On June 12, 2005, Steve Jobs, CEO of both Apple Computer and Pixar Animation Studios, delivered the Stanford Commencement address on the theme of “You’ve got to find what you love.” You can see both the text and the video of the address below. It’s an excellent talk in its own right, but I thought it gave a good account of inquiry-based learning as well.
In the first part of his address, Jobs talks about dropping out of college, then taking a class in calligraphy, not because it was required, but simply because it was “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle.” He didn’t envision it as preparation for the future, but as something that had deep meaning in the present. Later, his study of calligraphy bore fruit in the design of the first Macintosh computer. As Jobs says, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” This is closely akin to a key element of inquiry-based learning, captured in Dewey’s famous statement that “only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.”
In the second part, he describes his successes and failures. He says, “getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life…the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” This reminds me of a study at the Education Development Center in Newton many years ago. Researchers and teachers found that students learned more when they got interested in investigating a buggy piece of educational software than they did when they used it as the instructional tool it was intended to be. They saw “an enormous pedagogical difference between answering someone else’s question and formulating your own” (Olds, Schwartz, & Willie, 1980).
In the final part of the talk, Jobs talks about his struggle with cancer, and then the final issue of the Whole Earth Catalog. On the back cover (image on the left) there was a photograph of an early morning country road, and the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” He relates this to his own illness, and makes the case of living for today.
Dewey prefaces his call to attend to the “full meaning of each present experience” by the observation that “we always live at the time we live and not at some other time.” As with Jobs, the point is the opposite of what it may appear at first. Staying foolish or extracting meaning from the present means trusting life and trusting oneself, not depending on some arbitrary prescription for what may someday matter. That again is at the core of inquiry-based learning: democratic education through full participation in democratic life.