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Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners: A College Education for the Twenty-First Century

reviewed by Maha Bali - January 24, 2014

coverTitle: Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners: A College Education for the Twenty-First Century
Author(s): Clifton Conrad & Laura Dunek
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421405989, Pages: 152, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

The authors of this book provide a passionate preface during which they explain that they felt compelled to write this book, that it was "written out of fire" (p. xv). The book engages readers in rethinking the purposes of higher education, what it means to be "educated," and how the influence of market forces and neoliberal discourse may be distorting the meaning and purpose of a college education. The first two parts of the book explore these questions. Inquiry-driven learning is the authors' response to this, and is described in the third part of the book. The final part provides real-life examples of university programs that cultivate most of the aspects of inquiry-driven learning that the authors highlight.

The first part, "What is the purpose of a college education?" consists of a single chapter, "Contemporary discourse on the purpose of a college education."  It laments the shifting of discourse in higher education away from traditional values and towards marketplace values. Citing a variety of sources over the past four decades, the authors show the changing understanding of what a liberal education is, and the growing value of vocational/professional education. The authors conclude that the discourse is largely "well-intended but high-flying rhetoric" none of which truly "captures the essence of a college education" (p. 20) and that it seems "more or less oblivious to the rapidly changing, global, and uncertain world of the twenty-first century" (p. 21), which they describe in the second part of the book.

The second part describes higher education in the 21st century over two chapters: Chapter two describes our rapidly changing world. This highlights two "siren calls": "human development" which risks getting lost in the need for training individuals as "workplace commodities" (p. 31), and the drive towards industry using academia to strive for "knowledge and innovation." The authors also highlight four dangerous trends in higher education (pp. 34-40): proliferation of for-profit colleges and universities; rapid increase in adjunct faculty; academic capitalism; and decline in public funding for higher education. All of these trends are influenced by monetary incentives. The general thrust of this chapter is that if higher education institutions do not push towards and prioritize their roles as perpetrators of the public good, market forces will (deterministically) shape their goals instead, almost definitely to the detriment of humanity.

Chapter Three clarifies why the current default purposes of higher education cannot prepare students for the challenges of the world in which we now live. Authors build on the work of others such as Nussbaum who highlights the need to produce "complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements" (p. 47). Current higher education, which focuses on transmitting content and preparing students for current labor market needs cannot prepare them for the uncertain future they face.

The third part defines the inquiry-driven learner using a set of central capabilities, some of which might be inspiring for educators. An essential driver behind the definition of inquiry-driven learning is that becoming "learned" should not be the end goal of education, but that becoming a “learner” is the goal. By this, they mean that there is no body of knowledge and skills that one pursues in order to become "learned," but rather, the goal is to develop adults who are constantly learning, who are inquiry-driven in all aspects of their lives. Such learners are described as possessing four interrelated capabilities: "(1) core qualities of mind, (2) critical thinking skills, (3) expertise in divergent modes of inquiry, (4) the capacity to express and communicate ideas" (p. 61). Each of these is explored in detail and further dissected in order to clarify what is meant. The first capability tackles dispositional aspects such as enthusiasm for ideas and resilience in meeting challenges; contemplation; and commitment to inquiry not only for oneself but also on behalf of society and humanity. The second capability follows a relatively traditional understanding of critical thinking as in The Expert Consensus (Facione, 1990), with emphasis on what the authors call a capacity to “frame burning questions” (p. 68), ones that might be “a threat to the status quo” (p. 69). The third capability encompasses embracing divergent approaches to generating knowledge and inquiry, recognizing that “discontinuity and being open to surprise often foster creativity in the search for promising ideas” (p. 73); it also includes the importance of “reflection-in-action” (p. 75). The final capability suggests that “[h]aving ideas unexpressed is equivalent to having no ideas at all” (p. 74) and that “sharing ideas reflects an ethic of responsibility to society and humanity” as well as to oneself (p. 75). This combination of capabilities is put forward as an understanding of inquiry-driven learning that should be the common purpose of higher education and empower learners to face the rapidly changing and uncertain future.

The fourth part consists of the final chapter, which describes exemplary real-life programs from eight institutions. One of the strengths of this section is the diversity of program size and type, as well diversity of institutions chosen for the examples. Some of the examples were detailed and well-written, and as such could provide inspiration or even guidance for other institutions aiming for similar goals. This is particularly true for the first two examples from Evergreen State's program and Worcester Polytechnic. However, some of the institutional examples were too vague to be useful (e.g., The UWTA example was vague in terms of course design in general, and near the end says teaching fellows were given "resources" without clarifying the form of these resources or how they were utilized). Throughout the chapter, there was not enough criticism of potential pitfalls in some of the institutional offerings. For example, there was no critique of the interference of market forces in programs that relied heavily on "competition" with "cash awards" from industry partners working with universities. This is strange given the heavy emphasis on these issues early on in the book. The chapter reads largely like a report, with a very short section in the end drawing together the themes across the eight examples and connecting them with the earlier chapters in the book.

Overall, the different parts of the book seem quite disjointed, if separately useful for different purposes. The background on market influences on higher education, while helpful in describing its shortcomings for preparing learners for the uncertain future, had two problems: first, the authors constantly repeated the same argument (that connecting the purpose of higher education to market needs rather than as a public good is detrimental) without adding much value; and second, they included long quotes (one of which is one and a half pages long) from various sources, that did not necessarily move the argument forward, and where the authors do not add their own analysis or commentary (e.g., they do not comment on how dehumanizing Frideman’s views are about American workers getting replaced by robots or foreign workers).

The lack of connection between the different parts occurs due to insufficient discussion of how the specific portrayal of inquiry-driven learners would address the issues discussed in parts one and two. There was also insufficient discussion of how the institutional examples met those challenges, or even how well they embodied the theoretical characteristics of inquiry-driven learning.

The book does contribute to scholarship in higher education by raising important, challenging and much-needed questions. It goes further by trying both to theorize possible solutions, and offer practical examples. However, it is disappointing not to find the authors providing a more critical view of those solutions and examples, as well as more explicit ties to how these help meet the challenges posed with such detail early in the book.


Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. Research Findings and Recommendations.‏ Millbrae, CA: California Academic Press. Retrieved from: http://assessment.aas.duke.edu/documents/Delphi_Report.pdf

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 24, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17391, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:08:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Maha Bali
    American University in Cairo
    E-mail Author
    MAHA BALI is an Associate Professor of Practice, Faculty Developer, at the Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo. She also teaches part-time at the Graduate School of Education at the same university. She holds a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. Her research interests include critical thinking, higher education, educational technology, intercultural learning, teacher education and citizenship education. Most recent publications include: Bali, M. (2013). Why doesn't this feel empowering? Challenges of web-based intercultural dialogue. Teaching in Higher Education. Advance online publication. DOI:10.1080/13562517.2014.867620 Bali, M. (In press). MOOC pedagogy. Journal of online learning and teaching. Accepted for publication November 22, 2013. Bali, M. (2013). Critical thinking in context: Practice at an American liberal arts university in Egypt. PhD dissertation, University of Sheffield, UK. Retrieved from: etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/4646/ Current research project: editing a multi-author book entitled "Critical thinking in higher education: citizenship and leadership across contexts" Other upcoming publications (under peer review) include a chapter/article on cultural issues in critical thinking, and another comparing synchronous vs asynchronous learning in MOOCs.
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