Matthew Stevens Research

Dewey’s Concept of ‘Inquiry’ and ‘Experimental Learning’

Tue, October 6, 2015 in

Dewey’s future-oriented and experimental concept of learning serves as a comprehensive and contemporary theory of learning that emphasises creativity and innovation. This leads to a greater need to educate for inquiry, for critical and reflective thinking into the uncertainties and the challenges of living in a global society with its constant demand of responsiveness to change. This means we must learn to live rather than to acquire a fixed curriculum. (Elkjaer, 2009, p. 88)

In the classical pragmatism of John Dewey, knowledge is seen as the outcome of the transaction between the human subject and the material and social environment. It is this transaction that Dewey refers to as ‘experience’, which differs from the traditional understanding of the term, where it is considered something within the mind and of an external world. Because experience (in the Deweyan sense) is a continuous and changing flow of [trans]action within a continuously changing situation (consisting of the subject and the environment), the emergent knowledge, or ‘knowing’ is also viewed as being fluid and dynamic.

Knowledge, however, is not always ‘known’ consciously as it can also be subconscious, unconscious and embodied (stored within the muscles and nervous system, as well as the brain). Dewey viewed the organism as an integrated whole, consisting of mind and body, where knowing how to respond in particular situations is stored (or remembered) in the mind-body as habits. Habits are formed through the organism responding in a similar way within similar situations over time resulting in similar consequences. In other words, habits are responsive patterns of action that emerge over time. For actions, such as walking or riding a bike, for example, habits enable us to interact with our environment in a harmonious way without thinking too much about what we are doing.

However, when a person encounters an uncertain situation, and does not know how to respond, there is a resulting rupture in the harmonious flow of action. It is at this point that experience moves from the practical mode to the cognitive mode (where thinking happens) as a means of resolving the situation and restoring the integrated transaction. According to Biesta & Burbules (2003), this process of [re]establishing a coordinated transaction with the environment can be viewed as ‘experimental’ as it involves conceiving and tentatively trying out possible courses of action to see if they work. It is through this experimental process that people learn and acquire habits, understood here as “a complex set of predispositions to act” (p. 37). In this way the world becomes more meaningful and differentiated with habits being used as tools to successfully and meaningfully interact with the world. It is important to note that habits, however, are not rigid static structures that restrict possible actions but rather are fluid and dynamic and, along with the resulting actions, are able to be transformed through inquiry.

The Process of Inquiry

In broad terms, the process of inquiry consists of both reflection (to determine the conditions and propose a hypothesis for resolution) and action (to test the proposal in practice to see if it works). Dewey’s theory of inquiry is described by Biesta & Burbules (2003) as a ‘reconstructive’ theory and is an attempt to explain the logic of the cognitive mode of experience, rather than a method of how inquiry should proceed. In other words, it tries to explain how the process of reflective thought and action (leading to knowing) actually works in practice. In this view, inquiry is always a process of reflection and action whereby it is controlled or directed by thinking and results in the actual transformation of a situation (Biesta & Burbules, 2003).


Dewey’s model of inquiry as reflective thought and action (Miettinen, 2000, p. 65)

In Dewey’s theory of inquiry there are five phases as illustrated above in the diagram by Miettinen (2000). In the first phase, there is a disturbance in the integrated subject-world transaction where existing habits do not work. This is what Dewey calls an ‘indeterminate’ situation (Biesta & Burbules, 2003), where the subject is uncertain and conflicted as to how to go on. It is through encountering this uncertainty that reflective thought arises and experience moves from the practical to the cognitive mode. The process of reflection starts in phase two, with the defining of the problem (what is wrong with the situation) through the initial studying of the conditions of the situation (Miettinen, 2000). It is through this process that the indeterminate situation becomes ‘problematic’ (for the subject) and gives direction to the inquiry.

