Teaching Through Shared Inquiry
by Donald Whitfield
Great Books Foundation

Shared Inquiry

Shared inquiry is a discussion-based method of learning that has been developed, refined, and advocated by the Great Books Foundation over the last sixty years. Shared inquiry is closely linked to the idea of reading and discussing the Great Books, if those texts are understood to be the record of a vigorous and continuing dialogue of ideas across time and place, into which contemporary students can enter as active participants. Because the Great Books are rich and complex, the variety of opinions expressed in the group discussions central to shared inquiry helps students consider the range of possible interpretive meanings that such texts can sustain.

Table of Contents

The contents of this module are as follows:

Background and Overview

Shared inquiry has antecedents in the classroom practices of the core curriculum program at the University of Chicago initiated by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, the first directors of the Great Books Foundation. Shared inquiry is widely used in public schools, colleges, and community book groups to enhance the reading and discussion of outstanding written works, including those typically included in the curricula of Great Books programs.

The core of shared inquiry practice is the focused discussion of the ideas in outstanding texts by groups of students who respond to questions from the discussion leader and from each other. Students express and develop their own opinions on questions of meaning by offering evidence for these opinions based on material in the texts. The premise of shared inquiry, in common with similar methods sometimes called "Socratic," is that the most significant learning takes place through drawing insights out of students, rather than by merely communicating information to them.

In shared inquiry, students collaborate with their classmates to seek a deep understanding of the text they are examining in order to judge its merits and significance, prompted by skilled questions from the discussion leader. Learning to read a challenging text closely and to think well about its ideas cannot be a passive process. The shared inquiry discussion method involves each participant in an active search for meaning in a text. With the energy and encouragement of a group, participants articulate ideas, support assertions with evidence and reasoned judgments, and grapple with the depths of meaning contained in works of outstanding intellectual or artistic achievement. By learning to build upon each othersí insights and perspectives, students in shared inquiry discussions make openness to the ideas of others a part of their own creative thinking.

The method of shared inquiry is the antithesis of didactic teaching, whether conveyed by means of standardized textbooks, or lectures, or a combination of the two. In its emphasis on the unmediated reading of texts, shared inquiry places primary emphasis on the self-sufficiency of the text itself. Support from information that attempts to provide a contextual background for the writer and his or her ideas is considered largely irrelevant to one of the central purposes of shared inquiry, which is to directly engage with the writer as a living intellectual presence in the classroom discussion. The texts that are typically included in the curricula of Great Books programs are complex works that generally have attached to them a long history of specialized scholarly commentary. Many were written in circumstances remote from those of contemporary students. For these reasons, it is easy to assume that students need to be informed about such things as an authorís life or cultural setting before they are able to make headway in understanding the ideas in a text. Furthermore, an experienced instructor will often have in mind a notion of what are the most significant ideas in a text; that is, the ďcontentĒ that students must acquire if the text is to be adequately understood. One pedagogical way in which these concerns are handled is for the instructor to provide background information through lectures or assigned background readings. Another is for the instructor to conduct whatever portion of the class that might be devoted to discussion by asking questions calculated to lead students to what the instructor judges to be the essential ideas in the text.

Shared inquiry is in marked contrast to both of these approaches. At the most fundamental level, shared inquiry is based on the conviction that students themselves have the ability to find, explore, and question the significant ideas in a text through well-focused discussions. It adheres to the belief that the excitement of talking about ideas arising out of their own quandaries and insights is strong motivation for students to make critical inquiry a habit of mind and to value the ideas of great writers as living teachers to whom they can repeatedly return. In addition, shared inquiry places great emphasis on developing the ability of students to learn how to form their own questions about the ideas in a text. The instructorís role is not to ask leading questions with a particular response in mind, but rather to listen carefully and ask questions based on the direction the discussion is taking. The point of shared inquiry is not to lead students to specific insights, but to help them lead themselves to a greater mastery of intellectual skills. It is often the case that instructors themselves find shared inquiry a more interesting pedagogical method to practice, since they become active participants with their students in ways not possible through delivering lectures on already familiar material.

A shared inquiry discussion of, for example, Socratesí speech in Platoís Apology is likely to stimulate many conflicting points of view concerning what makes a human life worthwhile. These points of view will have to be responded to by the participants in the discussion, and the complexity of the ideas in the text will emerge from the give-and-take of the conversation. Students will have to think on their feet in order to question or defend a position. This kind of active engagement is impossible in a lecture hall, and might be severely inhibited if a discussion of the Apology were preceded by an informative lecture.

