ArticlePDF Available

Collaborative Inquiry: Reflections on Dewey and Learning Technology

  • Digital Promise Global


Presents refections about learning technology based on the philosophies of John Dewey and group learning processes. Topics discussed include collaborative inquiry; current conceptions of learning and technology, including the use of multimedia, telecommunications, and computers; distinguishing inquiry from use and enjoyment; and implications for teaching with technology. (Contains four references.) (LRW)
Collaborative Inquiry:
Reflections on Dewey and Learning Technology
This paper presents reflections about learning technology that have been
informed by a close reading of John Dewey and detailed investigations of how
groups of people construct shared meaning. These reflections suggest a
Deweyian perspective on how technology supports learning, and may give
teachers ways to think about how and why they use technology to support
collaborative inquiry learning in their classrooms.
I consider three settings1 that I have been intimately involved with, using
blocks, computers, and videotape:
Blocks Scenario: A group of college freshmen is tapping and
clapping a simple rhythm, and arranging piles of blocks into
“pictures of the music.” One student looks at the other’s pile, and
says “that’s not it — its not 1-2-3, 1-2-3, its 1-1-1, 2-2-2.” The teacher
says, “no both are right, see if you can hear why.” A group of
students gathers around and claps the rhythms, gesturing to the
different sets of blocks as they do. They begin to discuss and describe
the different “sense” each student has made of the music, and begin
to name the different ways of hearing, “Michael’s way” and
“measuring it.” The teacher later helps them relate these ways of
hearing to the “figure” and the “form” of the music.
Computer Scenario: Two girls are working with a computer
simulation of velocity and acceleration vectors in science class,
trying to set the vectors so the motion turns at a 45° angle. As they
solve the problem by trial and error, Dana says, “But it doesn’t go
down at a 90° angle — I don’t understand.” This begins an extended
conversation in which the students strive to articulate the meaning
of the various objects and relations they perceive in the computer
display. Over time, the two students come to see acceleration as
change in speed and direction over time, a dramatic change from
1 The blocks scenario reflects the work of Bamberger (1991). The computer scenario is based on
Roschelle (in press). The video scenario involved the work of Jordan (in preparation) and
Lampert (in press).
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 1 April 10, 1992
their previous understanding of motion. Dana says, “Oh my god,
it’s all so clear now. I can’t believe we didn’t understand it before.”
Videotape Scenario: A multidisciplinary group of researchers is
watching a video tape of a classroom. A anthropologist among
them says, “Now that’s odd. Why is she staying in that body
position after the rest of the class has gone back to work?” An
linguist in the group stops the tape, rewinds, and plays the tape
again. As the group watches the tape over and over again, cognitive
scientists, teachers, and others enter the conversation, pointing out
features and relations previously unnoticed by the group.
Conjectures emerge and are tested against the tape: maybe she was
so intent on thinking about the mathematics that she didn’t notice
her classmates. Maybe she was daydreaming. Soon the mystery is
resolved — the girl was maintaining eye contact with a friend who
was passing a note to another student in class.
Superficially, these three scenarios have few commonalities: The first
scenario involves students clapping rhythms and manipulating blocks. The
second scenario presents two girls using a computer simulation and
discussing physics. The third scenario has a multidisciplinary group of
researchers talking about a video tape.
The one feature all these groups have in common is people working together
to make sense from an event — the meaning of a rhythm, a segment of video
tape, and a behavior of the computer simulation. In the conclusion of each
scenario, the people advanced their previous state of uncertainty or confusion
towards coherent understanding. Thus, the scenarios have collaborative
inquiry as a predominant feature in common.
Current Conceptions of Learning and Technology
The three scenarios provide an opportunity to question the way in which
popular media relates technology to learning. The common conceptions that I
would like to call into question are:
“Multimedia” enchants students into learning.
Telecommunications allow students to access more information.
Computers can give feedback to students efficiently.
