It’s a big open sky: the potential of struggle as a core value in shaping inquiry-based learning

It’s a big open sky: the potential of struggle as a core value in shaping inquiry-based learning

Whenever I am in Iowa visiting family, one of the most striking features is the big sky full of clouds hovering over fields upon fields of corn and beans. The horizon is so vast, your eyes have to scan panorama-style to take in the whole skyline, instead of being able to take it all in with your head not moving.

big open sky with clouds

In those big billowy, leisurely clouds I begin to see shapes that previously were not present but emerge in the moment. Of course, our past experiences shape what we see in these clouds – if you have never seen a rabbit before, you would not recognize that shape in the cloud. On the other hand, an object may be so recognizable that you assume you know the contours that define what that object is, but when the clouds shift, a new vantage point is possible.

This cloud-gazing reminded me of the process and conversation that ensued at our last HUM Editorial meeting when I asked the team to experiment with creating concept or mind maps of the Humanities Program and in particular the relationships between skills we want our students to practice and refine through our courses.

Concept or mind mapping serves as a visual tool to explore how different concepts relate to each other. Maps can look like flow charts, streams, wheels with spokes or other formats, often with arrows showing connections between topics and subtopics. The connections can also be clarified with prepositions, verbs or other connecting vocabulary if helpful. These maps take lots of forms, but often include cloud-like bubbles of ideas. While concept mapping focuses on ideas, the visual format introduces a non-discursive element that can lead to new insights about the connections envisioned between topics.

The real work of concept mapping occurred before we ever met as a group, as all of us struggled to wrap our minds around our own understandings of the relationships between the many learning commitments of the interdisciplinary Humanities Program. It is a vulnerable process that is deceptively hard for faculty deeply steeped in an expansive and complex program.

It is no surprise that all of our maps looked different. Certain learning goals and components became clarified for us individually. As we began to make observations of each others’ maps, we collaboratively identified shared values about learning that could guide our next phase of the process. For me, the role of inquiry and teaching students how to identify and ask productive questions of materials grounded in multiple, diverse perspectives emerged as central to my map. The sheer number of arrows to and from the bubble labeled “questions” helped me to see its foundational role in relation to other skills and goals I engage students with in class. Here is what my map looked like, with the caveat that this is only one perspective:

Other editors highlighted dialogic and iterative processes, the movement from information to knowledge, how each step raises more questions of the material but also of the learning process, the role of questions leading to better questions, and other aspects of inquiry related to critical thinking. While we used different language, there was an underlying current to our maps that became more visible as we talked it out.

One of the major insights we discovered was the value of struggle, supported through a structure that promotes the ability to explore and stumble as part of the inquiry process. Of course, too much unstructured, chaotic meandering won’t be productive, but the right amount of openness and practice with allowing multiple possibilities to co-exist, and as one editor verbalized, “becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable” in not having answers right away, can be a place of potential for intellectual breakthroughs.

This may sound counterintuitive. Aren’t we responsible for creating a structure and clear path for learning? There are studies that note the value of transparent communication with students about what we expect them to be learning.[1] We do not want to lose transparency, as it also emerged as core value. What would happen, then, if we could create a hybrid of the two ideas — a transparent structure for learning that could acknowledge and create space for struggle and discovery?

How could this value inform how we think about incorporating learning strategies into the Readers in relation to materials? Would it change whether we add discussion questions or instead, model types of questions and help students learn to recognize what questions produce and how to create them for themselves? Would it change what we would include in introductions to materials, finding the balance between context and discovery?

From the survey work, we have a clear sense of skills that both faculty and students prioritized – such as contextualization, identifying assumptions and use of evidence and increasing capabilities in working with multiple perspectives, including marking types of disciplinary and cultural viewpoints. These could be mapped out in relation to various materials. But taking this moment to concept map at this stage of the process may change how we facilitate helping students to learn these skills that could support life-long learning habits and intellectual curiosity.

During our editorial conversation, I remembered two points from the qualitative data that align with this trajectory. First, during the focus groups with the two contemporary capstone courses (HUM 414: The Contemporary World and LS 479: Cultivating Global Citizenship), both faculty groups noted the desire to support students in engaging with ambiguity, grey areas, and multiple, seemingly contradictory perspectives with critical, but respectful analytical tools. Second, in the student focus group I held this past spring, students became the most excited about the potential of specifically learning how to ask better questions.

The value of struggle, while not designated directly on a survey, is a subtle component of learning to name. It doesn’t automatically translate into its own concrete learning strategy. This core principle emerged because we decentered our typical habits of thinking about the Humanities Program. In wandering in the big open, ever-changing sky, full of clouds moving around, this value took shape and finally peaked its head out.

So, now what? It is our task to come down to earth and get more grounded now. We are currently tasked with creating templates for selected materials informed by these conversations, the data from surveys and focus groups, and a list of possible brainstormed learning support strategies. Who knows what we will discover in this next phase, which is likely to be muddy at first, but I am grateful for our time in the sky and could always look up again when we need that perspective.

–Katherine C. Zubko

[1] Hattie, John. The Applicability of Visible Learning to Higher Education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology 1:1 (2015): 79-91.

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