- Inquiry and Irony:Promise and Paradox in Paul Jablon’s The Synergy of Inquiry
Paul Jablon’s The Synergy of Inquiry (2014) is well-timed. The 2014 deadline set by No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2002) for universal student proficiency has come and gone, and according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “proficiency rates last year were below 50 percent for nearly every racial and ethnic group, in both reading and math, in both 4th and 8th grade” (Kamenetz, 2014, p. 2). Two decades ago, the outcomes-based movement refocused teaching and learning on “what students are expected to demonstrate they ‘know and are able to do’” (Spady, 1988, as cited in McNeir, 1993, p. 3). Its goals of reaching all students, refusing to “write off” or “give up” on struggling learners (especially struggling learners of color) were admirable, but the 2014 report was just the latest in a host of studies (summarized in Fairtest, 2003; Rose 2004; Sunderman, Kim, & Orfield, 2005) that revealed how student learning repeatedly failed to reach NCLB’s targets.
Jablon is but the latest in a series of educators who argue that the fault lies not so much in NCLB’s goals as in the methods that too many schools chose to reach these goals, namely a “doubling down” on skill-and-drill preparation for the NCLB-mandated standardized tests. This strategy, at its worst, produces scenes like the one Jonathan Kozol (2007) presented of South Bronx school P.S. 65, where a large percentage of lessons were replaced with rote test prep, even though “nobody believed test-drilling was of educative worth. Its only function was to defend the school from state or federal punishments” (NEA, 2007, p. 25). If we just wanted students to recall facts and figures these instructional methods might actually serve, but the demands of NCLB, and now Common Core, are for students to understand the current state of their knowledge and build upon it, improve it, and make decisions in the face of uncertainty (McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993, as cited in Bransford, 1999, p. 120) – what Hatano and Inagaki (1986) called “adaptive expertise,” what Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) called “extension of learning” and “higher reasoning” skills, and what Bloom, Englehart, Furst, Hill, and Krathwohl (1956) called the “higher order” levels of the cognitive domain such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
The Synergy of Inquiry (2014) attempts to resolve our present paradox – namely, that the standardization of pedagogy and curriculum that schools adopted to meet the heavy testing focus of the outcomes-based movement is ill-suited to helping students develop the kind of higher order thinking that the movement’s proponents advocate. Synergy was published on the heels of the admission by no less a personage than Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2015 and Race to the Top architect, that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools” and that schools are putting too much “focus on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking” (Duncan, 2014, para. 14). In the interests of full disclosure, I was one of the dozen [End Page 113] or so teachers whose reflections Jablon incorporated into his book. I offer here a review of the complete work.
Jablon offers a way that schools and teachers can help students acquire higher order skills, especially when more traditional methods are failing. Or rather, he offers several ways, merged under one umbrella called “Inquiry Learning.” Classroom inquiry, in one form or another, has been around at least since Schwab (1960) and Herron (1971), but Jablon does not claim to offer a new or revolutionary pedagogy. Instead, he attempts to synthesize and codify what are “natural components” of the way effective educators have always taught these skills (Jablon, 2014, p. 9). As both a high school practitioner and a professor of education who teaches student-centered, inquiry methodology, I have long yearned for a convenient “one stop shopping” opportunity like this one. Synergy is the first text I have seen that successfully accomplishes this synthesis, in a highly accessible, non-jargon-heavy form, all in under 300 pages...