How Do We Learn? An Exploration of John Dewey’s Pattern of Inquiry
In some ways, "experiential education" has become a catch phrase among educators across the world. While experiential means of teaching may not fit into every curriculum, one can easily notice the immediate results when hands-on experience engages the mind. But experiential education does not have to be used simply to teach material; it can be used to allow students to literally explore the process that occurs when they learn.
This lesson presents a concrete activity that can be used with students to investigate John Dewey’s "pattern of inquiry." Once students gain an understanding of the process that takes place each time they question and learn a topic, they may be able to better contextualize other lessons and materials across disciplines. Moreover, understanding the pattern of inquiry can create a passion for lifelong learning-the ultimate goal for all students!
John Dewey, considered one of the forefathers of experiential education, developed a progressive view of education and the ways in which it needed to be transformed (Kraft 1999). Dewey believed that education must include participation and cooperation and that people "need contact with groups of individuals so that [they] can broaden [their] own personal ideas" (Wurdinger 1997, p. 9). In this way, societal and personal growth are encouraged. Participatory group learning has become an essential element of modern-day adventure education. Individualized ropes course elements, for example, have their place, but broader and more intensive learning almost always occurs in a group setting.
Not only did Dewey believe in creating a stronger sense of community through cooperative learning; he also believed in the introduction of experience into the traditional educational system. It is the responsibility of the educator to create and develop experiences that will lead to learning (Dewey 1938); if the intention of an experience is to control the learner, or if the experience is above the maturity level of the learner, then the educative qualities of the experience are lost. Additionally, Dewey emphasized that the "individual is in control of his or her own learning, and determines what is of most interest and value. When individuals are forced to participate they sometimes resist, or may feel captive and obligated to learn what the instructor wants them to learn" (Wurdinger 1997, p. 12). Thus, the "primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but that they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth" (Dewey 1938, p. 40). It is these concepts of experience that are at the heart of adventure education.
While providing experiences sits at the core of Dewey’s philosophy, a specific component of experience, which Dewey termed the pattern of inquiry (POI), reflects the philosopher’s ideas on how people use an experience to gain knowledge about a topic or concept. The POI is a cyclical process, detailing the journey of learning instead of the ultimate destination. Dewey believed that true learning comes from a passionate quest for knowledge that develops a thirst for lifelong learning.
The first step in this process is to have an opportunity to test the knowledge students already have (Wurdinger and Priest 1999). This opportunity comes in the form of an experiential inquiry. The learner must be interested in an idea, want to know more about it, and become engaged in an experience to gain additional knowledge. This inquiry, an indeterminate situation, is an experience without a known outcome. From this indeterminate situation, learners begin to question and challenge the problem at hand. Out of the questioning arises the formation of cognitive ideas, concepts, and potential resolutions to the situation-or a determinate situation. To conclude the POI, a learner uses these ideas and concepts in other situations, testing their validity and either adopting them to knowledge or abandoning them for ideas with stronger resonance. Dewey’s POI can be represented by figure 11.1.