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Why Inquiry Circles?

By Tiffany KR Greer Colegio Roosevelt

As you know, much has been said about America’s educational system: our children are falling behind in math, our students are not reading enough, there are concerns over the digital divide in rural and underfunded school systems, and the expectation of producing 21st century learners is stretching teachers and curricula to the brink of things falling apart. Yet, in spite of all of this, so many great things have been happening in class rooms and schools over the years. So why do we need a change? First of all, many indicators which I have identified are signaling to us that we have stretched the panacea too far; it is no longer sustaining our schools even though we want to hold on to it. After all, change is hard because what we have been doing really well for so long, in the factory model of education, is no longer aligned with what students, teachers, and education need for learning today and the future. So then the question becomes not “why” but “how”. Secondly, in our overly-connected, social world, if we expect to keep students in traditional classroom scenarios, we will continue to kill creativity and education by having children listening 91% of their instructional day rather than innovating (Harvey & Daniels 7). And although innovation sounds unpredictable or unwieldy, it is largely the inquiry process combining what educational research and experience has revealed about best practices for reading comprehension, collaboration, and motivation. So, inquiry is a change that is not just relabeling a trend in education but rather a way of thinking which moves education forward—the change we need.

To begin, proficient readers are thinkers. In order to effectively engage readers as thinkers, research demonstrates that readers need to activate and connect with back ground knowledge, ask questions, infer and visualize meaning, determine importance, and synthesize or summarize information in their mind (Harvey & Daniels 23-24) in order to retrieve it or to actively transfer their conceptual learning in new situations: the comprehension continuum (29-31). The beauty of inquiry-based learning and incorporating inquiry circles in the classroom, is that it creates a rich, personal context for the learning and comprehension continuum to occur more naturally, allowing the brain to hold onto the learning in a deeper, more meaningful way. In a few words: the learning lasts.

The learning lasts through Inquiry circles, as demonstrated by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels, because they are a “structure which combines thinking and ways in which people work together” (Harvey & Daniels front cover). We know that 21st century skills require students to be collaborators—to have flexible thinking in “need to know” situations. However, we should not just assume that students know how to collaborate simply because teens are more social or like social media and networking. To help students practice the skill of collaboration, our associate principal and I created a collaboration process to guide students to see if this process would enhance the learning for students in the classroom. It does. And I believe it is because the inquiry cycle in inherent in it.Therefore, the inquiry cycle and collaboration complement each other to transform learning. Some of the negative aspects one might think of with collaboration are absolved in this marriage of inquiry circles and collaboration because an inquiry circle relies on the individual and the group working as a whole. And with thoughtful planning, a teacher can create both formative and summative checkpoints to ensure there is equity in accountability.

In referring to this protocol for collaboration, you can see that half of the process encourages and requires students to reflect on their learning process; and as Harvey and Daniels point out, “inquiry is naturally a reflective process [too], encouraging students to ask questions before, during and after reading (26). However, even in the best direct-teaching models, I found (more like felt) that reflection is often two-dimensional because it requires students to look at what they did not know—almost reinforcing a fixed-mindset and feelings of failure. Yet, reflection through a variety of inquiry methods builds skills, knowledge, content, and passions. For example, mini-inquiry circles are perfect for learning grammar, discussing characterization, or even building motivation to learn. Through writing circles, students take risks by almost crowdsourcing their own works to receive feedback in order to make reflective revisions. And of course, with project- based learning, research has demonstrated “improvements in student motivation, problem-solving ability, conceptual understanding, school climate, and teachers’ confidence in students” (Harvey and Daniels 73). Personally, I believe that when students are inspired to step up and “plus” one’s work, as stated by Pixar’s Randy Nelson, richer learning moments happen in the classroom whereby gaps in learning get addressed in an authentic setting, promoting a “growth-mindset” (Dweck 32-36). From a teacher’s point-of-view, isn’t growth—whether social or intellectual—what learning should be about? Study groups, as a means of inquiry circles, all the way through to expeditionary learning, prove this time and time again. So, why hold students back by keeping them in traditional classroom environments or leading them to our desired outcomes when they can take ownership of their learning? Clearly, now is the time to put ‘inquiry circles in action’ so our students can be innovators and leaders in the 21st century.

Works Cited Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. Print. Greer, Tiffany KR, and Chad Schwaberow. “Protocol for Collaboration.” Web log post. Transformational Collaboration. Blogger, 30 Sept. 2013. Web. 27 Aug. 2014. <;. Harvey, Stephanie, and Harvey Daniels. Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009. Print. Nelson, Randy. “Pixar’s Randy Nelson on the Collaborative Age.” Online video clip. YouTube. Edutopia, 2 July 2010. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.


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