Dispelling Great Books Myths

by John Riley, Director of Professional Learning

Myths—at least the kinds that are defined as old tales—are a mixed bag when it comes to truth. Myths are stories some people need to believe in, but are largely fictional. Most of us value what myths reveal to us about the world, even as we raise our eyebrows skeptically at their details. In other words, “I like what I am hearing but I don’t believe it.” Myths help us understand life by fibbing to us.

Teaching has many myths associated with it. Having utilized inquiry-based teaching long enough to have believed and rejected many myths about discussion leading, I have discovered a couple that have withstood the test of time. I understand why they are believed by many. I will concede that these myths do have some truth to them, but they are largely not true. Like any good myth, these are very instructive even though they are incorrect. In fact, they are instructive because they are incorrect. Here they are:

  • Myth 1: “My discussion was great because we had a lot of different opinions.” (Or, “it was bad because we did not…”)
  • Myth 2: “My goal with discussion is to get to a place where my students do all the work and I do not have to be involved.”

Before I begin my argument, I should disclose that I work for the Great Books Foundation. The method of learning that we have developed and on which we have trained many thousands of teachers over the years is known as Shared Inquiry ™. What I say here I fervently hope (for the sake of my future employment) is consistent with those principles, but these thoughts are completely my own.

morestudentdiscTo be sure, there is an element of truth in these myths. When students are all working together, offering up spectacularly different ideas, asking questions of each other, not passing any premature judgments about what they hear, this is a wonderful phenomenon. Any teacher fortunate enough to experience this feels accomplishment, joy and even relief. These student behaviors are clear signs that the teacher has done a great job creating an atmosphere of openness, identifying good interpretive problems for discussion and cultivating desirable habits of inquiry in her students. However, these behaviors are only signs that everyone knows what to do; their appearance alone does not guarantee a successful discussion. In fact, a teacher can have wide divergence of opinions, lots of student input, etc. and still have a very unsatisfactory (if entertaining) discussion, one that lacks focus, direction and a sense of purpose.

What is wrong with the first myth? Isn’t divergent thinking the reason for having a discussion? Shouldn’t all discussions have different answers? Don’t you people at the Great Books Foundation swear by this? It is true that the Shared Inquiry method asks teachers to identify interpretive problems in a reading in advance and then test these questions out by writing different responses. From this, one might conclude that a teacher should look for those ideas in the discussion she leads. If one concludes this, then one is wrong. Writing different answers assures the teacher that she can be open to different ideas, which is the purpose of the preparatory activity. These ideas do not have to make an appearance in order to have a productive discussion. In fact, a teacher can have a magnificent discussion with only one response coming from her class.

If the group is working hard and using textual evidence to construct one answer and all students happen to agree with the sole idea that they are hearing, then good for them! And…good for the teacher, too! She deserves credit because conducting a one-answer discussion can be excruciating.  She also deserves credit because she made the right choice: it is a far, far better option for her to work with what she was hearing than to have offered up a bunch of inauthentic follow-up questions to the class, beginning with: “Did anyone ever think of this idea that….?” I have never, ever witnessed anything good coming out of a question like that. When preparing a reading, it is certainly reasonable for a teacher to expect divergent thinking as long as she believes there are different answers, but she should not attempt to require divergent thinking. Myth number one takes the idea that different answers are possible and makes it a precondition of success. Discussions are successful if everyone leaves the room with a more satisfying understanding of the reading than when they walked in, period.

Myth number two is tougher to dispel, especially since there is so much good to come from having a high level of student involvement. Indeed, promoting the direct student-to-student exchange is regarded with good reason as one of the ultimate learning objectives. These students are effectively becoming teachers, which is wonderful, so how can that ever be a bad thing? Much of the time, it is a very good thing, but I have two problems with viewing total student autonomy as the goal of classroom discussion: one is practical and the other theoretical.

Practically speaking, I have never seen a discussion be entirely student-governed for a long period of time; and the higher the number of students, the shorter that time will be. When the teacher exits the discussion and there is no clearly designated leader, her departure becomes an invitation to filibuster, begin private conversations and digress from the question. In my experience, this gradual disintegration is inevitable no matter the grade or experience level, and it leads to the ultimate irony. A teacher who lets the students take over might believe that she is allowing fuller participation by getting out of the way, but the reality is quite the opposite. The way to promote full-group participation is for the teacher to remain engaged, asking questions of the quieter students and pushing the entire group to develop answers to the question under discussion. Of course, students should raise questions of each other. However, over the long haul a leaderless discussion is an accident waiting to happen.

The more theoretical problem with the “let them speak” idea goes to the fundamental purpose of having discussion and the role of the discussion leader. When the Great Books Foundation began over sixty-five years ago, one of its guiding principles was that everyone, including the discussion leader, was capable of understanding the most complicated ideas in the most difficult works of literature if they work together. If “plain old folks” are to make sense of really difficult texts, then that means the discussion leader must be “all in.” She actively expresses her curiosity about what the text means and about the answers she hears. That part of the method has remained unchanged for decades. A leader needs to care about the questions she wants to discuss; she needs to get across to her group that answers to these questions will really help her gain an understanding of the reading. If the students take over the proceedings, the teacher misses out on the fun and the students miss out on getting a great model of how a genuinely invested person uses questions to solve problems.

Good literature-based discussions should produce students who are good thinkers, readers, and communicators. This is why teachers go to the trouble of adding inquiry to their pedagogical toolbox. However, a teacher who employs inquiry must be careful not to confuse what she hopes her students will gain from it with what she is supposed to do. Someone who believes in the value of inquiry must remain conscious of the fact that the great benefits to the students come from how she thinks and performs as a leader more than anything else.

How did I do at myth-busting? Let me know at rileyj@greatbooks.org. I would love to hear from you!

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