Inquiry Teaching And Reducing Polarization
by Drew Perkins, Director of ThoughtStretchers Education
The approach to teaching and learning in our K-12 schools over the past four decades is a contributing factor to the divisive, downward spiral that may be the end of our democracy. That’s my hypothesis and while I don’t have quantitative data to back it up allow me to connect the dots of correlation. The good news is that we can correct course in a way that not only will help us beyond our current high-stakes polarization doom dive but also create better problem solvers with more tacit knowledge and understanding of our world than our schools are currently producing.
As I’ve written elsewhere, it seems more than plausible that the 1983 A Nation At Risk report to the Nation, the Secretary of Education, and the United States Department of Education set our schools on a trajectory that emphasized and incentivized what I’ve called a culture of achievement. This report helped create the demand for our high-stakes accountability system where test scores are rewarded and right answers valorized because we were falling behind other countries in some academic metrics.
I’m not against achievement and right answers but in this type of educational setting, we often see less of the pedagogical approach that allows for mistakes and messiness as students make meaning of concepts and shared knowledge. Put another way, the incentive structure makes it more difficult for teachers to engage students in inquiry teaching with discussions where they might hear and consider differing opinions and ideas. Instead, the curriculum is streamlined, rigid pacing guides are implemented to ensure all teachers have ‘covered’ the content, and teaching practice is focused on delivering and assessing the content in the service of raising test scores, leaving little room for dialogue or debate.
The course correction our schools can make to help us past this democracy-threatening divisiveness includes more and, this is important, better inquiry teaching and learning. By this, I don’t mean what I sometimes jokingly refer to as “free-range chicken” — kids wandering about academically with little to no cognitive guidance. It’s a culture of inquiry where students acquire important and transferable knowledge and understanding AND the problem-solving skill of identifying and asking the important questions as teachers scaffold their learning guided by said questions.
How might this look in an actual classroom? Consider a couple of examples. First, one of the central questions put forward in the 1619 Project Curriculum:
“How does the story of the U.S. change if we mark the beginning of U.S. history in 1619 instead of 1776?”
If I were teaching a US history class today I wouldn’t hesitate to use that question to launch students in unpacking the history of our country, not because I believe it to be true, but because it is cognitively engaging and raises a host of other questions important to the founding of our country. To answer this question students would need to know the significance of both of those dates and the knowledge that comes with that and I doubt it’s hard to see how a skilled teacher could guide students to learning the corresponding facts and consider differing opinions. One can imagine the questions and discussions a class might have as they analyzed the Declaration of Independence and how well the country’s actions have squared with the ideals laid out there and in our Constitution.
Taking another example, if I were teaching a US Government class again, and especially the part of the curriculum that includes our election processes, I would very likely ask students to ponder President Trump’s demand that Vice President Pence send the results of the 2020 election back to the states to recertify on January 6th, 2020. Imagining the questions a class of high school students might generate from that consideration would excite myriad educators and provide ample opportunity for differing opinions and challenges to those opinions. Perhaps more important though are the opportunities for a skilled teacher to deliver important knowledge about our electoral process and Constitution because one can’t make a reasoned argument without understanding those things.
A more traditional method of teaching using either of these examples would be to present the information as a reading or lecture and simply assess students’ retention of knowledge. Whether it’s from a more conventional curriculum resource or one that had more of an activist orientation is irrelevant. The difference is in the approach that pushes an accepted set of knowledge with little questioning vs. one that solicits loads of questions and allows for differing opinions, probing of ideas, and perhaps changing of thinking all the while expecting students to know and understand concepts and significant knowledge.
In schools with a culture of inquiry, students and teachers have more opportunities to engage in the kinds of Socratic style that surfaces differing viewpoints and questions and helps develop epistemic humility. Students investigate the complexities and nuances of concepts, issues, and ideas and learn to ask and ponder questions in a way that they don’t with more traditional, teacher and answer-centered pedagogy. The leveraging of curiosity and a level of comfort with discomfort becomes more the norm as the possibility of being wrong about something or not knowing is the prevailing mindset. It is precisely this kind of education that can help us through these divided times and help create more empathetic adults who are less committed to proving their ideological position is right and more committed to understanding differing perspectives, seeking nuance, and being understood themselves.
A common counterpoint worth taking on is the need for and value of teaching and learning that emphasizes knowledge. While it is true that inquiry teaching and learning, sometimes referred to as constructivism or progressivism, can often be done poorly with a well-intended focus on students driving their own learning. What most educational settings call for is an adult who is leading the learning and keeping students on a meaningful cognitive path. It is also worth noting that many of our teacher pre-service programs are graduating certified teachers lacking in inquiry skills. We encounter these teachers in our professional development settings and they regularly have wonderful a-ha moments as we help them see how to do inquiry teaching and learning well.
It continues to confound me that (typically) more right-leaning and/or conservative educators and pundits often dismiss inquiry teaching and learning seemingly wholesale, sometimes summarily demonizing it. These critics often lean heavily into the importance of patriotism and the ideals of democracy and Enlightenment values which ironically rely intensely on free and open inquiry. While they might contend that more progressive education fails to deliver important shared knowledge, what good is that knowledge without the tools of liberal science to navigate the complexities? These traditionalists are getting it wrong in a shortsighted and dangerous way. The role of inquiry in improving our discourse and reducing polarization is essential and where will we learn to do this more effectively if not in our schools?
To be clear, I’m not asserting that our schools are the only or even main factor in this problem of dangerous divisiveness and polarization. The advent of increasingly narrow channels of media, both social and more traditional, delivering handcrafted ‘news’ designed to activate anger against ‘them’ and solidarity with ‘us’ is obviously a major contributor. The practice of drawing ever smaller circles of in-groups doesn’t stand up well to the more cognitively empathetic inclusiveness that comes with questioning these labels.
There are other pieces of this puzzle, including a party primary voting process that incentivizes the performative extremes, but I’ve invested my life in education and I’m alarmed by the inability of teachers and students to engage in free and open inquiry. Sometimes that’s due to a lack of skill, training, and mindset, but increasingly it seems associated with ideological stances. Simply having banks of knowledge in our heads isn’t sufficient in solving these wicked problems, we need adults with the inquiry skills it takes to accurately frame and solve them. We need adults with the intellectual humility to question their party’s candidates’ ideas and positions as well as their own.
If we want our leaders to turn down the demagoguery and performative ideological warfare tactics we need to modify our expectations of them in the short run and teach them a better way in the long run. While there are certainly some valid concerns to be had regarding ideological indoctrination in our K-12 settings, an antidote is expecting our educators to teach about uncomfortable ideas by relying on a democratically ideal set of principles, that allow, even welcomes, ideological diversity, and the kinds of questions that come with it.
Growing students who know more answers and are full of knowledge, something that in our increasingly postmodern world is subjective, but aren’t appreciate of viewpoint diversity will only help deepen our divides and may ultimately contribute to the downfall of our democracy.