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Basic Principles and Guidelines

Shared inquiry discussion generally begins with the leader raising a general question about the textís main themes, to initiate discussion. Then the leader will ask a basic interpretive question - a question that has more than one answer based on the text, and reflects a substantial question of meaning still unresolved in the leaderís mind. The leader guides inquiry only by careful questioning, focusing on the ideas of the participants, and not by offering or suggesting his or her own opinions. Shared inquiry discussion leaders provide direction and guidance by asking questions that reflect their own genuine doubt.

In a very real sense, the discussion leader is a co-learner. The leader is not to be regarded as an expert on the readingís subject matter, whatever it may be; the group should not look to him or her for answers. As participants begin to respond, the leader follows up by asking how their comments relate to the initial question, to other ideas put forward by the group, and to the text. Participants are thus led to improve upon initial thoughts and reactions, to clarify and develop their ideas, and to construct a network of inferences synthesizing many elements of the text. They learn to consider all parts of it, and to deal with divergent interpretations.

An essential part of shared inquiry is the leaderís and participantsí careful preparation for discussion. It is fundamental to shared inquiry that participants read the text to be discussed at least twice, take reading notes, and write their own questions about the text. Leaders prepare in much the same way, locating what they see as the textís important problems of meaning and refining the interpretive questions they will use to stimulate discussion. Encouraged by the discussion leader to reflect further upon their own ideas, participants in shared inquiry go far beyond a merely literal level of understanding when regarding a work of great depth. However, shared inquiry discussion is not just a free exchange of opinions; rather, discussion and interpretation must remain grounded in the text.

The following guidelines for shared inquiry have been distilled from many years of practice by Great Books Foundation discussion leaders.

  1. Only those who have read the selection may take part in discussion. Participants who have not read the selection cannot support their opinions with evidence from the text, nor can they bring knowledge of the text to bear on the opinions of others.
  2. Discussion is restricted to the selection that everyone has read. This rule gives everyone an equal chance to contribute, because it limits discussion to a selection that all participants are familiar with, and have before them. When the selection itself is the sole focus of discussion, everyone can determine whether facts are accurately recalled and opinions adequately supported. The leader may allow participants to bring outside background information into the discussion only if he or she feels such input is vital to comprehending the text, or facilitating discussion.
  3. Support for opinions should be found within the selection. Participants may introduce outside opinions and background information relevant to the selection only if they can restate such opinions and background information in their own words and support the ideas with evidence from the selection being discussed. This rule encourages participants to remain focused on the text itself, and to read carefully and think for themselves.
  4. Leaders may only ask questions - they may not answer them. Leaders help themselves and participants understand the ideas being discussed by asking questions that prompt thoughtful inquiry. This guideline is the one that most strongly distinguishes shared inquiry from other teaching and learning methods. Unlike classroom activity in which the instructor has in mind a particular body of ideas or content to communicate to students, shared inquiry is the free exercise of rational inquiry and the following of the consequences of ideas, wherever they may lead. The successful practice of shared inquiry is only possible if the discussion leader maintains a largely neutral stance toward the ideas expressed by the participants and limits his or her intervention to asking questions in response to the opinions expressed.

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Methods and Practices

This section is an outline of some of the methods and practices of shared inquiry that set it apart from other ways of conducting text-based classroom discussions, particularly those in a Great Books curriculum. Many of the practices that are common to shared inquiry and other approaches are assumed, rather than articulated, in what follows. Some of these are: how to manage the interpersonal dynamics of a discussion group; how to instill the habit of careful listening; how to encourage sound preparation for classroom discussion through reading and note taking; and guidelines for close textual analysis of an authorís fictional devices and argumentative strategies. All capable instructors know much about these practices and will find a variety of ways to successfully incorporate them into shared inquiry discussions.

Interpretive Questions

Interpretation is the main purpose of a shared inquiry discussion, because interpretations will vary, stimulate engaged and lively conversation, and repeatedly appeal to the text for supporting evidence. Most questions raised in shared inquiry discussions - including the opening question - will be interpretive. Thus, interpretive questions are the primary tools a discussion leader creates to guide a group through the various levels of meaning that are present in writings selected for shared inquiry.

