Situation and inquiry

For Dewey (1938/1991), situation is not something we enter into, nor does it exist independent of inquiry. It is a dialectical event of which we are participants, not spectators. We change a problematic situation and are changed in turn through our actions. In his classic reflex arc paper, Dewey (1896/1972) shows how under this view, conventional distinctions between organism and environment, stimulus and response, body and mind, or cause and effect need to be reconsidered.

Bentley (1941) goes further to show that even the distinction between “knower” and the “known” relies on an incomplete understanding of situation, positing the knower as separate from the environment. This theory is articulated further in Dewey’s major works (e.g., Dewey & Bentley, 1949). Indeed, Dewey’s definition of inquiry uses his concept of situation to provide a descriptive account of how we survive in the world:

Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituent distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole (Dewey, 1938/1991, p. 108).

Indeterminate situations are those in which a person finds conflict between current needs and realities. The indeterminacy can range from feeling cold to being puzzled about an historical event. That feeling of indeterminacy is then the driving force of inquiry, causing the individual to put on a coat in the former case or to make a trip to a library, in the latter. In each case, the inquirer seeks to establish a unified whole, one that replaces the indeterminacy with a unity. It is important to note that for Dewey, inquiry is not a purely mental act, separate from action. Putting on a coat can be as much an instance of “directed transformation” as is reading a book. In fact, it is the integration of mind and body in action that constitutes the transformative aspect of inquiry.

It is also important to note that this account is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, Dewey does not argue that we should transform indeterminate situations, or that a good way to help people learn or participate with others is to have them do so. Instead, the “controlled or directed transformation” of indeterminate situations is simply what we do as purposive organisms. Learning is our capacity to reflect upon that transformation and to realize that we can achieve a unified whole when faced with similar situations in the future. In that sense, inquiry-based learning is not a method or an option to consider for teaching and learning; instead, it is what happens when people do learn.

The emphasis in Dewey’s definition of inquiry and his use of situation is on transformation, on remaking the world along with ourselves. Because situations often include interactions with others, inquiry typically involves collaborative practices within geographically defined communities. The usual categories (teacher/student, technology/concept, knowledge/skill) are replaced with a need to understand the process of transformation: What means are employed to transform an indeterminate situation? What are the varied roles played by tools, ideas, and people in inquiry? How does an inquirer evaluate the unity of a situation? How do multiple inquirers coordinate their activities? How do individual experiences and needs coordinate with those of the community?

For Dewey, Bentley, Addams, Horton, and others involved with this educational praxis, the problems of education were not located in what we teach or how we teach, but rather in the breakdown of connections between individual and community, between formal learning and lived experience, and between the means and ends of problem solving. From this perspective, the situation set up within formal education is often so far removed from the situation of life outside that learning has no meaning and remains in what Dewey calls a “water-tight compartment” (1938, p. 48).


Bruce, Bertram C. (2008). From Hull House to Paseo Boricua: The theory and practice of community inquiry. In B. Dicher (ed.), Philosophy of pragmatism: Salient inquiries. Cluj-Napoca, Romania: Babes-Bolyai University.

Dewey, John (1896/1972). The reflex arc concept in psychology. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The early works, 1882-1898, Vol. 5 (pp. 96-109). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1896)

Dewey, John (1934, November). The need for a philosophy of education. New Era in Home and School, 15. LW9:194-204.

Dewey, John (1938/1991). Logic: The theory of inquiry. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925—1953, Vol. 12 (pp. 1–527). Carbondale, IL: SIU Press. (Originally published in 1938)

Freire, Paulo (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. Foreword, Preface.

Ginwright, Shawn, Noguera, Pedro, & Cammarota, Julio (2006). Beyond resistance!: Youth activism and community change. Routledge. Projects by marginalized youth to build community.

Horton, Myles, & Freire, Paulo. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Temple UP. Horton and Freire discuss their theories, life, communities, and teaching.

Lave, Jean, & Wenger, Etienne (1990). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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