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 2 April 10, 1992
Underlying each of these is a rationale for using technology to learn:
Technology makes learning more fun (or interesting).
Technology gives students access to more information.
Technology enables more efficient delivery of resources.
In the three scenarios provided, however, none of these rationales is helpful
(nor is it clear that they are helpful in general). Fun is not necessarily a
prominent emotion in learning — rather frustration, confusion, and
puzzlement give way to coherence, understanding, and resolution. Creating,
discovering, and negotiating are far more prominent than “accessing
information.” Technology has deeply changed how the participants are
learning, not just how much feedback, information, or other resources can
be delivered.
Distinguishing Inquiry from Use and Enjoyment
Dewey introduces a distinction which leads towards a more powerful
analysis. The distinction is between use and enjoyment, on one hand, and
inquiry, on the other (Dewey, 1938a). This distinction is not one of
desirability. Rather enjoyable use and inquiry are distinguished by function.
Inquiry naturally arises from situations of where use and enjoyment are
blocked, and seeks a controlled transformation that produces coherence,
meaning, and a clear path for action (Dewey, 1938a).
Interestingly, many current discussions of technology and learning occur
from the perspective of use and enjoyment. For instance, much multimedia
aims to make learning more enjoyable. Clearly learning ought to be fun.
However, making learning fun will not necessarily enable students to make
sense of what is problematic in their experience.
Likewise, arguments for technology are made on the basis of a analysis of the
resources delivered to learners. Those resources can be bits and bytes of
information, as in the case of arguments for electronic libraries, or can be
didactic resources such as testing and coaching, as in the case of arguments for
learning management systems. Again, one cannot dispute the fact that
education consumes resources. But a sole focus along these lines may again
help students little. Vast sources of information can be overwhelming as
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 3 April 10, 1992
easily as illuminating; intensive feedback from a computerized learning
management system can be stultifying rather than edifying.
Thus, in distinguishing inquiry from use and enjoyment, Dewey introduces a
shift in context from which a critique current conceptions of educational
technology can proceed. The next section briefly recapitulates Dewey’s view of
inquiry, which is followed by a discussion of Dewey’s analysis of the role of
technology in inquiry. In both sections, the presentation uses Dewey’s ideas to
articulate commonalities among the three scenarios introduced above.
Dewey’s Notion of Inquiry
Dewey’s definition of 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, 1938a, p. 104)
Dewey’s notion of inquiry flowed from his conception of a problematic
experience (Dewey, 1938a, 1938b). He brought to attention the fact that we
often experience life as routine coping with familiar situations. Some
situations, however, are problematic. By this, Dewey means that the situation
is confusing, unsettled, disturbing, and most importantly, lacking clear
possibilities for action. By inquiry, Dewey means a practical activity that
transforms the situation into one that is more clearly articulated, unified, and
comprehensible, and in which the directions for successful action are now
clear. Importantly, inquiry requires noticing new features in an experience,
and restructuring the relationships among features.
The three scenarios described share the characteristics that Dewey attributes to
a problematic situation. In the music scenario, the problematic situation is
realized in students’ mutual inability to make sense of the different ways to
hear a rhythm. Inquiry progresses by building descriptions of the music using
blocks as a tool for comparing and contrasting. The collaborative effort to
achieve common meaning is eventually satisfied by restructuring the
experience of the music so that each participant can attend selectively to
different patterns in the music.
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 4 April 10, 1992
In the computer simulation a problematic situation drives the learning.
There is incoherence between students’ descriptions of motion and the
Newtonian trajectories simulated on the computer screen. Their inquiry
involves noticing different aspects of motion, and constructing new
relationships among them. The videotape scenario likewise begins with a
puzzle, and through inquiry, works to its resolution, in this case allowing a
coherent account of the behavior observed on the tape.
