Inquiring and acting

John Dewey makes an interesting distinction between understanding and information:

An individual may know all about the structure of an automobile, may be able to name all the parts of the machine and tell what they are there for. But he does not understand the machine unless he knows how it works and how to work it; and, if it doesn’t work right, what to do in order to make it work right…Understanding has to be in terms of how things work and how to do things. Understanding, by its very nature, is related to action; just as information, by its very nature, is isolated from action or connected with it only here and there by accident. (Dewey, 1937, p. 184)

If we line up “how things work” with inquiry and “how to do things” with action, we have a good summary of the Youth Community Informatics activity guide, Community as Curriculum. It’s set up with units on Youth as Inquirer and Youth as Activist.

An example might be to study the problem of alcoholism in your community (Inquirer), then make a book about it, such as This is the Real Me (Activist). Several thoughts occur to me:

  • The inquire/act distinction is not absolute; it’s hard to come up with a good example in which the two roles are not blended and mutually supportive. But it can still be useful for reflecting on our work, and thinking about future directions for community informatics.
  • The Inquirer part goes well beyond what usually happens in school in terms of relevance, connectedness, community base, and so on. But the Activist part rarely happens at all.
  • Much of the research in social informatics, and even community informatics, which studies community use of ICTs, digital divide, or demographic patterns, tends to “name all the parts of the machine and tell what they are there for.” That can be useful, just as it would be for an automobile.
  • But, if we seek understanding in Dewey’s sense, we need more of a community inquiry approach.

References

Dewey, John (1937). The challenge of democracy to education. In The collected works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. Electronic edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953. Volume 11: 1935-1937, Essays, Liberalism and Social Action. [First published (February 1937) in Progressive Education 14, 79-85, from a transcript of an address on November 13, 1936 at the Eastern States Regional Cnference of the Progressive Education Association in New York City.]

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