In the Age of Analytic Reading: Understanding Readers’ Engagement with Text by Colleen Pennell


How Does Philosophical Inquiry Promote Comprehension?



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How Does Philosophical Inquiry Promote Comprehension?

When students partake in philosophical inquiry, they develop reasoning abilities through discourse with others. Through open-ended discussions, students negotiate ideas with peers, experience tension in their thinking, and collectively search for meaning. In this regard, the socially situated nature of philosophy is steeped in the theories of Vygotsky and Bakhtin.

Both Vygotsky (1986) and Bakhtin (1986) believed an individual’s cognitive acts are mediated by semiotic tools—specifically language. Vygotsky stressed the social milieu of learning by suggesting cognitive processes can be advanced when children use language to articulate and defend their thoughts. Thus, children will be more apt to assimilate new or complex concepts when “required to explain, elaborate, or defend one’s position to others, as well as to oneself; striving for an explanation often makes a learner integrate and elaborate knowledge in new ways” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 158).

In a philosophical discussion, Vygotskian principles are illuminated as students are required to ask and answer questions, challenge and debate inferences, and provide evidence to substantiate their argument. Philosophical inquiry is premised on the Vygotskian notion that “children will learn to think for themselves if they engage in the social practice of thinking together” (Murris, 2008, p. 670).

Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin (1986) expanded Vygotsky’s ideas by expounding upon the role of social language in meaning construction. Bakhtin explained that when participants engage in dialogue, the utterances spoken are woven together through the thoughts and anticipations of other participants. For example, in philosophical discussions, students discuss ideas and formulate responses (e.g., agreements, disagreements, or elaborations). By preparing the response, meaning is being negotiated, particularly if two or more students engage in opposing viewpoints. As the discussion becomes populated with multiple viewpoints it mediates interpretation and constructs understanding. Bakhtin (1986) referred to this as dialogic, and explained:

The fact is that when the listener perceives and understands the meaning of speech, he simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it. He either agrees or disagrees with it (completely or partially), augments it, applies it, prepares for its execution and so on...any understanding is imbued with response and necessarily elicits it in one form or another: the listener becomes the speaker. (p. 68)

Instructionally, philosophical inquiry relies upon dialogic teaching principles (Alexander, 2009) where classrooms are structured to foster collaborative, strategic, and intellectually engaging language practices. From a literacy perspective, dialogic teaching relinquishes the interpretive authority of the teacher and implements intentional discourse practices that engage readers in critical comprehension.


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