Composing questions about the text is the best preparation for discussion, because it forces the discussion leader to engage with the work and form some preliminary ideas about its meaning. It is helpful to encourage participants to also bring their own written interpretive questions to a discussion session; this will help them learn from and contribute to each otherís ideas, and to develop a stimulating discussion.

A good interpretive question is genuine - one that has arisen from the readerís own response to the work and his or her curiosity about it, and that is still unresolved and a matter of doubt.

Characteristics of Interpretive Questions

  • Interpretive questions call for a careful assessment of what the author means in a work. To decide if a question is interpretive, use this simple test: you should be able to write at least two different answers to it, supporting each answer with evidence from the selection.
  • The question should express genuine doubt and curiosity. There may be several answers that seem equally compelling, and there may be reason to believe that satisfying answers will be found through discussion, even though an individual reader has been unable to discover them alone. Honest doubt encourages others to take the question seriously.
  • The question should be specific to the work. If the question can be asked, with only minor changes, about other written works, then it is too general. For example, the question "Why does Antigone have a sad ending?" is not sufficiently specific. But "Is Antigone doomed because she is the daughter of Oedipus, or does she determine her own fate?" is more specific. It is, therefore, easier to address.
  • The question should be clear, and easy for another person to grasp immediately. Use simple and direct language. If the group doesnít seem to understand the question, rephrase it, or retrace for them the thinking that led to it.

Other Types of Questions

In addition to interpretive questions, two other types of questions enter into shared inquiry practice.

Factual Questions

Factual questions about a text help provide an objective basis for some kinds of evidence that is put forward to support an interpretation of the textís meaning. In shared inquiry, it is assumed that participants will come to the discussion with a basic knowledge of the explicit elements in a text, such as the names and relations of fictional characters, the chronological order of a narrative, and any specialized terms that an author uses. Such factual information can be helpful in making well-formed responses to interpretive questions.

However, facts about a selection - its historical background and effect, the conditions alluded to in it, the remarks of famous scholars about it - should be used sparingly, if at all, during the discussion, to keep it focused on the text as much as possible. The aim in shared inquiry is to understand what the author has actually said. The "facts of the matter" are the facts in the selection - the authorís words, which everyone has in front of them. The leader should allow background information to be used in discussion only where it seems critical to understanding some vital aspect(s) of the reading. This is a matter for the judgment of the discussion leader.

Evaluative Questions

Evaluative questions in shared inquiry should ask participants to form judgments of the ideas and issues that have been raised by the discussion of a text, based on their own reasoning and experience.

Strong evaluative questions are based on sound interpretations of what an author is saying, firmly grounded in the text, and in light of the direction a discussion is taking. In a shared inquiry discussion, there is often no clear-cut distinction between interpretive and evaluative questions, and the two frequently merge into each other. It is sometimes valuable to set aside the later portion of a shared inquiry discussion for questions that clearly address broader, evaluative issues that may range far beyond the text.

Leading Shared Inquiry Discussions

The leader of a shared inquiry discussion not only prepares the interpretive questions that initiate discussion, but also regulates its flow. Leaders challenge participantsí unclear, factually inaccurate, or contradictory statements; follow up on participantsí answers; ask for evidence; and invite further responses. If participants digress from the main point, it is the leaderís responsibility to redirect attention with a question. Leaders must recognize when a question has been resolved and then, by posing a new interpretive question, must direct the groupís efforts toward yet another problem of meaning.

In a shared inquiry discussion, leaders should not pose questions that are really statements in disguise, nor should they ever attempt to guide the group on a fixed route through the selection. Also, leaders should refrain from readily offering their own opinions or making definitive statements. If leaders do these things, or if they offer answers to their own questions, participants might begin to play a more passive role, while the leader might be tempted to turn the discussion into a lecture; such a scenario is exactly the opposite of the goal of shared inquiry.

Participating in Shared Inquiry Discussions

The guidelines in the "Basic Principles and Guidelines" section above may be supplemented with the following succinct description of a shared inquiry Great Books discussion from an experienced discussion leader and faculty member at St. Johnís College:

The discussion begins with a question. All the participants must have the text in their minds and on the table in front of them. Address is polite and responsive. All should participate and support their opinions with thoughtful reasoning rather than simple assertions - when that has been said, all has been said. There is no further method. The rest develops as a living conversation.

