Inquiry as both Action and Understanding

Bertram (Chip) Bruce

Graduate School of Library & Information Science
U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Problems of education

Not primarily in methods or content

But in the breakdown in connections between:

  • knowledge and action
  • individual and community
  • formal schooling and lived experience
  • means and ends of problem-solving

Fostering inquiry

  • Fundamental inconsistency between top-down approaches and authentic inquiry
  • What happens when users are not merely recipients of a design for inquiry, but take an active role in creating that design?

Behind the scenes at the Inquiry Lunch

Invitation message

"Although the specific topics will evolve on the basis of the interests of the participants, we expect that there will be a focus on promoting inquiry-centered learning...we're trying to provide a space for dialogue about more divergent and student-centered kinds of teaching and learning."

Initial topics (1996)

  • Feb. 24: City planning as a theme for science learning
  • Mar. 3: Learning about the human body/Bioengineering
  • Mar. 10: The Visual Learning Initiative
  • Mar. 17: [Spring break]
  • Mar. 24: Gender and mathematics
  • Mar. 31: Grow in Science
  • Apr. 7: Distance learning

Failure from the start? Is there a design?

  • vague goals
  • no measurable objectives or evaluation criteria
  • no defined means for achieving those objectives
  • no definition of key personnel, timelines, materials, and activities

Strawberry milkshake machine

Mary: All we do is pour a little bit more strawberry in it [Sue gets a small plastic cup from the back table and asks Mary to "put it in here"], and a little bit of ice cream, and then [Sue puts the cup she had gotten down right next to the large plastic cup, apparently to give Mary another chance to put the shake in there], done. Shake it up [tries covering the large plastic cup with the small plastic cup Sue had gotten and seems to think it's too small, so she empties out another large plastic cup holding pencils and rulers and uses it inverted as a top for shaking], and give it to the window [hands the shake toward the imaginary window to the left of the screen].
Brown, Beck, Frazier, & Rath, 1996
Is it science?

Chickscope project (1996-2000)


Primary school

Emergence of the inquiry cycle

"Genuine intellectual integrity is found in experimental knowing." John Dewey

The Inquiry Page (1997)

  • web-based means to articulate and engage in inquiry
  • virtual plus place-based communities
  • uses: courseware, online journals, community groups, individual inquiries
  • international connections

Puerto Rican Cultural Center (2002->)

  • 30 years in Chicago's Paseo Boricua neighborhood
  • Philosophy of self-actualization and critical thought, self-determination, self-reliance
  • Galvanizes residents around local issues: cultural preservation, economic development, gang violence
  • Includes many affiliated organizations that help people "learn how to learn" about/in the community


Batey Urbano

Alternative high school

Community Inquiry Laboratory

  • Community: Collaborative activity around creating knowledge that is connected to people's values, history, and lived experiences
  • Inquiry: Open-ended, democratic, participatory engagement
  • Laboratory: Bringing theory and action together in an experimental and critical manner

Ethnography of the university (2002->)

  • university knowledgeable about everything but itself
  • engage undergraduates in research
  • build a repository of knowledge from the inside view
  • use Inquiry Page for ethnographies

Making ethnographies—EOTU Live

Student inquiries

  • How did students respond to a year of Brown v Board of Ed events?
  • How does the university treat transfer students?
  • How does the university relate to off-campus public spaces?
  • What is the experience of Korean-American women in American universities?

Inquiry-based design

  • "shared form of life" (Ehn)
  • no assumption that a system will be designed or used
  • users remain in the "process of authority" (Dewey)

Pragmatic technology

  • technology as the outcome of problem-solving (Larry Hickman)
  • reverse "design/build/use"
  • "inquiry" defined by the participants


  • cross-disciplinary, collaborative, and participatory process
  • respect for diversity
  • helping all participants develop a critical, socially-engaged intelligence

Dewey's definition

Inquiry is the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is so determinate in its constituents distinctions and relations as to convert the elements of the original situation into a unified whole" (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, p. 108).

Awakening inquiry

The moment when understanding and action come into dynamic and reciprocal relationship with one another is the moment when inquiry for both students and teachers truly comes alive.

The End