Thursday, November 10, 2011

Helping Students Become Active Learners

by Mark Gillingham

Many good classrooms feature students engaged in group activities, but what makes one type of activity more beneficial than another? James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, is concerned that many of the participants in these activities are ultimately inactive participants. Gee, who has written a lot about the importance of interactive learning environments, recently posted on his blog about the fallacy of “mindless progressivism,” the belief that participation in any form results in real student learning. Immersion in an interest-driven group is not enough, he says, to teach children the skills they need. He writes:
Learning to produce the knowledge or outcomes an interest-driven group is devoted to leads to higher-order and meta-level thinking skills. If only a few are producers and most are consumers, then a group is divided into a small number of “priests” (insiders with “special” knowledge and skills) and the “laity” (followers who use language, knowledge, and tools they do not understand deeply and cannot transform for specific contexts of use).
Gee calls for a pedagogy that helps learners become producers of their own learning, and he places special emphasis on well-designed learning environments that give all group members avenues for participation. Although as a learning environment it takes place on a much smaller scale, Great Books Shared InquiryTM discussion fits his description in many ways. In Shared Inquiry, readers ask questions in a systematic manner that promotes deeper reading, thoughtful discussion, listening, and other aspects of critical thinking.

Shared Inquiry makes learners into knowledge producers in every lesson. All students have access to multiple entry levels because contributions to the discussion can take many forms—everything from straightforward answers to the main question to new, related questions for the group to discuss. Collaboration is driven by a shared interest in the featured story. Participation begins long before a student asks her first question or offers his first bit of evidence. Listening is a key ingredient of Shared Inquiry—first to the story (a first reading is almost always done aloud), and then to peers. The ability to respond directly to other students and cross-apply textual evidence to different interpretations is essential for successful participation, so all students are encouraged to become active producers of knowledge.

In Shared Inquiry discussion, students are practicing critical thinking skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives: weighing evidence, articulating arguments, and considering multiple perspectives as they formulate their own opinions. Gee’s summary of the ultimate aim of education could easily be read as the goal of Shared Inquiry:
All learners are well prepared to be active, thoughtful, engaged members of the public sphere (this is the ultimate purpose of “public” education), which means an allegiance to argument and evidence over ideology and force and the ability to take and engage with multiple perspectives based on people’s diverse life experiences defined not just in terms of race, class, and gender, but also in terms of the myriad of differences that constitutes the uniqueness of each person and the multitude of different social and cultural allegiances all of us have.
Mark Gillingham is vice president of technology at the the Great Books Foundation. He works to develop ways to use technology, information, and research to forward the mission of the Foundation.