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Teaching a Modified Shared Inquiry Pedagogy
Teaching a Modified Shared Inquiry Pedagogy By Professor Kathleen Mullaney

Editorís Note: Shimer College, presently located within the IIT campus on Chicagoís near South Side, has been from its inception an institution whose entire curriculum consists of a study of the Great Books. Professor Mullaney taught at Shimer for many years.

Shimer College culture requires that faculty members employ a discussion-based pedagogy akin to but somewhat different from the Shared Inquiry method promulgated by the Great Books Foundation. Shimerís method, often referred to as "co-inquiry" instead of "shared inquiry", differs from Adlerís in ways that primarily have to do with the role of the discussion leader/facilitator. Contrasting the two methods will demonstrate how discussion-based pedagogy can be differently practiced in different contexts.

The Great Books Foundationís "Four Rules of Shared Inquiry Discussion" are these:

  1. Only those who have read the book may take part in discussion.
  2. Discussion is restricted to the selection that everyone has read.
  3. Support for opinions should be found within the selection.
  4. Leaders may only ask questions - they may not answer them.

Rule #1, "Only those who have read the book may take part in the discussion," is definitely part of Shimer classroom culture, but the enforcement of that rule is not reserved for the faculty member alone. Shimer classes have a maximum of twelve students, so no one can long come to class unprepared and not be noticed. Ideally, students who havenít done the reading will tell the faculty member that they arenít prepared, and will take the consequences in terms of their overall discussion grade. If someone feigns having done the reading and presumes to comment on it anyway, the other participants in the discussion might suspect as much and ask that he or she show them the passage in the text under consideration to which their comment is referring. If a student cannot cite the page that his or her comment allegedly refers to, then chances are the group will simply drop the comment and take the conversation in a different direction. The faculty member, as a "co-inquirer" or "facilitator" rather than an authority figure in the group must consider the wisdom of challenging a studentís preparation publicly. Subtle forms of peer modeling do more to induce a student to prepare more competently for future classes. Ultimately, of course, Shimer students are graded by faculty members based on both their writing and their discussion skills. Faculty members will therefore speak with students privately about improving their reading and discussion skills.

Rule #2, "discussion is restricted to the selection that everyone has read," is modified in Shimer practice to something along these lines: "discussion is focused on today's reading for this course, but it's fine to draw connections between this text and others that everyone present has read in previous Shimer classes." Shimerís curriculum is structured in such a way as to encourage integrative, cross-disciplinary learning. A desirable (and usually very stimulating) integrative moment would be something like this: if a group of students is discussing Homer's Odyssey in Humanities 2, it would be great if someone would recall to everyone's mind how Plato had criticized Homer and poets in general in his Republic, a text that Humanities 2 students would be concurrently studying in Social Sciences 2. If a student lingered too long on the Plato, however, diverting the class from properly discussing the Homer, other students would be expected to direct the discussion back to the primary text under consideration. The rule, then, is that one can allude to but not digress about other texts in the curriculum, and then only if everyone present has studied those texts in another Shimer course.

Rule #3, "support for opinions should be found within the selection," is generally respected as a concept at Shimer but it is not always rigidly applied. Shimer faculty members and many students tend, as a rule, to insist that class participants indicate the exact page and lines of a passage they are referencing when they venture an interpretation of a text. At times, however, limiting the classroom experience to nothing but close reading of the text and analysis of its inner structure can be stifling as it leaves little room for reacting to the text personally. In the main, however, it is felt that most comments students wish to make about a text can and should refer to the selection itself, although expanding upon a thought by referencing current events or analogical examples is considered an effort at thinking integratively and is not discouraged.

Rule #4 says that "leaders may only ask questions - they may not answer them." This rule is probably at the heart of where Shimer practice diverts from other Great Books style discussions. Shimer faculty do not consider themselves "leaders" but rather "co-inquirers" into texts. Shimer students, sooner or later, embrace the fact that their role in the College is to figure out books collaboratively, not to be led toward one or another preferred interpretation. When faculty members are limited to asking questions rather than venturing an interpretation from time to time, they are perceived as leading student on, as if dropping crumbs along the path to truth. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum, Shimer faculty members are less concerned with students getting a solid "grasp" of each and every text than with their learning to make connections and risk interpretations on their own.

This can be a thorny issue because it is entirely possible that a group of students will not have the intellectual capacity to get to a very sophisticated level of analysis with a given text. Opinions differ among faculty members at Shimer about whether it is appropriate for students to miss entire aspects of what a given author is saying in a text as long as they grapple with one or two of them during class time. Sometimes students will want their facilitator/faculty member to explain things to them, and some faculty members are very willing to oblige in preference to seeing a group barely scratch the surface of an important piece of writing. Those most faithful to the method, however, hold firm in the belief that "mini-lectures" undercut the process of teaching students how to think, not what to think.

Clearly Shimerís pedagogical approach is premised in a faith that developing learning skills should and must take precedence over knowledge acquisition. The Shimer classroom is a nurturing space where all must recall that the text is the primary teacher, and that the classroom experience is for improving oneís analytical skills, not for finding out what a text contains from someone else. Shimer teachers show pedagogical prowess by knowing when to add a bit of insight and when to refrain, when to show interest in what someone is saying without verbally reacting, hopeful that another student will address the last point made and take the conversation to a new level. It comes from having a store of questions in reserve, but hoping that students will have questions of their own, coming out of their own personal inquiry processes, and being delighted when the conversation moves in unanticipated directions.

So, does it work? That depends on what "it" means. If our goal is to help people take responsibility for their own learning, then the answer is definitely yes. If the goal is to leave each class with a thorough and well-organized outline of what Aquinas's major points were and how he illustrated them, then, no. A lecture would work better for that kind of knowledge acquisition. Please explain why in shimerís view these things are incompatible and cannot both be accomplished.

Just for contrast, we sometimes toy with the idea of introducing a few classes of a less kind and gentle variety so students aren't taken off guard when they get to law school and some professor attacks them. We acknowledge that there are problems of incomplete knowledge, and of the danger of giving them very little historical context in which to locate the texts they read. Sometimes we wonder if we're all crazy.

In the main, however, we are aware that this kind of education isn't for everyone PLEASE EXAPND ON THIS. AND REFINE IT. WHY AND WHO IS SHARED INQUIRY GOOD FOR AND WHO IS IT BAD FOR??, but we find that it does remarkable things for those who come and stay. Shimer College boasts one pretty remarkable statistic: more of our graduates have gone on to get Ph.D.s than have those from any other liberal arts college in America. In fact, we are third in the country among both colleges and universities, behind Cal Tech, I believe, and Harvey Mudd. Many of our graduates go into other branches of the education field as well. It seems they learn something very important about learning at Shimer. If they can keep from flunking out, they generally blossom into remarkably interesting people. And, for the most part, they end up grateful to the faculty and staff for all the patience and understanding they receive along the way.


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