GREAT BOOKS Discussions


An Abbreviated Guide for Participants


The Great Books Foundation is an independent, nonprofit, educational organization established in 1947 to promote lifelong learning through the reading and discussion of literature by using Shared Inquiry-- a discussion method for achieving a more thorough understanding of works of literature


                                What is Shared Inquiry?


Shared inquiry is a distinctive method of learning in which participants search for answers to fundamental questions raised by a text. This search is inherently active; it involves taking what the author has given us and trying to grasp its full meaning, to interpret or reach an understanding of the text in light of our experience by the use of sound reasoning.


Discussion leaders ask honest questions about the work, with no sure answer in mind. The kind of question the leader asks determines the kind of discussion, and even the kind of thinking that will occur. Shared Inquiry distinguishes three kinds of questions: Factual, Interpretative, and Evaluative.


1) A factual question asks, what is the author saying? It is the lowest level of questioning. There is only one correct answer to a factual question that can be supported with evidence from the text. Knowing the facts differs from knowing what the facts mean.


2) An interpretative question asks, what does the author mean? It has more than one answer that can be supported with evidence from the text. Use your own curiosity about the meaning of the selection as a means of developing effective interpretive questions. THE SHARED INQUIRY DISCUSSION FOCUSES ON INTERPRETATIVE QUESTIONS. To answer an interpretative question, the reader must figure out what the text means by what it says. To interpret is to make sense of what is said.


3) An evaluative question asks, what do you think of the author’s ideas? The reader  examines whether or not the author’s point of view is in agreement with his or her own beliefs, values, and experiences. This type of question is reserved for the end of the discussion.




1. Only those who have read the selection may take part in the discussion.


2. Discussion is restricted to the selection everyone has read. No outside authorities are used. Discussion is rooted in the common reading. When the selection at hand remains the focus of discussion everyone can determine whether facts are accurately recalled or opinions adequately supported.


3. All opinions should be supported with evidence from the selection. This promotes critical thinking and ensures careful reading and a greater appreciation for literature.


4. Leaders should only ask questions, not answer them.  The leader can convert his or her opinion into a follow-up question, rather than stating it as fact or opinion.  In Shared Inquiry  participants learn to judge for themselves what the text means. Participants may make statements AND ask questions.

What are the desired outcomes of Shared Inquiry?


Shared Inquiry helps develop both the flexibility of the mind to consider problems from many angles as well as the discipline to analyze ideas critically.


Participants learn to give full consideration to the ideas of others, to weigh the merits of opposing arguments, and to modify their initial opinions as the evidence demands. They gain experience in communicating complex ideas and in supporting, testing, and expanding their own thoughts. In this way, the shared inquiry method promotes thoughtful dialogue and open debate, preparing its participants to become able, responsible citizens, as well as enthusiastic, lifelong readers.




Participant Attitudes and Conduct


Be prepared to participate – Read the selection carefully and more than once, if at all possible. Make notes and write down questions as you read. Mark passages that support your interpretation of the work. Also mark those you found especially profound or ambiguous.


Suspension of disbelief – Try to lend yourself to the author’s approach. If you immediately settle into an attitude of rejection, you deprive both yourself and the other participants of that portion of the “truth” you might have gained and shared from the reading.


Hidden agendas – Do not allow your social, religious, or political ideas to disrupt or block the discussion of a work. Dogmatism must be replaced by suspension of disbelief in order to create the right environment for a Shared Inquiry discussion.


Simple courtesies – Actively listening to others; responding rather than presenting a monologue; allowing one participant to finish a point without interruption; and  making room for the quiet person to formulate and express a viewpoint are the expected norms for a discussion.




For more detailed information, log on to