George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Group of eight elementary school children sitting in circle at desks, some with tablets

After reading an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, students form a circle to engage in conversation about liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The inquiry circle begins with two questions posed by the teacher:

  • What is more important, liberty or the pursuit of happiness?
  • Are liberty and the pursuit of happiness inalienable rights?

To begin, some students argue that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are only open to the people who follow rules within a society. Others argue that while they agree to the rule of law, the argument might have exceptions. One student asks, "Is it morally right to take away freedoms for all crimes committed?" Another student responds, "Yes, what if a crime is committed to save someone's life?"

This leads to a conversation about the nature of happiness. Students argue that happiness lacks a universal definition. One student shares, "Collecting baseball cards makes me happy, but not everyone likes this hobby." They also question that laws might limit the pursuit of happiness for some. A girl explains, "My family and I like to go to the beach on the weekends, but we would be happier if we could bring our dog."

While the conversation was rich and rooted in deeper learning and understanding, the inquiry-based discussion did not end within the classroom. At the request of the students and with the facilitation of the teacher, the discussion extended into a Twitter chat that spanned several days.

Deeper student learning can evolve over time facilitated by an educator who is skilled in the art of thinking within a carefully crafted environment. I believe this can occur in all classrooms. To achieve deeper student learning, I suggest beginning with five cultural transitions.

1. Engage in Inquiry-Based Professional Development

The development of formal thinking and logical reasoning skills is necessary to achieving deeper learning. Educators should first immerse themselves in professional development focused on building inquiry skills, possibly within the field of philosophy. Learning to think deeply is a prerequisite to planning lessons with flexibility and creativity, both of which are critical aspects to achieving deeper student learning.

Prior to students becoming skilled at inquiry-based discussions, teachers must verbally model thinking skills for students by thinking aloud and making unlikely connections. Deeper learning necessitates deeper teaching.

Venn Diagram with Community of Inquiry, 21st Century Modes of Commmunication, and Philosophical Dispositions as the three main circles with Social, Cognitive, and Language overlapping; and Culture of Deep Learning in the center

2. Formulate a Classroom Community of Inquiry

Establishing a community of inquiry involves students learning to respect the ideas of others and share their thoughts freely. They should not be afraid of making mistakes. Begin by creating a "community ball," or inside-out yarn ball, as a tool to facilitate respectful conversation. Students should form a circle and share information about themselves while wrapping yarn around a cardboard rectangle. After the last student shares information about him- or herself while wrapping the cardboard form, tie one side of the yarn loop and cut the opposite side. Each strand is representative of the group’s stories, serving as a representation of each individual’s importance to the group. Educators must teach students to listen to the ideas of others, giving adequate time to hear their thoughts and internalize the information. The community ball helps to facilitate time for inquiry, reflection, and respect for the speaker during classroom discussions.

3. Start Simply and Exercise the Brain Daily

Learning how to think is similar to an artist perfecting his or her craft -- it evolves over time with adequate practice. Deep learning cannot be seen as a special classroom activity, but rather as a replacement to surface-level instruction. As an introduction to thinking and inquiry skills, I recommend the use of children's picture books or reproductions of visual art. The simple lessons and morals within children's stories and interpretations of art allow for discussions that are focused on building thinking skills. Beginning with a complex text would be counterintuitive to the learning goal, which should be primarily aimed at developing a thinking community. Over time, students will build the necessary skills to analyze more complex documents, text, and academic vocabulary, raising performance with the Common Core ELA standards.

4. Make Learning Relevant

Have students retell or reimagine learning content with a modern-day twist. Make learning relevant, meaningful, and tied to the generational characteristics of your students. When reviewing a historical document, have students rewrite the document with current jargon, allowing for a deeper understanding of its meaning. This also develops creative ways of thinking about the information, so that they can make connections and think outside of the box.

5. Integrate Technological Resources

While human beings have communicated through stories, symbols, writing, and discussions throughout history, these modes of communication are far from the only options available to the modern-day educator. Teachers have access to exciting technological options that can be used to promote deeper learning. Twitter chats, blogs, or group text messaging can extend deep and enriching discussions by allowing for a period of reflection. The newly-learned concepts can be more deeply understood by analyzing, comparing, and contrasting the information over time. Technological tools provide an opportunity for extended thinking.

Establishing a culture of inquiry is a necessary prerequisite to achieving deeper student learning. The art of thinking flourishes within an emotionally, intellectually and physically safe learning environment that is carefully constructed by the classroom teacher. The development of philosophical dispositions must be fostered within both students and educators, because deep thinking is supported by deep teaching.

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Elizabeth Garcia's picture
Elizabeth Garcia
Founder, Discovery Day Academy, Eduthink21 & Edutech21

Nicol thank you for your comments, I agree. A community of inquiry is possible, however it must be built upon the foundation of an emotionally, intellectually and physically safe learning environment. It is actually built upon an overall school culture, rather than an individual classroom. The social-emotional tool mentioned is one small example within a much larger context of culture building. Students must feel safe and supported to share their ideas freely.

Mary Langer Thompson's picture

Wonderful ideas here, but I am biased as a retired secondary English teacher. Sometimes we don't know what we think until we write it down. Having the time to think and write is precious and can get students ready for philosophical discussion. That writing can be on paper or on the computer, but writing is thinking.

