The Second Key to Implementing Common Core Standards:
Creating a Culture of Inquiry
In the world of logic, people talk about necessary and sufficient conditions. A necessary condition is anything that has to happen for an effect to take place. You cannot walk without certain muscles being contracted. Those muscle actions are necessary conditions. But those muscles will not, by themselves, make walking happen. When all of the things that have to happen, do happen, then we have what we call sufficiency. When you have a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle, and you want to see the picture, you can say the conditions are necessary but not sufficient: I have what I need, but not all that I need.
We’ve had academic standards before. They didn’t change much. What do we need to do to make sure that the Common Core State Standards bring about the changes we know we need? If we want our 18 year olds to be college and career ready, what are the necessary and sufficient causes? We’ll get where we want to go if and only if….what?
Recently, I wrote about how certain elements of the standards could help us set a larger, more holistic standard for rigor in our schools — a yardstick against which we can measure how we as a school community are teaching academic content, and how our students are using and applying what they learn. Fleshing out the standards to create a coherent picture of rigor is definitely necessary. But is rigor, alone, sufficient? Obviously, since my post is entitled, “The Second Key,” I’m going to say: No.
Setting clear and coherent goals is vitally important, but we also need to create conditions that make it possible for our goals to be achieved. This is where I think school culture comes into play. A school culture that focuses more on procedures and compliance than on dialogue and discovery (for adults and for children) is a culture that is bound, at some point, to contradict or undermine the kinds of problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis expected of students. We don’t want to pay lip service to the instructional shifts. We need them to come alive in our schools. We don’t simply want students to respond; we want them to think. So…how can the idea of inquiry as a larger culture help us to move in that direction?
Some of my colleagues have suggested that questioning lies at the heart of the CCSS, and that success in implementing common core standards will depend overwhelmingly on the kinds of questions we ask and the way we ask them. I agree. In fact, I wrote about this topic a number of months ago.
A culture of inquiry would make questioning vitally important in every aspect of teaching. Instead of creating lesson plans that state, “students will learn X, Y, and Z, on days 1, 2, and 3, ” we could, instead, provide a series of questions to be posed to students: unit or semester-level questions that work on a macro level (e.g., “What is the correct use of power?”); and daily or weekly questions that help to shape instruction and define learning objectives (e.g., “How did Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech help define postwar policy for America?”).
Some may feel that translating objectives into questions is simply a matter of semantics: But semantics matter. The way we word things affects the way we think about those things. A learning objective can feel like a dictate or a mandate coming from above. We tell students that the thinking has been done for them; they simply have to receive and accept it. When we ask them a question, there is an assumption that some work must be done by the person answering. There is a suggestion of a journey, a discovery…and, perhaps, a variety of correct answers.
Inquiry doesn’t simply mean asking more questions. It also requires attention to the kinds of questions we ask. In too many places, “class discussion” involves a series of one-on-one transactions between a teacher and a individual student, controlled by the teacher, with the aim of uncovering whether a student knows fact X or can answer question Z. There is no room for argument or dialogue in this model. The student has little chance to reveal or share anything beyond what the teacher has framed as important. What this kind of questioning leaves out is argumentation and open dialogue. Both are crucial if we want to encourage genuine inquiry and higher-level thinking.
Argumentation is an area of particular focus in the Common Core writing standards. Researchers have identified the idea of “argument literacy” (Gerald Graff, 2003) as fundamental to being considered an educated person. David Conley (2010) sees the ability to explain and defend a position as the single most important determinant of success in college-level work across disciplines. But in a recent study (Perie, Grigg, Donahue, 2005), only 3% of 8th graders and 6% of 12th graders were able to make informed, critical judgments based on text. Clearly, responding to direct, fact-based questions is not sufficient preparation for college-level thinking, or career-level problem-solving. We need to create a classroom culture in which student-to-student discussion has a role, and in which debate, both formal and informal, takes place fairly often. We need to ask more than “what’s the answer?” We need to ask, “what do you think?” and, “why do you think it?”
Facilitating argument or debate in the classroom can help us move in the direction of inquiry, but argument alone can be limited in its scope. True inquiry requires a much more open and less directive kind of discourse, in which there is no fixed agenda, no clear answer (or set of answers), and students are able to work their way, through posing and responding to questions (from the teacher and from each other) towards a solution. This is true whether the subject at hand is the meaning of a poem, the efficacy of a political policy, or a challenging, ambiguous math problem. We need to teach students not only how to answer questions, but also how to pose them — how to look at a situation, find a question worth answering, and then structure a line of inquiry that will help them reach a solution.
The greatest challenge in supporting inquiry and dialogue may not come from what we do in the classroom, but from what we do in the teacher’s lounge. If we truly believe that inquiry and dialogue matter, we need to make sure that we model those things as adults. It means we need to engage in respectful discourse with our students, both inside and outside the classroom. It means we need to engage in respectful discourse with each other, as professionals — even when the children aren’t listening. And it means we need to make sure that our school and district leaders treat their staff in exactly the same way we want our teachers to treat our students. It means that all of us, as a school community, believe in working collaboratively to analyze, discuss, and solve problems — that all of us have a voice, and all of us are equal participants in creating understanding.
Perhaps you think I’m over-reacting?. Perhaps you think it’s possible to meet the challenges of the Common Core State Standards without transforming the culture of our schools, or even changing the way we talk to students (and listen to them) in the classroom. Perhaps it is possible. But it will be monumentally difficult. The standards in their totality — the grade level content standards, the math practice standards, the instructional shifts, the exemplars, and the sample assessment items — do so much more than identify content to be addressed at different grade levels. They paint a picture of teaching and learning that requires much more than a new textbook can ever hope to provide. Our students will certainly do better if we pay attention to the new content demands of the standards. But I firmly believe that we will reach the goal of 21st century college and career readiness only if we think critically and openly about the way we teach and the way we talk to our students…and each other.