“Their Minds Must Be Improved to a Certain Degree”: A Learning Cycles Approach to Inquiry

Introduction

This article introduces a learning cycles model of conducting inquiries with students. It is based on the thinking of philosopher John Dewey (How We Think, 1910) and also on insights from contemporary learning science (e.g., John Bransford et al., How People Learn, 2000). It is applicable in school settings from kindergarten through high school, college, and graduate school; it is also applicable in nonacademic settings: everyday life, at work and play.

This model takes inquiry seriously, which is to say it takes evidence, reasoning, and argumentation seriously. It lets inquiry be what it is: a rigorous, enjoyable, sometimes exhilarating, and, above all, useful process for anyone who deploys it. It is both an intellectual training and an intellectual tool: It is a sharp instrument we use to cut through a problem, but in the process we ourselves are sharpened, too. This is because inquiry is a particular way of being intelligent, a method of intelligence. Furthermore, it is also a literacy training and a literacy tool. This is because writing is its primary medium of communication while reading—close, interpretive reading—is its primary means of perception.

Thomas Jefferson, if I may draw a rough analogy, is the Lee Kuan Yew of American society. Jefferson is responsible for America’s independence from England and helped set the new nation’s early course. I mention him here because he was America’s first great advocate for public education’s role. He wrote, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render them safe their minds must be improved to a certain degree. This indeed is not all that is necessary, though it be essentially necessary. An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education.”

Theory

To “do inquiry” is to use the mind well and, thereby, to improve it. To do inquiry is to read, write, and think critically about something. That something is a problem or curiosity: Why does she not like me? What sorts of people become religious zealots? How long will Singapore’s prosperity last? Will it become more or less democratic? Will the U.S. decline and fall as did Rome? When? Why are small nations so often strong nations? How do you find a ripe pear at the market? Is now the right time to buy an electric car? Can humans learn to live sustainably?

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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