In the third phase, a tentative working hypothesis is formulated through the further analysis of the conditions, and the possible means with which the situation might be resolved. In phase four the tentative hypothesis is then subjected to reasoning (in a narrow sense). This involves critical reflection and thought experiments whereby the hypothesis can be evaluated and tested against existing knowledge, allowing for further refinement or reformulation before it is acted on. In the fifth phase the refined hypothesis is tested in action to determine whether it actually works in practice. It is only through the actual resolution of the problematic situation that the hypothesis can be validated or rejected. The inquiry comes to an end when coordinated control of the action has been [re]established (Miettinen, 2000).

However, in addition to the immediate outcome of resolving the problematic situation, there also occurs a change in the meaning of the situation, giving rise to new or changed ideas or concepts. “It is in this way that our conceptual networks, our theories, emerge and develop over time. These networks and theories can be seen as storage depots of the outcomes of inquires” (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p. 65). As such, these intellectual outcomes can then be used as a resource for resolving future problem situations (Miettinen, 2000).

Biesta & Burbules (2003) and Elkjaer (2009), however, point out that these theories and concepts cannot ever be regarded as certain of definitive ‘knowledge’ but are always provisional. Just because they worked in a particular situation we cannot conclude that they will work in every situation and can always be exposed to further inquiry. This does not mean, though, that we should always question all our conclusions in every situation but rather regard the outcomes of inquiry as ‘warranted assertions’. However, as we can never be sure that our assertion will work in any particular future situation, we must always be open to subjecting our assertions to further inquiry. In other words, assertions are only warranted in relation to particular concrete inquiries.

Inquiry is an experimental process in which ideas, hypotheses, concepts and theories are used instrumentally as ‘tools to think with’, and as such is a playful, creative and potentially innovative process. The result of inquiry, the new experience or ‘warranted assertibilities’ (knowledge), is therefore open-ended (fallible) and can be reinterpreted in light of new experiences. (Elkjaer 2009, p. 86)

Relevance to My Research

Dewey’s concept of inquiry and theory of experimental learning are particularly relevant to my research in three main areas: firstly, in relation to learning within creative technology domains, secondly, in relation to learning within my own teaching practice and thirdly, in relation to this PhD research itself. All of these involve inquiry into Dewey’s (previously warranted) concepts and theories, but reinterpreted in the open and connected contemporary age. Such an inquiry must take into consideration both the fast changing nature of practices within creative technology domains as well as their open nature. Dewey’s pragmatism, with its fluid and dynamic view of knowledge, emerging from transactional experience and inquiry, offers a way of understanding and accounting for both rapid change and openness. It also offers a way of understanding the subject-world relationship and, in particular, inter-subjectivity and the role of the social in learning.

In relation to learning within creative technology domains, the concept of experimental learning provides both a theoretical underpinning as well as a practical way of approaching learning situations as experimental transactions between the learner and their environment. In my proposed ‘agile’ approach (Stevens, 2013), the learner is placed at the center of their own network of learning nodes with which they interact. These nodes can include other people (tutors, practitioners and other learners), social and material artifacts (technologies and resources), and activities (individual and collaborative projects). In this way, the learning environment, with which the learner is interacting with, is extended beyond the local social and physical environment to include the virtual and the remote. These transactions, however, are not discrete activities but rather take place within the active experiential continuum in which the learner and the environment are constantly in motion. In this regard, the ‘network’ metaphor that I previously proposed (Stevens, 2013), as well as in Learning as Network Theory (Chatti, 2013), is somewhat inaccurate as in connotes learning as a mechanistic system consisting of discrete nodes and connections. From a Deweyan perspective, howver, learning is a holistic organic process determined both by the active learner’s attention and intention as well as by their social, material and virtual environment.

In a similar way, the process of inquiry is also relevant to my own teaching practice. My understanding and knowing what to do within teaching and learning situations is also fluid and dynamic. The precise situation that I find myself in is never entirely the same nor can it be known beforehand. It therefore requires flexibility and openness rather than applying a fixed approach to all situations. Often I find myself in uncertain situations where I need to evaluate the circumstances and conditions (especially in relation to the learners’ competencies, aptitudes and motivations). There is always an initial ‘finding out’ about the learners as well as on-going evaluation and adaptation. In other words, there is a continual process of reflective thought and action. However, even though I might not know the exact nature of every situation and how to respond to it, I can use the outcomes of my previous experiences (habits and knowledge) as tools to evaluate uncertain situations as they arise. The more experience I have, the more I am able to deal with the variety of situations I encounter. Of course, my teaching practice includes an understanding of the learners’ own processes of experimental learning and inquiry, which informs ways in which I can facilitate and guide them in an effective and empathetic way. As such, the learners not only form an integral part of my teaching environment, with whom I am continuously transacting with, I am also an integral part of their learning situation.

