[Summer Reading] Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action

"And today, fresh discoveries in cognition, inquiry, and collaboration show us even betters ways to help learners engage with ideas and drive each others' thinking- not just to remember information, but to build knowledge, to care, to act" (Harvey and Daniels, 2009, p. 7).

How does what I know about teaching and learning in primary apply to the intermediate division? What structures and supports are necessary in the classroom environment to evoke the kind of thinking required for learning? My own "puzzle drive" led me to this book written by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.  It came highly recommended by @JennyLoebsack, a friend and mentor who I consider to be an inquiry-guru!

What struck me instantly about this text, is the manner in which theory and practice are examined and explored. The authors share information and their own thinking in a highly conversational way. Part 1 lays the foundation, explains the why, of small group inquiry projects. In it, research is introduced in the areas of collaboration, comprehension. and inquiry. Many connections to theorists past and present were made (I was overjoyed to see references to some of my favs such as Dewey, Rosenblatt, and Freire). Part 2 ties in practice with detailed lessons (that are applicable to all age groups) and key principles of setting the stage for active learning. Part 3 explores various models of small group inquiry including mini-inquiries, curricular inquiries, literature circle inquiries, and open inquiries. Part 4 includes information about assessment and evaluation as well as Q&A. For the remainder of this blog I hope to shed some light on the 3 key components- comprehension, collaboration, and inquiry- as a way of consolidating my own thinking and providing a brief overview for others.

"When they realize that active readers think about the text, jot or draw their thinking, and talk to one another to come to a more complete understanding, kids gain insight and build knowledge" (p. 25).
Comprehension is the "evolution of thought", the inner conversation we have with the text. As I read through this text I was writing in the margins, making connections to my own experiences, adding sticky notes to sections I would like to refer to later. I was taking an efferent stance - reading to gather and synthesize information. After reading, I wished to have a conversation with others about its contents (this blog written from my family cottage taking the place instead). Harvey and Daniels recommend that we model our own reading, strategies we find helpful, and give time for students to just read (& stop, think, react to the information). 
"When kids see how an experienced adult peels back the layers of her own thinking, they are better equipped try it on their own" (p. 35). 

One of the first text I read during my Masters of Education studies was Louise Rosenblatt's The Reader, The Text, The Poem. I was happy to reflect back on my experience reading this text when it was referred to by Harvey and Daniels. When taking an efferent stance (informational text), annotating helps the reader
better understand what is being read. Just as I scribbled in the margins and added sticky notes, students must come to see the importance of doing the same through modelling and practice. They recommend students having a Research Notebook to jot thinking and provided possible coding to "leave tracks of thinking".
With fiction, we often take an aesthetic stance, getting lost in the book, so interrupting reading to annotate is not always helpful. Thoughtful responses and discussions happen afterwards. Part of my "puzzle drive" in moving from primary (where I used Reading CAFE, Daily 5, precision reading literacy structures) to intermediate was how to foster a similar 'cafe' feel with early adolescence. Book Clubs seems like a good fit!

Putting Literature Circle (Book Clubs) Into Practice:
Harvey and Daniels promote moving away from arbitrary projects at the end of each book and towards helping students dig deeper into their own thinking. (p. 203) 
   Question prompts include:
        Has this book changed you in some way?
        Where does this book take you next?
        What do you want to find out or do as a result of having read this?
        Do you have any lingering questions?

Within the book (p. 30) Harvey and Daniels present a Comprehension Continuum with teacher prompts to guide and extend student thinking. 
Literal questions -> Retells -> Merges Thinking with Content -> Acquires Knowledge -> Actively Uses Knowledge

For content area reading, Harvey and Daniels propose 3 sets of guiding questions to address the big ideas (p. 90):
The Definition Questions: What is it? What is happening? What is going on?
The Consequence Questions: Why does it matter? What difference does it make? Why should I care?
The Action Questions: How can we get involved? How can we help? What can we do about it?