Inquiry as Technological
“The principal reason for calling inquiry technological, then, is it is the means
of effective control…” by which a problematic situation is resolved, says
Hickman (1990, p. 40), in giving an account of Dewey as the first great
philosopher of technology. Dewey located the place of technology in a central
place in inquiry; he viewed inquiry as a productive craft, and technology as
the tools of the craft (Dewey, 1938a).
Dewey took a broad view of the category of technology. For example,
hammers, symbols, languages, and ideas all possibly qualify as technologies
(Hickman, 1990). These varied instrumentalities augment the reach of the
inquirer either in locating the source of trouble in the problematic situation
or in projecting a possible resolution.
Such a broadening of scope would make the word “technology” meaningless,
had not Dewey also introduced some specific details of the way technology
functions in inquiry. Fortunately, Dewey gave at least four kinds of functions
that technology could serve in inquiry. Below I introduce these, with some
discussion of how they related to the introductory scenarios.
1. Extended engagement with the problematic situation.
One function of technology in inquiry is to provide stable, long-term access to
a problematic situation that may occur infrequently or be short-lived. In the
videotape scenario, for example, the video recording provides a tool for
repeated reflection. It enables the group of researchers to replay a puzzling
sequence of activity until they are able to make sense of it. Similarly, the
blocks in the music scenario provide a way of capturing distinct hearings of a
rhythm, and returning to them at will. In the computer scenario, the
computer program provides a way to watch a particular motion repeatedly,
allowing students to gradually transform their perception.
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 5 April 10, 1992
2. Providing focus and context.
Another function of technology in inquiry is to focus attention on specific
attributes, while nonetheless remaining the broader context of the
problematic situation. For example, in the videotape scenario, the researchers
focused on one girl’s body position, looking at it in context of all the other
events occurring in the classroom. By directing focus while retaining context,
new features and relations can be identified in the situation, such as the girl’s
interest in a popular boy.
Similarly, in the computer case, the traces of trajectories on the computer
screen allow students to focus on specific attributes of motion, such as initial
velocity, while retaining connection to the overall context, a trajectory of
motion. In the music scenario, the blocks on the table focus attention on
varied and specific aspects of the rhythm while retaining connection to its
place in the whole piece of music. Identifying features and constructing
relations are the operations by which the problematic situation is transformed
from a puzzle into a coherent narrative.
3. Enabling communicative action.
“Language would not be the efficacious instrument it is, were it not
that it takes place against a background of courser, more physical
means to produce results” (Dewey, 1916).
A third function, then, of technology is to augment ways of acting so that
their meaning is more readily available to others. Common meaning can be
established in the course of collaborative non-verbal activity, allowing
language to develop. In Dewey’s account of language, words get meaning “in
and by conjoint community of functional use” (Dewey, in Hickman, 1990, p.
40). Thus words function as “a means of evoking different activities
performed by different persons so as to produce consequences that are shared
by all participants in the conjoint undertaking” (Dewey, in Hickman, 1990, p.
In the blocks scenario, for example, the participants began with incompatible
perception of a simple rhythm. By re-arranging a set of blocks, each
participant could use action to describe their hearing in way that evoked the
same hearing in another listener. Thus actions become a way of
communicating hearings. Shared language for talking about those hearing
was established on the basis of common experiences achieved through
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 6 April 10, 1992
practical action.
In the computer scenario, students communicate ideas about velocity and
acceleration by making gestures with reference to the objects on the computer
screen. Moreover, they link metaphors with actions on the computer screen
in order to constrain the meaning of new terms. In the videotape scenario, a
linguistic can “point out” an unusual verbal construction without expecting
the other researchers to understand the usual technical jargon used to discuss
the construction in linguistics. Thus the technology enables the development
of common meaning by providing a background against which non-verbal
action can support the development of verbal skill.
