Monday, November 19, 2012

Shared Inquiry™: An Opening Note for New Leaders

Many of us start with a degree of self-consciousness when we first lead discussion. We wonder whether participants will understand and respond to our focus question and whether we will understand their responses; we worry about whether we will easily think of follow-up questions and whether we will be able to keep discussion focused on the problem of meaning we have raised. Leading is not an easy task and it requires practice. But while there is no substitute for experience, there are things you can do to establish good conditions for thoughtful discussion.

The first thing you can do is to educate your students about shared inquiry. In advance, they must read the selection twice and think carefully about it. Trying to understand what is not immediately evident in writing requires effort, patience, and the exercise of imagination; a student's quick "It's boring" is often simply an excuse for not wanting to work at the interpretive process.

Faced with bad reading habits, you have to use discussion time to engage your participants in the selection by reading it aloud and providing good note taking strategies, for example. If students are not helped to go through the looking glass to discover that what is at first hard can become manageable through persistence they are unlikely to ever learn to read in a meaningful way.

Stress that your participants have to observe the five guidelines of shared inquiry. The guidelines are there to make discussion a learning opportunity for you and for your group, to help you make the best possible use of your discussion time. They act as a fence, confining discussion to what everyone has read and, for a brief period, keeping out all distractions.

Your participants must also learn to approach discussion in a spirit of open-mindedness. Discussion should be an opportunity to broaden one's own perceptions of a story by sharing thoughts and listening to new ides. It is not a time for participants to hoard insights, either because they are trying to compete with other members of the group or because they are afraid to offer a tentative opinion. In shared inquiry, we can build solid interpretations even from views that are half thought through or inadequately expressed.

Finally, your students must learn to weigh their opinions, and those of their fellow classmates, against the evidence in the selection. When they begin to express in their own words what they think the author was trying to say, and can point to evidence to support their views, you will know that real interpretation, the act of thinking through and individualizing an author's meaning, is taking place.

What about your responsibilities as the leader? Of course, there is equal need on your part for strong preparation, the avoidance of quick judgments, an open-mindedness towards disparate ideas, and the insistence on evidence in support of opinions. But, in addition, there must be the desire to push towards resolution because you care about your basic question. By asking questions about what you want to know and by demonstrating your interest in pursuing answers, you will provide your participants with a model of reflective thinking and of what it requires, genuine curiosity about a problem, the flexibility of mind to consider the problem from many different angles, and the willingness to question, probe, reevaluate, and sometimes change the way one looks at things.

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