Dan's picture

I am second career teacher, so I have been able to try lots of new stuff that many of my more experienced fellow teachers haven't tried. Your point #5 has completely changed the response rate of the class. By giving students the ability to communicate through tech, everyone in the class responds, not just the ultra confident 3 students.

Thanks for the info

Sofia Gilliland's picture

I agree. It starts with the teacher leading students to branch out and have a voice. Students should feel comfortable in expressing themselves through lessons that foster individuality and deep thinking. This needs to be promoted by praising and allowing students to feeling comfortable in their environment.

EDactivistNH's picture

Here are my thoughts.....
1) Time consuming. We know that these exercises can be time consuming and potentially put students behind their international peers if their education follows this model. For instance, this file explains how this approach can be a disadvantage to students:

2) With the socratic method, the teacher must be an expert in the subject matter in order to lead and help students learn the content. We know that can be a challenge for many teachers who may not be completely comfortable with the topic/content being presented. For instance, if a student does add something false to the discussion, it can be a problem if it's not corrected properly.

3) This sounds like it could be useful possibly in a class with older children who have really done an in-depth study on the academic content. For instance, k-6 is really the time when students are learning a great deal of content. At some point they can begin to draw upon that knowledge and begin making logical arguments. I'm afraid that if this is done too early, you are missing an opportunity to bring those students along and offer them quality content first. the college level we are seeing students who can argue any subject, but they lack so much knowledge that it hurts the quality of their work.

This has led to students forming opinions, not based on facts and knowledge but on a lack of facts and knowledge. In the end that has hurt them academically and many students can become embarrassed.

The focus should first be on literacy and mastering the content. That's what I see missing from this piece and missing from the reform movement that has taken over public education in America.

Illiteracy is never a good thing.

Elizabeth Garcia's picture
Elizabeth Garcia
Founder, Discovery Day Academy, Eduthink21 & Edutech21

Thank you for your comment EDactivistNH. I agree, content is key. Most, but not all educators presume the importance of core content. There are certainly some reform efforts that devalue the role of content due to its online accessibility. However, for the most part I do not think this is true of the vast majority of schools and educators looking for more effective ways to teach students. Our school does not approach more innovative learning practices as an either/or, but as content and deep learning. Additionally, our students regularly engage in the Philosophy for Children program or picture book philosophy. Therefore, our students are more skilled at the art of thinking than you would anticipate in the K-6 grades. I referenced this developmentally appropriate program in tip 3. I also agree with ensuring that the teacher is a skilled thinker, which is why my first tip is surrounding professional development. I believe that thinking is an art-form that develops overtime. I also believe that educators should continue to learn and challenge themselves for their students. For example, our school engages in several texts each year. Our staff meetings are a Professional Learning Community, where we discuss the readings within a community of inquiry. In my instance, I guide my staff as someone with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. So having an expert on-staff to facilitate this goal is highly recommended. We hire many specialists, music, art, physical education...why not philosophy? Research also tells us that learning dispositions are developed early, as are most habits we have throughout our lives. I advocate teaching children to learn content and think more deeply about the content from an early age. Certainly the flip side is learning content, but not having the ability to think about the content, make connections or apply it to future learning and new situations. Unfortunately, we live in an age where the notion of "time-consuming" has clouded our judgment of what is really important and long-lasting for students. I am sure we both agree that it is not the memorization of facts or preparation for a district test. I approach learning with the goal of instilling wonder and passion within my students, they learn content most deeply when they are engaged and challenged. I am saddened that deep learning would be thought of as a "time-consuming" approach. However, I am hopeful that there are educators out there thinking outside of the box and shaking up the status quo for our nation's students.

Mary Langer Thompson's picture

I was trained in the inquiry model. My master teacher asked I prepare a scripted lesson the night before and then would write, "You didn't get the answer you anticipated did you?" I probably learned more than my students with this method. Nevertheless, I used it on purpose with literature texts were there is no clear answer as to what the author meant, and once free from my master teacher the "right" answer didn't matter. Students were thinking and providing evidence. However, with other subjects the teacher needs to provide input and knowledge before discussion or practice takes place, plus check for understanding along the way. In other words it doesn't hurt the teacher to master both models of learning, and once I learned Madeline Hunter's model, I was so happy to know why I was doing some of the methods I was using intuitively. She gave a name to them (proximity, checking for understanding, etc.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

You had me at deeper learning. I suppose the thing I think about is this, children won't be interested in deeper learning unless...teachers and parents are interested in it as well. This is why I like your first point about engaging in inquiry. My guess is most people want to move right past that point, but until we live number 1, we can't do any of the others.

Roz Robertson's picture
Roz Robertson
English as a Second Language and Spanish Teacher

Can you show me what the yarn ball looks like? What size is the rectangle? I have heard of a more simple activity where students keep the yarn and ask a question to another student. If extra stress is put on one are then several other people have to move. Good illustration.
So are you saying that you turn the yarn into a talking stick -style ball? Many thanks for the clarification! Best,Roz I can be reached at or Facebook Roz Robertson Santa Barbara

Gillian Judson's picture
Gillian Judson
Professor of Education, Co-Director, Imaginative Education Research Group

Totally agree about the importance of inquiry and learning things in depth. Far too much of the curriculum is only an inch thick and students don't have the time/opportunity for self-directed exploration and/or deep questions! Thanks!

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