The Central Role of Inquiry in our PDS Collaboration

In our Professional Development School we imagine a form of inquiry that is self-directed, collaborative, generative, and reflective, supporting the participation of all members in the negotiation and contestation of valued identities, relationships, and knowledges. We do not seek the improvement of traditional school literacy practices. We seek a teacher education program that prepares not just better English teachers, but different English teachers. Working together to develop a better rubric for an essay assignment misses the essential negotiation of convention and quality that must involve students as equal participants in assessment.

We want students who walk into the classroom each day without asking, "What are we doing today? Or what's our homework? Or what do you want in the paper and how long does it have to be?" We want students who say, "Similar things happen in our world today," when they explore the social worlds of Juliet and Romeo, and " I know a great song about that idea that I can bring tomorrow to share."

We want teachers who ask, "I wonder what is going on in Ann's and John's head?" and "How can literacy help us to think and act on this issue important to us? instead of "How can I get them to turn in their homework?" We want teachers who explain why they want students to create or interpret texts in terms of how literacy functions within everyday social practices that construct our identities, relationships, and valued activity and knowledge. The power of inquiry is illustrated in a PDS video that explores our work as teachers across both the elementary and secondary English classrooms.

We want university professors to discard the shrouds of supervision and work side by side with interns and mentors co-planning, co-teaching, and co-inquiring into the creation of life-long literacy practices that simultaneously construct participation in discourses of power and deconstruct the oft hidden beliefs and values of each discourse. We imagine a social practice that is authorizing not authoritative, critical beyond criticism, inclusive but not conforming, with powerful effects on learning, but not deterministic.

Our PDS is characterized by several qualities that embody the life of an inquiry community.

Inquiry assumes that we are constructing our knowledge of many things simultaneously through social symbolic interaction. This natural form of learning is contrasted to traditional school practices in which learning requires memorization of predetermined sequences of information. Traditional practices are neat and orderly where ideas stay within the bounds of single definitions. Inquiry is messy, born out of ambiguity, uncomfortable experiences, "critical incidents," and differences about definitions. But, inquiry itself must resist its inherent desire to produce answers that enable control of objects and people of its subject world.

Still, we have a theoretical model for inquiry and a set of strategies to guide our collaborative interactions.

We refer to a table that helps define our PDS activities in terms of our inquiry goals and strategies.

Our greatest challenge then is to co-construct each school year a new community of inquirers that balance the edgy uncertainty of inquiry with the assured confidence required to run a secondary school classroom full of students who, for the most part, expect traditional forms of literacy to be practiced. By the end of each year we ask each participant to turn one of their many, ongoing, inquiries into a project for sharing that most often takes the form of a presentation and paper.

Intern writing and video documentary projects illustrate the issues of literacy important to our PDS inquiry community. The central role of inquiry is demonstrated each May at the annual PDS Inquiry Conference.

Problems that Arise as We Enact Inquiry and Negotiate Knowledge

When you are used to having someone direct your thinking and activity, you can feel quickly lost when you have to begin framing your own questions and seeking information to resolve them.

Answers are social not individual. While you are working to make sense of your own primary experience, the knowledge you construct is a consequence of interactions with others ideas to make your experience sensible. Others ideas come to us through talk and texts, both directly and indirectly. Something I say is connected to something I've heard from a person that read a writer who previously heard someone say something they experienced with others. Conversations consist of an infinite number of intertextual strands that have no set beginning or ending or linear sequence--such is the layered web of symbols free of time, matter, and space. Yet meaning is also full of dimensions and it is the negotiation of unique instances of symbolic meaning that give weight and purpose to our social activity and cultural being. We often just want to be right when we talk to each other.

A classroom problem or issue may be focused on teaching rather than learning. A teaching inquiry considers how to better direct or cause some desired thinking in students. A learning inquiry considers how students might self-direct their thinking in a more personally engaged and socially relevant way. Likewise we often feel compelled to transfer knowledge to interns about best practice, but embrace an inquiry stance in which knowledge is constructed through the interactions of all partners--students, interns, mentors, and associates.

A visual representation of the tension between transmission models and inquiry models of learning in our PDS.

Two excerpts from PDS seminars in which discussions illustrate power and tension in the PDS inquiry community.

You might locate the problem or issue outside the self or only inside the self. Both are problematic for when the problem is outside you ignore your own assumptions and cultural values that shape your meanings. When the problem is only inside, your reflections on your beliefs can prevent you from deconstructing and reconstructing how actions, words, symbols, and objects work as the material conditions for consciousness. This is why inquiry is a stance or a continual way of thinking about the self, others, and the world. Inquiry is not just an assignment although it often takes the form of a particular project with an end publication.

The quality of knowledge produced through inquiry does not require a grade. Evaluation is intrinsic in sharing ways of thinking and doing that help us to negotiate and achieve our valued goals. Assessment issues are rooted in a contestation of values between goals of superiority signaled by high marks and goals of greater collaborative understanding through increased consciousness. One set of values pushes us to separate out inquiries as individual assignments and mark them in comparative ways. People know and adopt good ideas when the ideas help them make better sense of experience and function better within their social worlds. We often feel pressured to grade the work of interns.

Inquiry is not the reproduction of knowledge we already have and could more easily transfer through texts, lectures, and tests. Knowledge is always local and must begin within that local social experience while it simultaneously transacts with ideas from other local contexts far flung across space and time. It is very hard to get that dialectic going within the social world of school, and even once going, it can be hard to keep the dialectic balanced.

The juxtaposition of quotes from the published literature and reflections from Jamie Myers.