October 2, 2020
Thanks to Joseph Coulson, President of Harrison Middleton University, for today’s post. This blog is the third in our series: Our Mission Extends Beyond Us. Links to previous posts in this series follow today’s post.
The International Commerce High School in Tempe, Arizona and the Humanities and Sciences High School in Phoenix enjoy a close association with Harrison Middleton University (HMU), a connection fortified by shared educational values that place the quality of student learning and student achievement above all other considerations. In the high schools, students follow a progressive curriculum and a pattern of engagement with instructors that promotes independent learning and readiness for college and careers. Graduate students at Harrison Middleton University arrive as independent learners who with the help of an instructional team devise programs of study specific to their intellectual interests and life goals. Whether enrolled in the high schools or HMU, students speak of autonomy, achievement, and advancement in ways that were not afforded to them in previous educational settings. Other schools may make similar claims, but their records of graduation or degree completion do not always square with their promotional materials. The documented success of student learning and student achievement at International Commerce High School, the Humanities and Sciences High School, and Harrison Middleton University follows from the creation of three paramount conditions across the institutions: 1) a community of educators dedicated to studying the liberal arts; 2) the practice and mastery of inquiry-based instruction; and 3) a rigorous program of ongoing staff development.
A strong liberal arts curriculum means engagement with a broad but essential range of subject areas and a variety of primary-source materials. In this context, close reading is the first skill that students learn to perfect, whether reading for content or toward interpretive synthesis. Learning to ask and write questions—factual, interpretive, and evaluative—as the means for unlocking rhetoric, intention, and significance in any text or document is also an early step toward becoming an independent learner. Instructors at the high schools and Tutors at HMU demonstrate and model these skills, posing questions that ask students to actively engage with problems of understanding and meaning. With study of the liberal arts serving as a springboard, the practice of close reading, interpretation, and synthesis leads to the formation of critical thinking skills, and the critical thinking that students undertake on a daily basis and in the company of their instructors and tutors becomes the foundation of their confidence and, ultimately, their success.
Inquiry-based instruction is the core pedagogy used at the high schools and also at HMU. Questioning strategies like those mentioned above serve as the fuel for inquiry-based learning, not so much procedural or factual questions but rather those questions that demand critical thinking or abstract reasoning. In terms of methodology, the primary vehicle of inquiry-based learning is discussion, which uses analytical, interpretive, and evaluative questions to explore multiple levels of meaning in a text. Tutors formulate and ask questions that guide a collaborative search for meaning, and in its best applications, students and tutors read and learn together toward higher and higher levels of understanding. Such discussions build a field of action for critical thinking skills. This is especially true when the questions asked about a text invite students to participate in an act of exploration or, in more specific terms, allow students to open a range of interpretations that make meaning out of unfamiliar and seemingly inchoate information. Cognitive development depends on this sort of practice, as does skillful social functioning—and we must not forget that the habits of inquiry taken to their ultimate expression make for knowledgeable and engaged citizens.
The pedagogy of inquiry-based instruction serves as a strong bridge between Harrison Middleton University, International Commerce High School, and Humanities and Sciences High School; it also forms the basis for much of the work that faculty from the three schools do together. Inquiry-based discussion involves, of course, routine or procedural steps such as text annotation and writing questions in response to specific ideas in a reading, but for a subsequent discussion to be truly effective, instructors must develop superb listening skills and a degree of improvisational flexibility in the interest of student learning, which is to say, a degree of artistry is necessary when conducting an inquiry-based discussion because the instructor/tutor must be sensitive to where and how the student accesses the material and how the student can best achieve the goals of the exercise. Practice, practice, and more practice is the only means for developing such artistry, and for this reason, faculty and staff at the high schools and at HMU participate in weekly professional development. In my experience, no other schools devote so much time and effort to the activity of selecting works from the existing curricula, assigning discussion leaders, and then participating with colleagues in a series of inquiry-based discussions, thereby demanding from themselves what they also demand from their students. In this way, curricular content is examined and re-examined at deep levels, and the techniques of inquiry-based discussion can be practiced and then analyzed for efficacy. It follows, of course, that HMU faculty often join high-school faculty for discussions; at other times, HMU faculty lead discussions or train high-school faculty new to inquiry-based instruction. These joint ventures in professional development build a sense of common purpose, creating a forum for the development of active teaching and the sharing of best practices.
Whether serving as instructors at the high schools or tutors at HMU, whether working with secondary or post-baccalaureate curricula, we believe that the success of our students and the individualized learning and intellectual freedom they enjoy can only be achieved through 1) a foundation in the liberal arts that 2) is brought to life by the pedagogy of inquiry-based instruction, which our faculty members 3) continually practice with academic and artistic discipline in a shared program of staff development. In this way, we create a community of educators who serve the needs and goals of our students, with student achievement and student satisfaction as the measures and validation of our educational philosophy.
Links to previous blogs in this series:
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