Inquiry for Grown-Ups

Name tags, small talk, Chardonnay. The rituals of a VIP reception were in place last night, save one major item: the ritual program. Instead of a polite speech followed by cagey answers to leading questions, I witnessed a live inquiry lesson unfold. 

Let me set the scene: a swanky high-rise with big city views was the backdrop to introduce the new Dean at the College of Education of a major research university. The 30 or so attendees represented the city’s major philanthropists sprinkled with the requisite number of graduate students and alums. Valet, caterers and fine art. Got the picture?

After the requisite mingling time, wine glasses were refilled and everyone was seated on plush couches in a semi-circle; it was time for the “program.” And this is where the typical ritual ended and the inquiry music began.

Personalization

Dean: “Before I begin, I would like to get to know who you are. Let’s go around the room and please introduce yourself. Perhaps you could share your connection with the university.” While it did take about 15 minutes of our time, this essential activity brought us immediately together as a community for the next hour. Every last person in the room had a chance to be seen and heard. Connections were made. And we were now all a part of the conversation. 

Storytelling

Dean: “Welcome everyone and thank you for coming. I want to tell you a story about what led me here. This is a photo of me in elementary school. Do you notice anything?” The Dean was the only person of color in her class. People recognized this and drew an emotional connection to what the Dean may have experienced. She went on to tell a story about how that felt, how she dealt with it and why it led her to pursue advanced degrees in Sociology.

Asking More; Talking Less

After only about 10 minutes of sharing her background and process for starting her work at the college, the Dean stopped. “I’d like to ask you some questions now. What are your biggest concerns about the future of the college? What do you think I need to know, experience or understand to move the college forward?” The hands quickly went up.

Engaging the Group in Answering Questions

Attendee: “I’ve read that knowing subject-level content is really important to great teaching. How will an undergraduate major in education be able to offer much in the way of content expertise?”

Dean: “Tell me more.” At this point the attendee was asked to reflect on how she arrives at this conclusion (undergraduates in education majors have limited content knowledge). Others chimed in as well.

Dean: Pause. “That’s a really interesting question. I have some thoughts but first, what do the rest of you think?” Again, this elicited a lively conversation about content vs. pedagogical knowledge and skills building.  

Eliciting Deeper Thinking

Attendee: “Could you tell us how you would recruit more teachers of color into the programs you offer?” 

Dean: “Thank you for this question. I’m wondering…if you were me, how might you approach this challenge. Do you have any ideas?”

Of course she did! It’s why she asked the question. The attendee goes on to share a well-developed idea to the Dean who listened intently. The Dean continued to probe more by asking, “If I were to pursue that idea, how might I start?” Again, the attendee had an answer and you could see the beginning of a real plan in motion. 

Wait Time

The Dean allowed for several pregnant pauses throughout the presentation; not enough lapsed time for attendees to feel awkward, but enough to take a deep breath and refocus away from the rain and traffic and back to the topic at hand.

The presentation ended not with polite claps and 30-feet visions, but a real sense of movement, intellectual challenge and engagement. The new Dean was modeling great teaching right before our very eyes! Turns out alcohol and inquiry mix quite well when done right (NB: I'm not endorsing the alcohol part for classrooms). Perhaps this is the best way to introduce parents and the community at large to 21st classrooms and the intent behind the Common Core?

While I geeked out at the meta-cognitive level throughout the hour-long presentation watching this inquiry lesson/presentation, I wonder how it felt to the non-educators in the room. Did they also notice how different this felt? Did they reflect on how engaged they were? Did their lower backs hurt from leaning in so far? Did the questions and ideas from our conversation continue on their drives home? Were they uncomfortable? Were they invigorated and inspired to resume (or double-down on) funding the college? 

Stay tuned as I intend to ask them!