This PhD research is also an inquiry into learning within rapidly changing creative technology domains. Its starting point is the encountering of an uncertain situation through my own teaching experience. This firstly requires examining and determining the conditions of the problematic situation, in terms of the limitations and problems associated with learning within traditional learning institutes and qualification frameworks, and attempting to define the problem. From this, an initial hypothesis will be proposed as a working hypothesis, and which will most likely be the end point for the full PhD proposal. Following on from this, the research proper will involve evaluating the working hypothesis against existing theories and concepts, my own and other actual teaching and learning practices, and actual practitioner’s learning processes, leading to a further refined proposal. The final phase will involve testing the proposal and assumptions in practice to see if they work. I should add, however, that this is not the end of the inquiry, as it is on going and iterative, and nor is it a simple cycle that progresses smoothly from one phase to the other. Rather, it may involve moving backwards and forwards between phases and through sub-cycles involving only some phases, as well as multiple nested and overlapping inquiries within inquiries.

Possible Limitations of Pragmatism

Two possible limitations (or rather, shortfalls) of Dewey’s pragmatism are; not addressing power and inequalities (Elkjaer, 2009) and not giving a sufficient account of the role of the social in learning and practices (Miettinen, Paavola & Pohjola, 2012). Elkjaer (2009) suggests the term ‘practice’ as an alternative to the term ‘experience’ as a way of accounting for power relations but concedes that ‘practice’ also comes with its own history of use and meaning. In the sense of an ‘action’, the term ‘practice’ might be similar to Dewey’s concept of experience (as a transaction), but in the sense of a practice, it connotes habitual actions and knowledge legitimated by a community of practitioners. For Elkjaer, this is also problematic as it moves learning (within domains of practice) into areas of power and conflict where (practice-based) learning is viewed more as an “induction into a community‚Ķ as adaptation and socialisation” (2009, p. 87) and consequently does not give an adequate account of the possibilities for change and renewal within practices (or individual practitioners). This is quite different to Dewey’s notions of experimental learning and inquiry as continuous processes of reflective thought and action.

The question then becomes how can power relations and dynamic change both be adequately accounted for within learning and practices. This is a question that is central to my research, as the learning that I am inquiring into is specifically related to the learning to become a practitioner within creative technology domains, as well as how on-going learning and change is possible. Miettinen et al. (2012) introduce Deweyan and Cultural-historical Activity Theory perspectives as a way of giving a fuller account of change, as well as the role of the social within practices.

[C]ultural-historical and Deweyan pragmatist traditions were developed in close connection with developmental psychology or educational studies. That is why they supply articulated theories of learning and human thinking. Although these traditions recognise the primacy of practice and the social origins of the self, they also have viable concepts of relating individual thought and reflection and change in practices to each other. (Miettinen et al., 2012, p.)


Biesta, G. J. J. & Burbules, N. C. (2003). Pragmatism and educational research. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Chatti, M. A. (2013). The LaaN Theory. Personal learning environments, networks, and knowledge.(www. elearn. rwth-aachen. de/dl1151| Mohamed_Chatti_LaaN_preprint. pdf)(07-05-2013).

Elkjaer, B (2009). Pragmatism: A learning theory for the future. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorist…in their own words (pp. 74 Р89). New York, NY: Routledge.

Miettinen, R. (2000). The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19(1), 54-72.

Miettinen, R., Paavola, S., & Pohjola, P. (2012). From habituality to change: Contribution of activity theory and pragmatism to practice theories. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 42(3), 345-360.

Stevens, M. S. (2013). A proposal for an agile approach to the teaching and learning of creative technologies (Honors dissertation).

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