As practitioners and researchers, we have encountered challenges when trying to integrate inquiry-based learning and critical literacy. On the one hand, inquiry is about learner agency in what and how they learn. On the other hand, critical literacy is about looking at systemic issues.
One approach forefronts the personal, the other the political. Effectively integrating the two can be challenging. Part of how we came to this tension is that we both individually had conducted inquiry projects with students. Katie had designed an inquiry around a local issue and Shea around a global issue, but we both had designed the inquiries with the goal of raising students’ critical consciousness.
Despite our best laid plans, both projects fell short. Shea’s project, conducted in a junior high in rural Indiana, explored global hunger and invited students to investigate sustainable action steps across different contexts. Although the students learned about environmental and cultural sustainability, they repeated the narrative of sending corn to developing nations, even though as a farming community, they know that corn is not a sustainable crop. Although the students completed the project, they did not become fully engaged until they explored the issue of hunger at a local level on a field trip to a local food bank.
Katie’s project invited third graders in Ferguson, Missouri to use words, images, and actions to shape a vision of their community and its future in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. The students desired to push back against the negative media attention that was focused on their community; however, they unconsciously repeated some of the same harmful narratives, rather than disrupting them. Although both projects wanted students to engage personally and also critically examine society, students in the one case stayed zoomed out and the other zoomed in so that neither group was able to take up agency.
One day, we were discussing the shortcomings we both had experienced. Because Shea had focused on a global issue, she wondered if the inquiry had been too far zoomed out. Because Katie had focused on a local place but had a similar problem, we wondered if the inherent tension might not have been the local versus global but maybe putting inquiry and critical together. A critique of inquiry in practice is that students remain too close to their own original beliefs. Pulling from personal experience can help students develop deeper understanding about difference (Sleeter, 2011); yet, to take a critical stance, individuals must move beyond their personal experiences to understand the social and political systems that provide a context around that experience (Lewison, Leland, & Harste, 2015).
On the other hand, attention to aspects of domination without opportunity for action and transformation can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and despair, leading to resistance or indifference (Janks, 2010). Thus, it is imperative that students come to understand their reality critically, but also be empowered to actively re-create that reality. This can be challenging if instruction remains too far removed from students’ everyday lives. Scheff (1979) describes the ideal stance for learning the “optimal aesthetic distance,” which is neither overwhelming nor indifferent.
We agree with these critiques but argue that how to do so remains the challenge. Our discussion about how the students stayed zoomed out or zoomed in led us to talk about the problem of optimal distance as problematic because it seems as though there is one right spot from which to view the inquiry from a critical stance. We thought that the analogy of zooming was helpful for integrating the two approaches and seeing that optimal distance can change over the course of an inquiry. With the analogy of zooming, we can guide students to zoom in and out and back again throughout an inquiry in order to focus on personal knowledge, political systems, and agency. In this way, students’ are able to see both their proximity to an issue and to analyze the issue from a distance. By zooming in and out, teachers can guide students to critically examine their home and their world.
Dr. Shea Kerkhoff is an Assistant Professor of secondary education in the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her research centers on integrating inquiry-based learning with disciplinary literacy instruction. Her co-authored book Diving into Disciplinary Literacy and Inquiry: Teaching for Deeper Learning was published by Teachers College Press in 2019.
Dr. Katherine O’Daniels is an Assistant Teaching Professor of literacy education in the College of Education at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. She also directs the Gateway Writing Project, a local site of the National Writing Project. Her research focuses on understanding how multimodal composition can be used to narrate and reshape places and spaces, especially within a critical literacy framework.
Janks, H. (2010). Literacy and Power. New York: Routledge.
Lewison, M., Leland, C. H., & Harste, J. C. (2015). Creating critical classrooms: Reading and writing with an edge. New York, NY: Routledge.
Scheff, T. J. (1979). Catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Skerrett, A. (2011). English teachers’ racial literacy knowledge and practice. Race Ethnicity and Education, 14(3), 313-330.
Sleeter, C. E. (2011). An agenda to strengthen culturally responsive pedagogy. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 10(2), 7-23.