, Socrates embodied the search for truth and the good life by questioning and leading discussions with his pupils instead of lecturing them. This method has come to be known today as inquiry-based learning. Since 1985, I’ve been a part of the Great Books Foundation team supporting teachers as they learn to use the Shared Inquiry method of discussing complex texts with students.
Adopting a “Socratic” stance, teachers guide their students, from kindergarten through high school, to read complex texts, ask critical questions and cite evidence to back up their line of thinking, all while having respectful and civil conversations with their peers on open questions or potentially divisive issues.
Schools began implementing the organization’s shared inquiry method 50 years ago, but national and state standards increasingly reflect the concepts and skills this approach has emphasized. More tests ask students to write extended responses and support ideas with textual evidence.
Research suggests that all students improve their performance on standardized tests when inquiry learning is implemented properly and teachers find inquiry-based literary discussions beneficial for far more than test scores. They also prepare students for life in college, careers, and beyond, helping improve these essential skills:
Critical thinking and problem-solving using evidence from the text
Using an inquiry approach, teachers and students focus on complex content and thought-provoking questions with more than one possible answer.
Sound decisions and opinions are not based solely on feelings or impressions, of course. Inquiry learning and contemporary educational assessments require that students present and explain evidence from the text to support their ideas. They learn to make decisions by weighing the validity of competing claims and even incorporating others’ ideas into their own. This is a skill that’s both being assessed in modern standardized tests and is also valuable when weighing solutions to real-world problems.
As they participate in active discussions about a text, students regularly hear a range of opinions and solutions from their classmates and respond with their own related thoughts. This opens them to consider possibilities different from their own ideas and potentially causes them to change their minds.
Willingness to explore and accept other viewpoints based on new information is crucial for many social interactions and conducive to both intellectual and professional success.
While listening and speaking aren’t yet skills that are assessed through standardized testing, they’re increasingly important in standards for students at the classroom level and beyond.
When participating in inquiry discussions, students learn to listen carefully to one another and clearly express their ideas. Young children are often just learning what it means to have focused discussions that explore topics in depth.
Teachers may need to prompt inexperienced students to “look at the speaker,” or ask “did you hear what the previous student said? Can you add to her idea?” With practice, students find their voices, gradually overcome any public speaking anxiety they may have, and prepare to be confident in presentations and interviews in the future.
Students also create their own questions to pose to their classmates, both when reading and in discussions.
Beyond gaining the ability to have more effective discussions, students using inquiry learning become better prepared to express their thoughts in writing. As called for by most state and national standards, students at lower grade levels write to express their text-supported opinions, and at higher grade levels, they learn to write well-constructed argumentative essays.
In a nine-school writing study conducted by the Great Books Foundation with third, fourth and fifth grade students in Washington D.C., students who were involved in inquiry programs showed greater improvement in the nine SAT skill categories: ideas and development; organization, unity, and coherence; word choice; sentences and paragraphs; grammar and usage; and writing mechanics.
This is beneficial beyond academic testing: employers regularly report that they wish new hires were better able to think and express themselves, especially in writing.
Working effectively with other people requires activating emotional intelligence as well as these critical thinking and collaborative skills. And an increased sense of belonging to a community is another regularly observed benefit of more student-centric learning. Inquiry-based discussions help students practice integrating working with people and working with texts and ideas.
Students learn to understand their own feelings on a subject, consider viewpoints different from their own, and empathize not only with characters in stories from diverse cultures, but with each other.
After participating in a discussion of the dystopian science fiction story, “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut, for example, several middle school students disagreed quite strongly about why the 14-year-old main character declares himself emperor and about why the author has the government’s “handicapper general” shoot Harrison down in the end of the story. While students often present their ideas quite passionately, and discussions can get heated at times, the goal is always learning to discuss civilly.
As needed, teachers prompt students to listen and articulate exactly what they are agreeing or disagreeing with. After many such experiences, a sometimes-combative teen once observed, “I’m learning to deal with problems with my words instead of my fists.”
Through shared inquiry discussions, students are able to see and understand how their classmates think through solutions and express differing points of view, allowing access to a mental operation that’s usually hidden. This new level of understanding is beneficial on both intellectual and emotional levels, positioning our students for better, more effective civil discourse.
Educators, employers, and the general public agree that it’s essential for every student to be equipped with the skills for all-around success — from rigorous academic testing to everyday social interactions. Inquiry is an inclusive and egalitarian way to equip students with the habits and abilities that help them succeed in all aspects of life.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Denise Ahlquist is vice president for professional learning of the Great Books Foundation, a 70-year-old educational nonprofit organization.