“Their Minds Must Be Improved to a Certain Degree”: A Learning Cycles Approach to Inquiry, pp. 2 of 5

Inquiry is the methodical building of evidence-based answers (claims, explanations, theses, theories). Inquiry is simultaneously key democratic work, hard scientific work, and authentic intellectual work. Importantly, it surpasses the primary document fetish at which inquiry too often stops in history and social studies classrooms, as though source work were the ultimate goal. In the context of inquiry, primary sources are not ends in themselves but data sets—bunches of information—that are useful for building and evaluating claims. “Sources,” as they’re called, must be properly perceived and analyzed, of course. But source work is not important by itself, only when in service of a larger purpose. That larger purpose is building a claim and arguing effectively for it. Corroborating and contextualizing evidence are key activities, of course. And consideration of rival hypotheses is paramount.

But revision is the first order of business. “Doing inquiry” means doing it again and again—cycling through repeated rounds of data-gathering and claim-building. The claim is revisited and refined based on additional evidence or experience. At first, it is only a guess, but eventually it becomes a wellsupported claim. The process is iterative, spiralling, and recursive, or in Dewey’s lyrical phrase “the double-movement of reflection” (1910). It is a mundane, everyday activity and a scholarly, scientific activity. We humans observe things, and we reflect on—theorize— what they mean. We then test our theories (claims) in new observations, and then we use these new experiences (evidence) to revise our theories again. We use new experiences to revise our hypotheses, and in this way theory and practice alternate continually and interdependently, one fueling the other. This is the “double movement of reflection.” We do this whether we are looking for ripe pears at the market, sitting on a jury, raising children, testing a hypothesis in a laboratory, or trying to figure out whether a particular ‘conspiracy theory’ has any merit. We engage in this double-movement until we stop for whatever reason: we’ve “made up our mind,” the theory is no longer challenged by new evidence, our resources dry up, we get lazy. When we joke, “Don’t bother me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind,” we acknowledge that our inquiry has ended, that we are committed to a particular theory and aren’t going to pay attention to experience or evidence anymore. When we say, “I’m a practical sort of person and I don’t put much stock in theories,” we mean that we’re not thinking about what we’re doing. Of course, that isn’t true. Actually, we are, all of us, loaded with theories and experiences.

Baildon and Damico (2011) emphasize three critical reading practices in the inquiry process: multiple traversals across a problem space, dialogue across differences, and perspective building. Each of these invites additional, intelligent claim-building and revision, but it is the first of these—multiple returns to the problem space—that lies at the heart of inquiry and provides a platform for the other two. This recursive movement between theorizing and experiencing is known to contemporary learning scientists as the “learning cycles” approach (Bransford et al., 2000). Expertise in any domain, from playing football to cooking dosa or making public policy, generally is both deepened and broadened with the right sort of practice—with ‘trying again’ under somewhat different conditions. This is also known as “quasirepetitive learning cycles,” because no two iterations are exactly the same: the situation is always somewhat different (Bransford et al., 2006; Parker et al., 2011).

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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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