Book Review: Comprehension and Collaboration

4 Oct

Daniels, H., & Harvey, S. (2009). Comprehension and collaboration: Inquiry circles in action . Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Wow. I am definitely all geeked-out about this book. What are inquiry circles? Essentially, they’re like book groups, only instead of reading a book together, kids choose a topic or question they’d like to explore together.

Here are some touchstones:

  • Students at Best Practice High School in Chicago work together to negotiate the curriculum the kids will encounter the next year. I love the idea of giving the kids some say in what they’ll study the next year.
  • In 2007, a study by Pianta and Belsky found that American fifth graders were spending 91 percent of their school day either listening to the teacher talk or working alone. Shocking! What an artificial situation we’ve set up. How many people would choose to spend that much time sitting and listening without contributing?
  • Inquiry circles don’t allow kids to research just anything. The teacher’s job is to draw on the kids’ background knowledge and curiosity to evoke deep and real questions about their concerns and the curriculum covered in class.
  • Conventional projects often fail because they are not based in true inquiry. Students need to have choices. They need to be able to collaborate and interact and talk. They need to have access to lots of texts of all different types, and they need to have real purpose and real audience. Without those elements, we might as well still be having them make shoebox dioramas.
  • Gifted and talented kids aren’t the only ones who should be experiencing energizing, kid-driven projects! Come on, now!
  • How should we decide what content to teach? The authors reference the “backwards design” movement’s four screens for determining what curriculum is vital and, implicitly, what other topics can be safely deemphasized: (1) Is the topic potentially interesting to students? (2) Does the topic lie at the heart of the discipline? (3) Does the subject require uncovering? (4) Does the subject connect with everyday life? According to these screens, curricula worth teaching should get the kids wondering about ideas that are important and complex that have relevance to their daily lives.

I think the idea of curricular inquiry circles and lit circle inquiries is exciting and a productive first step. But, man, do I love the idea of open inquiries. I’ve never tried something like this, but the idea really makes me want to go back to teaching introductory composition. What would kids in those classes do if presented with an open inquiry project? Do we even have as many questions as teens and adults as those darn curious second graders? One of the problems / benefits of composition in general is that the subject matter is up for grabs. Would there really be any disadvantage to allowing students to pursue their own projects?

The last semester that I taught freshman composition, I had all students involved in community-based projects. They chose an local issue that was important to them and composed a series of texts related to their topics. From confronting parking problems on campus to advocating for proper signage for ATVs on public trails, the topics that my students chose represented their interests in a way that my previous semesters’ rigorous focus on topics chosen by me had not.

The best part of this book is the way that kids’ questions are valued. If I were to sum it up briefly, I would say that Harvey and Daniels want us to remember that kids ask questions, naturally, and if we follow their lead, there will be a whole lot less dragging behind and a whole lot more bounding ahead.

Thinking is not a spectator sport.


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