4. Doing and undergoing
A fourth function of technology in inquiry is to enable the experimental and
experimental dimensions of learning. Dewey sees the transformation of the
problematic situation achieved by inquiry as occurring not merely in the
head, but importantly occurring in the experienced world. Thus technology
plays a role in enabling the inquirer to do things to the situation, to probe and
perturb it, to try and test postulated solutions. Indeed, it many cases it may be
difficult to subject the situation to inquiry without instrumentation of some
In the computer scenario, for example, the program enables students to test
different settings of velocity and acceleration in order to experience the
resulting motion. Thus students can make predictions from their emerging
concepts and test their serviceability. Without a computer simulation (or
some physical technology), controlled experimentation on the relation
between vectors and trajectories would be considerably more difficult.
In the video scenario, the doing and undergoing is somewhat more abstract,
but nonetheless present. Conjectures arrived at during inquiry lead to
predictions. For example, if it is conjectured that a girl maintains a certain
body position in order to maintain eye contact with a boy, then one might to
expect to see other evidence of a relationship when class ends. Fast
forwarding the tape can allow a search for such evidence. Similarly, in the
music scenario, there is a strong element of doing and undergoing. As the
students discuss the rhythm, they repeatedly clap and sing it, in order to re-
experience it. While the technology is no more complicated than clapping
hands, this provides a fine way to experience a rhythm over and over again.
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 7 April 10, 1992
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 8 April 10, 1992
Implications for Teaching with Technology
The three scenarios introduced share some of characteristics of desirable
learning experiences — knowledge is constructed, meaning is shared,
experience is rendered comprehensible. Moreover, in each case the learning
was enabled, at least partially, by appropriate use of technology, whether
blocks, computers, or videotape. Yet many of the common rationales for
learning technology did not give a useful account of the role of technology
across these settings. While I do not disagree that technology can contribute to
learning by making learning fun, and by delivering information resources
more efficiently, this is too narrow a view of what technology can contribute
to learning.
Dewey articulates the problem: conventional rationales are primarily targeted
to the context of use and enjoyment, rather than inquiry. Technology also
provides the means for inquiry; technology can supports controlling and
directing transformation of experience. Dewey points to specific functions that
often require technological support for inquiry to proceed: continuous
engagement with the problematic situation, focus and context,
communicative action, and experimental doing and undergoing.
Teachers can apply Dewey’s critique to make choices about how and why they
use technology in the classroom. Dewey urges teachers to look past fun,
access, and delivery as reasons to use technology. He urges: Look for ways that
technology can extend students engagement with the aspects of knowing that
they find problematic. Use technology as a tool for focussing students
attention. Search for ways in which technology can enable communicative
through gesture and manipulation, not just talk. Finally, choose technologies
that enable students to experiment and experience the use of ideas for
Using technology to enhance collaborative inquiry requires innovation and
creativity; you can’t buy software that instantly make your students engage in
inquiry more deeply. However, carefully attention to how technology
functions as a tool for inquiry can enable you to seize the opportunities to use
everything from blocks, to videotape, to computer simulations to enhance
your students ability to construct understanding, share meanings, and resolve
their own problems.
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 9 April 10, 1992
I thank the members of the Dewey Reading Group at the Institute for
Research on Learning for their participation in our collaborative inquiries
into Dewey and current learning theory.
Bamberger, J. (1991). The Mind Behind the Musical Ear. Cambridge, MA:
Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the
culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.
Clark, H. H., & Schaefer, E. F. (1989). Contributing to discourse. Cognitive
Science, 13, 259-294.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.
Dewey, J. (1938a). Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Henry Holt.
Dewey, J. (1938b), Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan.
Gentner, D., & Stevens, A. (1985). Mental models. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.
Goodwin, C., & Heritage, J. (1990). Conversation analysis. Annual review of
anthropology, 19, 283-307.
Hickman, L.A. (1990). John Dewey’s pragmatic technology. Indianapolis:
Indiana University Press.
Jordan, J. (forthcoming). Interaction analysis: Foundations and practice. Palo
Alto: Institute for Research on Learning.