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Texts for Shared Inquiry: Criteria and Use

For almost sixty years, the Great Books Foundation has been designing reading lists and publishing books whose central purpose is to present readers with works that have enduring value and that lend themselves to rewarding group discussions using the shared inquiry method.

The writings included in Great Books Foundation publications range across the disciplines and reflect the conviction that the implicit dialogue among great and enduring works is one that contemporary readers can enter into most readily through shared inquiry. The criteria for deciding what to include are determined by one central educational goal: to develop the skills, habits, and attitudes that characterize successful readers - readers who think for themselves and have the persistence of mind to reach for meaning. The unique emphasis in shared inquiry on asking interpretive questions informs the basic criteria for selecting Great Books texts. Since shared inquiry is a discussion-based practice, the only way to define appropriate texts is in terms of how they might be used in a shared inquiry discussion.

  • Selections must raise genuine questions for readers.
  • They must support extended interpretive discussion.
  • They must be limited in length so students and leaders can read them at least twice, and work with them closely in preparing for discussion.

The texts most appropriate for shared inquiry discussion are the ones often called the Great Books. Like the lively discussion that shared inquiry encourages, the Great Books exist in an implicit dialogue among writers from all times and places, which Robert Hutchins called The Great Conversation. Shared inquiry is based on the belief that we can enter into that dialogue with the authors of the Great Books.

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Sample Text and Questions: Lincolnís Second Inaugural Address

The sample text below for shared inquiry, along with the following discussion questions, will give some idea of the unique features of this approach to discussion-based learning.

Second Inaugural Address
Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865


At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war - seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Of course, the reading and discussion of an historical text might serve different purposes, depending on the class in which it is introduced. Knowing about the specific occasion on which Lincolnís Second Inaugural Address was delivered, and about the contemporary issues in March 1865, can certainly contribute to an understanding of Lincolnís meaning. Nevertheless, documents that have endured typically have the peculiar quality of addressing all people at all times as if they are contemporaries. Consequently, such documents can be rewardingly read and discussed with a minimum of contextual information.

In shared inquiry, it is often helpful to precede the formal discussion of a text with a question or two of a more general nature related to one of its strong themes. In the case of the Second Inaugural Address, questions such as the following might prime the participants for a discussion of the more specific issues raised by the sample interpretive questions that appear later:

  • Is conflict more intense among people who have more in common or less in common?
  • Why do people seem to need to justify their causes by an appeal to the support of a divine being?
  • When do social issues justify initiating conflict that may put political institutions in great jeopardy?
  • Can the leader of a divided nation bring about peace without perpetuating a legacy of blame and punishment among the contending factions?

Any one of these questions would open up the specific issues that Lincoln is addressing, and would lead to a richer shared inquiry discussion.

The following shared inquiry interpretive questions from the Great Books Foundation anthology, Politics, Leadership, and Justice, are designed to stimulate and sustain a probing discussion of the Second Inaugural Address through close reading. There is one overarching question, followed by several subsidiary questions that discussion leaders might use to focus and structure the discussion. The questions were written keeping in mind the principle of shared inquiry that sound interpretive questions can be addressed by offering evidence from the text itself.

  1. In his Second Inaugural Address, why does Lincoln adopt the attitude of "judge not that we be not judged," even though he believes slavery to be an offense to God?
  2. Why doesnít Lincoln feel triumphant regarding the successful course of the war? Why does he make no predictions about the warís outcome, but only express "high hopes" for the future?
  3. According to Lincoln, did the North "accept" war because of its wish to preserve the Union, or because of its abhorrence of slavery?
  4. Does Lincoln blame the South for causing the war?
  5. Why does Lincoln point out that "the government claimed no right to do more than restrict the territorial enlargement" of slavery? Is he suggesting that, in so compromising, the North was trying any means possible to avert bloodshed, or avoiding its moral responsibility?
  6. According to Lincoln, why were people who had so much in common - even praying to the same God - unable to avoid such a terrible conflict?
  7. Why does Lincoln suggest that both North and South are being punished by God for the offense of American slavery?
  8. Why does Lincoln avoid calling for vengeance against the side who "would make war rather than let the nation survive"?
  9. Why does Lincoln think that, rather than a detailed speech outlining a course of action for the next four years, a brief statement about the sin of slavery and his wish that the nation bear "malice toward none" is the appropriate subject for his address?

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