The true answer to every question: “It depends”.

Chapter III: The Inquiry Method

Continuing with my re-read of Postman & Weingartner:

This chapter put me in mind of my first philosophy course in my second round of grad school. I was an older learner. I had been teaching for a good long while by then. I had had no exposure to the study of philosophy at any point in my formal education up to that point. I knew little to nothing about what philosophy was/is/might mean to me as a scholar. I had the good fortune to sit in that class with a master teacher. She was a brilliant scholar who brought even the most recalcitrant to entertain ways of knowing and thinking that we had never considered. I distinctly remember several sessions when she would chuckle and say that the reason we needed to study philosophy as we were about to embark on programs of research was that we needed to understand an important truth going in: The answer to every question is “It Depends”. Yes, she was a qualitative researcher. She taught us to carefully question the drive to prove with research…and she taught us to hold suspect any expectation that results be ‘generalizable‘. I learned healthy skepticism from her. I learned to ask questions and to interrogate what I read and assumed in entirely new and different ways. I never completed my ‘big’ research or that PhD. But my ability to question is something i have never forgotten.

In this chapter, the authors begin to describe their vision for what classrooms ought to be like. They present ideas for how developing the ability to question is central to education. They describe “the inquiry method” in some detail.

I like this bit as they create their vision:

The inquiry method is not designed to do better what older environments try to do. It works you over in entirely different ways. It activated different senses, attitudes, and perceptions; it generates a different, bolder, and more potent kind of intelligence…It will cause everything about education to change.

Ummm hmm…preach. I love “…works you over“. How about it? A learning environment that does that? Is the result of that work-over measurable I wonder? 😉

I’m picking highlights here and skipping a lot of goodness (you really, really should read this for yourself)…moving on to their assertion in this chapter that the inquiry method “…makes the syllabus obsolete”. Wait, what now? Further on,

All authorities get nervous when learning is conduced without a syllabus.

They sure do. What about mass-produced curriculum and schooling resting on foundations of standards? Compared to what they describe in inquiry environments: “…delightful, fitful, episodic, explosive collage of simultaneous…” They liken this environment to a Jackson Pollock canvas. (LOVE it! Chaotic and yet beautiful).

The crux here, at least for me, is what they get to next. That is the idea that the inquiry method rests upon this purpose: “…to help learners increase their competence as learners.” (It is NOT about covering content, btw). They carry this idea a bit further by listing characteristics of good learners (assuming they are given an environment in which to thrive…and to do the things that they are inclined to do). Good learners:

“…are living, squirming, questioning, perceiving, fearing, loving, and languaging nervous systems…and because they believe and do certain things…good learners

  • have confidence in their ability to learn
  • enjoy solving problems
  • seem to know what is relevant to their survival
  • rely on their own judgment.
  • are not fearful of being wrong
  • are emphatically not fast answerers
  • are flexible…and frequently begin their answers with “It depends” [emphasis added]
  • do not need to have an absolute, final, irrevocable resolution to every problem

Then the authors proceed to a portion of this chapter that is quite relevant to my current work in higher education. They turn their attention to teachers and teacher attitudes.

There can be no significant innovation in education that does not have at its center the attitudes of teachers, and it is an illusion to think otherwise. The beliefs, feelings, and assumptions of teachers are the air of a learning environment; they determine the quality of life within it. When the air is polluted, the student is poisoned.

Got that? The teacher is the air.

This one is getting a bit long. There is more, but I’ll close now with the ending thought in the chapter that if teachers exhibit different behaviors, so do their students.


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