Comprehension Lessons:
Annotate Texts: Leave tracks of thinking (p. 120)
Stop, Think, and React to Information (p. 122)
Notetaking: Read with a Question in Mind (p. 123) [Notes --- Thinking ---]
Synthesize Information: Read to Get the Gist (p. 125)

"So here's another reason why collaborative work is so important: kids need social energy to keep caring, feeling responsible, and plugging away" (p. 71). 
We need to bring social skills into the classroom. Why? It's a skill needed in the 'real world', it allows for differentiate learning, it stresses the importance of diversity of thinking, and believe it or not, it makes kids smarter! Harvey and Daniels remind us that effective groups are born, not made. It takes modelling, practice, authentic learning tasks that kids care about. Next year I will be using the chart presented (p. 46) to help guide students thinking on how proficient collaborators think and act. As students form small groups inquiry circles, they require time to develop their own ground rules and create a plan for their learning. This brings accountability to all parties and is an essential part of ensuring purposeful learning for all. 
Resource Materials:
Will this work 100% of the time for all? Of course not! Harvey and Daniels present strategies and rational for dealing with the many issues encountered during small group work. One of the most captivating quotes for me follows. This is a hard truth for educators. 
"But here's the news: they don't all bloom on our shift" (p. 53).

Collaboration Lessons:
Home Court Advantage (p. 127)
Creating Ground Rules (p. 128)
Written Conversations (p. 131)
I Bet to Differ: Disagreeing Agreeable (p. 133)

"Though the bigger kids may conceal it with coolness, they are burning to learn about the world, particularly when they have some choice in the matter" (p. 110).

Inquiry is what ties the collaboration and comprehension together. It is the tool used to inspire curiosity, fuel authentic reading, propel student conversations. Harvey and Daniels outline 4 models of small group inquiry and include captivating examples of their use in multiple grades. You've just got to read them! 

Here is an example of a Curricular Inquiry on health and body systems from a 5th grade classroom.
And another one on presidential debates which I plan to refer to this fall for our Canadian Federal elections.

Harvey and Daniels have structured a Small Group Inquiry Model that keeps learning at the heart of it. It is simple, adaptable, and hones in on skills of collaboration and comprehension. I think it fits well with principles of Genius Hour which I hope to employ next year (very much Open Inquiry model from this text). 

Retrieved from hacktheclassroom.ca
Immerse – invite curiosity, build background
Investigate – develop questions, look for and find answers
Coalesce – synthesizing and building knowledge
Go Public – share learning, take action

Each model includes a chart that outlines teacher and student actions during each stage. On the left is an example for mini-inquiries (p. 144)

Principles of Inquiry Circles (p. 13):
- Choice based on genuine curiosity
- Flexible, heterogeneous groupings
- Student responsibility and peer leadership
- Use of proficient reader/thinker/researcher strategies
- Synthesizing and building knowledge -Backmapping kids learning to the curriculum

Inquiry Lessons:
Choosing Topics to Investigate: Free Focused Writing (p. 137)
Checking Our Sources (p. 138)

Other Helpful Resources:
Companion Website
Prezi created by Lori Ramer

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


  1. Thanks for the summary, Jess! I appreciate reading your thoughts. I'm a big fan of literature circles/book clubs as I'm in a book club myself and find it's a great way to learn about a book (e.g. characters, plot, themes, etc. etc.). Here's the ISU that I used last year with my Grade 11 English class: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sA24YH8FZnFL5DlfiXoTn1Y9O5gbT4ELuPC81VCNyQc/edit?usp=sharing Definitely not perfect but I think some of the ideas outlined regarding "book club meetings" align with some of the discussion in your blog. Please feel free to use and/or share the handout as you like. Hope the math PD goes well today!

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  3. Oh my god! This post has so much of information that can help a lot of students in their respective exams. Comprehension is an essential part of any exam and therefore, I am going to share this post with as many people as possible. Also, it will help solving LSAT Sample Questions as well.


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