Inquiry-based curriculum

The concept of inquiry-based learning tells us that curriculum should be defined neither as a set of skills to be mastered nor as a set of concepts to be learned, as we typically attempt to do in formal education today. This now dominant approach represents a misunderstanding of how people actually learn; at its best it cannot work. Instead, Dewey (1990, pp. 42-44) argues that we need to build curriculum around the impulses (or instincts) of the learner. These are the available resources for the school, and underlie the cycle of inquiry:

  • Social instinct-conversation, personal intercourse, and communication;
  • Instinct of making-the constructive impulse;
  • Instinct of investigation-doing things and watching to see what happens;
  • Expressive impulse-the desire to extract meaning from experience.

Dewey saw these four impulses as the natural resources, or the uninvested capital of education, out of which active learning grows. If people are to understand and participate fully in the complex world in which they live, they need to have opportunities to engage with challenging problems, to learn through hands-on investigations, to have supportive experiences, to articulate their ideas to others, and to explore a variety of resources in multiple media.

Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a leader of progressive education, extended the work of both Addams and Dewey (Smith, 2000). In New York, in 1931, she started what was later known as the Cooperative School for Teachers, which exemplified a commitment to collaboration and inquiry. She saw the need for both children and teachers to develop a scientific attitude towards work and life:

To us this means an attitude of eager, alert observations, a constant questioning of old procedure in the light of new observations; and use of the world as well as of books and source materials; an experimental openmindedness (Mitchell, in Antler, 1987, p. 309)

The expression of these ideas in the formal systems of modern education are limited, but they have a continuing presence. They exist in calls for science education reform, in the promotion of arts education, in the best of technology-enhanced learning, and in the idea of integrative learning (Huber & Hutchings, 2005). The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998) has called for their incorporation into tertiary education. They become an imperative in community-based learning and in meeting the needs of underserved students.

Engaging in the cycle of inquiry implies that connecting to lived experience outside the school walls is essential. As Addams learned at Hull House, the best education constantly reconstructs experience, relating it to both the past and to contemporary life. This view is captured in an oft-quoted passage (John Dewey, 1938, p. 51):

We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.

Thus, inquiry requires active learning in authentic contexts. Authentic contexts require that teachers, students, and community members become partners in inquiry, including inquiry into the world and inquiry into pedagogy. This principle carries through from the individual classroom to the whole school:

For communities to rethink and redesign their schools so that all students develop successfully, the entire community must have the opportunity to be involved in inquiry about teaching, learning, and assessing. (Owen, Cox, and Watkins, 1994)


Antler, Joyce (1987). Lucy Sprague Mitchell: The making of a modern woman. Westform, ME: Murray.

Beach, Richard, & Myers, Jamie (2001). Inquiry-based English instruction: Engaging students in life and literature. New York: Teachers College Press.

Daniels, Harvey & Bizar, Marilyn (1998). Methods that matter: Six structures for best practice classrooms. Maine: Stenhouse.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, John  (1990).  The school and society and The child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago. Originally published as The school and society, by J. Dewey, 1900, 1915 (revised edition), 1943, and The child and the curriculum, by J. Dewey, 1902, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.)

Flower, Linda, Long, Elenore, & Higgins, Lorraine (2000). Learning to rival: A literate practice for intercultural inquiry. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Harste, Jerome, & Leland, Christine H. (1998). No quick fix: Education as inquiry. Reading Research and Instruction, 37(3), 191-205.

Huber, Mary Taylor, & Hutchings, Pat (2005). Integrative learning: Mapping the terrain. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Olson, Steve, & Loucks-Horsley, Susan (Eds.) (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Owen, J. M., Cox, P. L., & Watkins, J. M. (1994). Genuine reward: Community inquiry into connecting learning, teaching and assessing. Andover: The Regional Laboratory for Education, 1, 4-8.

Smith, Mary K (2000, Fall). Who was Lucy Sprague Mitchell…and why should you know? Childhood Education.

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