Interpretive discussion is a philosophy of discussion in which participants pursue the answer to a single, basic question about the meaning of a text. The pursuit is accomplished by finding and directing other participants to passages in the text that argue for one interpretation of the text over another. The text discussed may be of any medium (book, film, painting, etc.) containing significant ambiguity in meaning, which lends interpretive discussion to be effective as a pedagogical method in classes of nearly all subjects and grades.[1][2] Interpretive discussions typically culminate in some sort of synthesis of the many arguments presented over the course of the talk. A useful discussion method for teachers, it is aimed at engaging students in critical thinking as they infer meaning from the text, formulate personal opinions, respectfully argue for their own interpretation, and synthesize arguments. Over the course of the discussion, participants benefit from cognitive exercise, as well as communication and social relationship skill-building.[3]

Interpretive Questions

An interpretive question is one that does not have just one correct answer. Any answer that includes support from the text may have some degree of "correctness."[4] Participants in an interpretive discussion are asked to interpret various aspects of a text using text based evidence.

The Basic Question

The basic question (BQ) is, "an interpretive question that comprehensively addresses a central problem of meaning in the selection."[5] Resolving the basic question typically requires investigating and examining multiple passages within a selection.

Cluster Questions

Cluster questions are often prepared by the leader of an interpretive discussion prior to the discussion itself. These questions are often organized to help resolve the answer to the basic or focus question.[6] It is not necessary to use these prepared question in the discussion, rather they may serve as a jumping off point or a catalyst for further discussion.

Interpretive vs. Fact Based Questions

Unlike an interpretive question, a fact based question only has one correct answer.[7] An answer to a fact based question asks the reader to simply recall the text and point to one specific passage. To ask a fact based question, you are asking, "What does the author say?" On the other hand, when asking an interpretive question you are asking, "What does the author mean when he/she says?"

Interpretive vs. Evaluative Questions

When asking an evaluative question, one is asking a participant in a discussion to form a response based on experience rather than text. An answer to an evaluative question requires no reference to the text at hand. Rather, the response is based in experience, opinion, judgment, knowledge and/or values. In asking an evaluative question, one is asking, "Do I agree with what the author is saying?" These questions stand in contrast to interpretive questions which require referencing the text.

Goals of Interpretive Discussion

The major goal of interpretive discussion is for discussants to delve deeply into a text in order to better understand its meaning. The goals of interpretive discussion are all associated with the process of deliberating. A complete resolution of doubt by all members of the group is neither necessary nor likely.[8]

Benefits of Interpretive Discussion

There are several benefits of interpretive discussion over traditional forms of discussion. Since the discussion is text-focused, differences between discussants such as race, culture or class can serve as resources and not obstacles in the discussion. Interpretive discussion tends to foster a tolerance for different perspectives and interpretations of the text because these fresh interpretations can lead toward a resolution of the discussion group’s main point of doubt. Since interpretive discussion arises from a main point of doubt shared by the discussants, they are genuinely motivated to participate in the discussion and engage with the text in order to better understand its meaning. No question is thrust upon the group for discussion, but rather the discussants actively pursue their own deepest point of doubt in order to better understand the meaning of the text.[9]

Leading an Interpretive Discussion

In an interpretive discussion, successful leaders should "be involved with the ideas and opinions [their] students express."[10] This involves both being familiar with the text and developing a list of questions to use as possible jumping points for the discussion, as well as getting the participants involved throughout the process of discussion. Successful leaders also come to the discussion with an open mind as to the outcome or endpoint of the discussion. Leaders must listen to discussants, acting as a facilitator, not the authority.[11]

Before the discussion, the leader should carefully select the reading and communicate the expectations to the participants. This insures that the participants of the discussion will have adequate time to prepare and will know the expectations for the actual discussion, such as the frequency of participation, attendance at the discussion, or the proper way to disagree respectfully with another participant.[12] In some discussion models, the participants also come to the discussion prepared with their own list of questions about the text to encourage them to be thinkers independently of the discussion leader, but in others (often those with more limited time) the leader guides the participants through his or her questions to insure that the important topics are covered over the course of the discussion.[13]

In leading a discussion, the leaders should encourage every member of the discussion to participate. Some think that this includes calling on participants who are habitually quiet, even when they do not volunteer, to try to engage them in the discussion and to encourage them to share their opinions and interpretations.[14] As leader, it is also important to remember that "one of the most important things an instructor can do to promote student participation in discussion is to maintain a respectful posture toward students and their contributions."[15] By treating participants and their questions and interpretations respectfully, the leaders will encourage the participants to continue to participate and take risks. The leader of the discussion should also encourage the participants to engage more deeply with the text, by asking probing follow-up questions, asking for specific passages in the text as support, and by summarizing what a participant has said and asking if he or she wants to clarify. In this way, the leader of the discussion acts as a facilitator. Finally, the discussion leader is responsible for providing some sort of conclusion or wrap up to the discussion, asking for final questions or clarifications and providing some context for the discussion.

Shared Inquiry

The Great Books Foundation curriculum for grade-schoolers, Junior Great Books, calls this method of discussion Shared Inquiry. The curriculum uses interpretive discussion as a pedagogical method "to help students of all reading abilities understand literature, or construct inferential and thematic meaning from their reading."[16]

In fact, the Great Books Foundation has explicit instructions for teachers and leaders of discussion on how to adhere to the rules of Shared Inquiry, which is trademarked by Great Books, but is otherwise known here as Interpretive Discussion. They recommend having 8-12 students in a discussion group and give tips on how to draw shy readers out of their shells to participate as well as how to organize your own cluster of questions if you are the leader. All these guidelines and structured discussion layouts move toward the goal of getting all readers to fully understand and engage in great literature. The process is one that is meant to give readers the tools to deeply grasp the text and "the discipline to analyze ideas critically." [17]

Great Books' implementation of this teaching and learning method has spread to many realms of the educational world. There are opportunities to attend workshops and professional development opportunities centered around bringing Shared Inquiry into the classroom. Such professional development shows teachers how to guide their students' understanding of literature by asking open-ended questions with an emphasis on analysis and interpretation. This aspect of the program is essential to Shared Inquiry. The Foundation claims that results show that teachers who use this method of instruction in their reading curriculum see a high level of growth in levels of critical thinking and reading comprehension.[18] Shared Inquiry is a method some teachers use as a way to develop community within their classroom. Researchers have found that by using a curriculum like Shared Inquiry, students develop citizenship when they are active in learning which is a process of discovery rather than a straight telling of facts.[19]


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