Focusing on the engaged, not the recalcitrant.

It’s now week five and still Phase II, but I’m already planning for Phase III (which starts around week eight).  In the coming days I will begin prompting my students to think about their first formal paper, and what they might be thinking about regarding their personal “guiding question.”

As you’ll recall, we’ll use Phase III to have students work through a personal wicked problem.  More on how I intend to do this in a later post…

I don’t have a prompt yet for their first formal paper because I want them to identify at this juncture what they think is important to share (with me and their peers). We’ll discuss the prompt in the coming days.  They do know there’s a paper due on the 10th.  (And I’ve intimated several times that they should see their informal writing as potential building blocks for the formal paper.)

In the meantime, here’s a quick sketch Phase II as it continues to unfold:

My sections are each at a different point in the process (because each designed its own timeline) but they have four things in common:

  • Working on a wicked problem using the process of inquiry (and tools like the issue map);
  • Reading, discussing and incorporating the four lenses into their mapping and subsequent investigations;
  • Writing to learn and collaborate (including the PsP);
  • Exploring information literacy by interacting with librarians during their investigations.

They’ve written several informal papers by now. In fact we’ve had one short paper each week. I don’t always collect them, either. None have been long (many about 300 words, or one page), but I don’t measure rigor by page count.  I’ve been trying to transition their writings from describing what they’ve read to making and supporting specific assertions about the material with an analysis of sufficient, credible, and accurate evidence.

They’re not yet very good at this.

Some writings were think-space activities.  I used them as retrieval and prediction exercises before offering up a new topic or idea.

What I don’t want is that they see their writings as a chore to be endured, judged, and forgotten.

In the main I’ve been pleased with the level of discussion and activity.  Yes, they struggle.  No, I don’t bail them out.  When I do add to the conversation, it’s in the form of a question.  Yes, they find this maddening and complain, but eventually (and usually right after they whine, “I don’t understand!) they offer an analysis good enough to spark a conversation.

And as noted in other posts, many of my interjections involve pointing out when they’re practicing the strategies of critical thinking, and when they’re not.

In one section I was impressed as they (without me prompting) started going to the blackboard and comparing the main thesis of each of their assigned articles.

(One of my writing-to-learn prompts modeled this technique…)

I’m certain not everyone has done the readings, but that’s not unusual.  What I’m not doing is creating assignments designed to force this outcome.  In my mind that’s antithetical to intrinsic motivation and punishes those that are engaging in the work.

I’m focusing on the engaged, not the recalcitrant.

I’m also waiting for an opportunity (when something gets said during our discussions) to reintroduce – to have them re-read – at least one of our past readings.  I contend that a) they’ll be more invested by then (the reading will be more relevant) and b) for those who already read it, I want to demonstrate that we can infer different meaning from the same work given our greater sense of context.

It’s the same with participation by talking, but I do believe all are paying attention (there are different ways to measure presence).  I keep working on building a culture of trust, as well as finding other ways people can contribute, ie: taking on the responsibility to maintaining a record of our products.

In another section they started investigating some of the questions that formed from their mapping.  I sent them to the library (a weekend activity) to meet with a research librarian to get them started on information literacy.

If your Phase II looks a bit different, don’t automatically assume you’re wrong. There’s more than one path to the learning objectives, these being:


  • Critical thinking skills for identifying and working with complex problems (defined as problems without definitive answers, that transcend disciplinary interests/scope, and that require competing perspectives to approach adequate comprehension).
  • The ability to seek, find, and benefit from diversity of thought, experience, and opinion.
  • Reading, writing, and oral communication skills to create knowledge cooperatively, and to share knowledge with others.


  • An understanding of the goals of a Quinnipiac undergraduate education.
  • Familiarity with the process of inquiry including how inquiry is practiced in the arts & humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences.
  • An initial, inquiry-based question for exploration over the course of your undergraduate education.







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