How does learning connect with life?

Inquiry-based learning is sometimes conceived as a pedagogical approach in which students investigate phenomena in order to arrive at a more complete or accurate understanding of the world. That’s referred to here as process inquiry. It’s a valuable pedagogical approach, often much better than the alternatives. But in some ways, it is counter to a full conception of inquiry-based learning.

The essence of substantive inquiry-based learning is the realization that learning is inseparable from life. While notions such as lifelong learning, experiential learning, or social construction of meaning draw from this realization, they often fail to acknowledge its full implications:

  1. Experience is not passive reception, but the active encounter of an organism and its environment. Therefore, experience is something we have the possibility to create as well as understand. Inquiry means action in the world as well as understanding of the world.
  2. Certainty is unattainable not only because our view of the complex world is limited, because the world itself is constantly changing. The object of inquiry is thus not to attain an accurate picture of how the world is, but to develop better ways to interact with it. We are not spectators of knowledge, but participants in knowledge.
  3. A situation can be in doubt, or problematic, when it is not a unified whole. That doubt is inherent in the physical and social aspects of the situation, not simply in our conception of it. Thus, we are not only located in situations, we are part of those situations; inquiry implies transforming the situation, including ourselves, through both thought and action, or more precisely, thought and action come together in transformation of the situation.
  4. Knowledge is better conceived as a process, knowing. Viewed that way, ideas are no longer end points of inquiry, but tools for further inquiry, whose value is the degree to which they support productive inquiry. Accordingly, inquiry means creating its own tools.
  5. Situations are constituted by physical, biological, and cultural factors. A situation can be morally problematic, demanding moral inquiry to change social conditions. This dissolves the dichotomy of fact and value.
  6. Being part of the situations in which we are embedded, our individual inquiries are inseparable from those of others, from the inquiry of the community.

The connection of learning and life implies the need for deeper kind of inquiry, one in which not only the process of learning, but also the substance is significantly different from what we typically encounter in formal learning settings.

Ask Content delivery, skills development; implicit question A priori questions leading to content mastery The community is the curriculum; questions from lived experience
Investigate Pre-set methods & materials Authentic materials; multiple sources & media Methods developed in response to the end-in-view
Create Response modes defined by specific assignments, tests Active, hands-on learning Action to transform oneself & the world; both means & end
Discuss Teacher-driven Collaboration, learning
through talk & writing
Dialogue in the world
Reflect External evaluation Making sense of the process at the end Reflection as the start of inquiry; conscientization

In a Phi Delta Kappan article, Intelligence by Design, Richard Gibboney compares E. L. Thorndike’s view of education to John Dewey’s:

To put the distinction sharply, Thorndike saw humans in the image of the machine; Dewey saw them in the image of life.

He quotes Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, who concludes:

One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.

The machine image is reflected in the ways that we atomize the curriculum, fetishize testing, and talk about students (and teachers) as products to be processed and perfected. It appears in what Heidegger (1977) calls our “technology enframing” (Gestell). Ellul (1964) writes about the way that technique subordinates both nature and society:

The characteristics of technique which serve to make efficiency a necessity are rationality, artificiality, automatism of technical choice, self-augmentation, monism, universalism, and autonomy. The rationality of technique enforces logical and mechanical organization through division of labor, the setting of production standard, etc.

This view is powerful; Heidegger and Ellul suggest that it can never be displaced. But resistance is alive in many forms. A major line of resistance is to re-connect schools and community. This means conceiving curriculum, not as a set of skills to develop, or subjects to master, but more as lived experience in the community. At Pedro Albizu Campos High School, they say it this way:

  1. Learn about the world in a connected way
  2. Learn how to act responsibly in the world, including understanding oneself
  3. Learn how to transform the world—to give back to the community

It’s revealing to consider their curriculum in comparison with dominant, micro-skills approaches such as we see in No Child Left Behind. See more in The university of the future: a student-centred university.


Addams, Jane (1893). The subjective necessity for social settlements. In Henry C. Adams (ed.), Philanthropy and Social Progress. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell. Republished as chapter 4 of The Jane Addams reader.

Antrop-González, René (2003, Fall). This school is my sanctuary: The Pedro Albizu Campos Alternative High School. Centro Journal, XV(2).

Bohannon, Laura (1971). Shakespeare in the bush. In James P. Spradley and David W. McCurdy, eds., Conformity and conflict: Readings in cultural anthropology. Boston: Little Brown.

Bruce, B. C. (2008). John Dewey in Turkey: Lessons for today. (blog entry plus John Dewey’s report listed in the references)

Donnan, Caroline S. (1988). Following our forebears’ footsteps: From expedition to understanding. In V. Rogers, A. D. Roberts, & T. P. Weinland, (Eds.), Teaching social studies: Portraits from the classroom (Bulletin No. 82). Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies.

Ellul, Jacques (1964). The technological society (originally pub. in French as La Technique ou l’enjeu du siècle, Librairie Armand Colin, 1954). Vintage, Knopf.

Gibboney, Richard A. (2007, October). Intelligence through design: Thorndike versus Dewey. Phi Delta Kappan, 88(2), pp. 170-172.

Grace, Patricia (1987). Butterflies. In Electric city and other stories. New Zealand: Penguin.

Heaney, Thomas (1992, Fall). When adult education stood for democracy. Adult Education Quarterly, 44(1).

Heidegger, Martin (1977). The question concerning technology. In William Lovitt (ed.), David Farrell Krell (trans.), Basic writings (pp. 301-305). New York: Harper & Row.

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