Shared Inquiry and Earth Day
Snowy landscape in Seogwipo, Jeju Province, Republic of Korea. Source.
What does Shared Inquiry™ have to do with Earth Day or climate change? You might wonder. That is, you might, unless you were familiar with the transformative power of curiosity and collaboration to engage people of all ages in gaining deeper understanding of complex problems. Working together is essential to protecting the planet and living sustainably, and we can build our capacities to do so through Shared Inquiry.
The United Nations defines climate change as a complex problem, one that has multiple interconnected aspects, and which increasingly affects everybody. By definition, complex problems require critical thinking, as they have no one “right” answer, but rather possible solutions that must be weighed and evaluated. Complex problems are messy, usually involving stakeholders and experts from various fields, and requiring high levels of communication and creativity to address.
Students (and adults) need practice collaborating to develop better responses to these types of problems. The intellectual and social-emotional skills needed will respond to nurturing when given opportunities. So how can you help engage your learners in exploring these complex issues while still meeting crucial standards?
Open the door to deeper conversations with outstanding texts.
Choose selections that raise genuine questions about the interdependence of humans with the rest of the natural world. For example, from the Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry series for elementary grades, consider:
- “Why We Need Bees” (JGB NFI series 2)
- “Splash, Rustle: How Habitats Help Frogs Survive” (JGB NFI Series 2)
- “Egg-cellent Bird Parents” (JGB NFI Series 3)
- “Leave It to Beavers” (JGB NFI Series 4)
- “Crows: Friends or Foe” (JGB NFI 4)
For a more in-depth unit, incorporating text-to-text comparisons, consider pairing fiction and nonfiction texts, such as “Crows: Friend or Foe,” mentioned above, with the short story “Crow Call,” by Lois Lowry from the Junior Great Books® fiction series for grade 4. Each Nonfiction Inquiry text pairs with a fiction selection in Junior Great Books to help you do this.
Other highly discussible Junior Great Books selections for middle-grade readers that raise provocative questions about humans and the environment include:
- “Tarantula Heaven,” by Sy Montgomery (JGB Series 6)
- “Friends of the Hide,” by Timothy Egan (JGB Series 7)
- “A Hundred, Hundred Daisies,” by Nancy Kress (JGB Series 8)
For older readers, both imaginative literature and scientific excerpts can provide excellent ways to practice considering multiple perspectives while collaborating to deepen understanding. For example:
- Rachel Carson’s clarion call to action in an excerpt from her classic Silent Spring (The Nature of Life: Readings in Biology, Volume 1)
- Carson’s words are also paired with a short text by Margaret Atwood in Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions, an anthology that explores some of humanity’s dreams for the future, along with their oft-unintended consequences.
- Find over 20 provocative selections in our anthology Keeping Things Whole: Readings in Environmental Science—especially helpful if you’re planning a class or series of readings and events.
Sy Montgomery, author of “Tarantula Heaven.”
Create an inclusive environment where listening and connecting are valued.
Start by introducing the Shared Inquiry Guidelines, along with the tips in these short videos. Use the interpretive and evaluative questions at the center of Shared Inquiry as they invite learners to share their unique perspectives and respond to the ideas of others. Students then collaborate, agreeing and disagreeing civilly, as they deepen their understanding of a text or issue, and each other. This builds the valuable lifelong habits of mind that are needed when addressing complex problems, as well as improving listening, speaking, and social-emotional skills.
Engage all students in critical thinking.
Use complex texts and ask text-dependent, open-ended questions that require sifting through possible solutions, as well as comparing and weighing evidence to reach valid conclusions. Help students learn to distinguish between claims that are well-supported and ideas that may sound attractive, but lack evidence and sound reasoning. Practicing these crucial skills in a collaborative discussion mimics and develops the higher-order thinking abilities everyone needs in a 21st-century global society.
Consider linking inquiry to action.
When students understand the impact of humans on the planet, they understandably want to be part of making things better. Calls for students to be more involved in climate change education and citizen science projects offer ways to link inquiry to service learning. Using the skills they’ve been honing—posing questions, seeking diverse interpretations, and weighing evidence—students have the opportunity to see that their voices and actions matter.
The need to bring our multiple perspectives together in service of solving authentic questions about how to live sustainably in our world has never been more urgent. When we learn to collaborate effectively, our capacity to innovate increases dramatically, and we are more likely to create equitable, durable solutions. Let’s make the future better together!
Learn more about Junior Great Books and inquiry-based professional development
Senior Academic Consultant
Denise Ahlquist has enjoyed leading thousands of Shared Inquiry discussions with participants ranging from ages 4 to 99, across the United States and abroad. A veteran educator and “road warrior,” she has introduced thousands of other teachers and learners to the Shared Inquiry method and supported them in a wide variety of K–12 environments.