Lampert, M. (forthcoming). Practices and Problems in Teaching Authentic
Mathematics in School. In F. K. Oser, A. Dick, & J.-L. Patry (Eds.), Effective
and responsible teaching: The new synthesis. NY: Jossey-Bass.
Roschelle, J. (in press). Learning by collaborating. Convergent conceptual
change. Journal of the Learning Sciences.
West, H. T. W., & Pines, A. (1985). Cognitive structure and conceptual
change. New York: Academic Press
Dewey & Collaborative Technology 10 April 10, 1992
Collaborative Inquiry:
Reflections on Dewey and Learning
Jeremy Roschelle
Institute for Research on Learning
To appear in The Computing Teacher
Presented at the American Educational Research Association Meeting April
21, 1992, San Francisco
... 11A partir de lo anterior y de los resultados de esta investigación, parece que los alumnos participantes construyeron una genuina actividad de aprendizaje, en el marco de una tarea y un problema asignados de antemano, que propiciaron la interacción colaborativa mediada. Así, la tecnología colaborativa(Roschelle, 1994), empleada en esta investigación (e-group de Yahoo groups), permitió a los alumnos participantes comprometerse en la producción conjunta de un conocimiento compartido. ...
Full-text available
The work analyzes the communicative exchanges of three student teams from different vocational high schools through collaborative Internet tools. The objective of these interactions is to collaboratively solve a problem related to scientific work. The article describes the discursive-epistemological elements of the texts written by the participants to construct particular representations of science and the scientific work as well as the processes to negotiate meanings involved in the conciliated constitution of the social representation of science.
... La idea de que la colaboración es una forma básica de actividad humana, esencial para el desarrollo cultural, ha sido destacada repetidamente por muchos autores a través de la historia de la psicología (Bruner, 1996;Mead, 1934;Tomasello, 1999;Vygotsky, 1962;Wundt, 1921). Roschelle (1994) propone el concepto de tecnología colaborativa, definida con referencia a una meta esperada: la construcción de modos comunes de ver, actuar y conocer. El autor sostiene que la tecnología puede ser un medio para que la sociedad resuelva sus incertidumbres y construya prácticas comunes. ...
Ante la presencia irreversible de las nuevas tecnologías de información y comunicación (NTIC) en la vida cotidiana, particularmente Internet, es necesario clarificar los diferentes roles y usos que pueden tener en la educación, y revisar y evaluar las principales tendencias en su aplicación escolar. La investigación educativa reciente sobre el uso de las NTIC ha desarrollado una serie de nuevos conceptos y nuevos enfoques que han hecho evolucionar notablemente el campo de la enseñanza y el aprendizaje. Todos estos enfoques tienen en común su pertenencia a corrientes de pensamiento socio-constructivistas. Estos trabajos muestran que las NTIC permiten poner en práctica principios pedagógicos en virtud de los cuales el estudiante es el principal actor en la construcción de sus conocimientos, y que puede aprender mejor en el marco de una acción concreta y significante y, al mismo tiempo, colectiva.
Given the explosive growth and penetration of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in general, and the Internet in particular, it is important to make clear the different roles and uses that these technologies can have for education, and evaluate the main theoretical perspectives already being used. Recent research in education has made possible the development of new concepts and approaches to teaching and learning by means of these new technologies. Most of these approaches belong to socio-constructivist theories and they show how, by using the ICT, pedagogical principles can be put into practice that have the learner as the central figure in the learning process. The learner constructs knowledge and s/he has the chance to enhance her/his learning by working within the framework of a concrete and meaningful action, which at the same time is individual and communal.
Full-text available
The work analyzes the communicative exchanges of three student teams from different vocational high schools through collaborative Internet tools. The objective of these interactions is to collaboratively solve a problem related to scientific work. The article describes the discursive-epistemological elements of the texts written by the participants to construct particular representations of science and the scientific work as well as the processes to negotiate meanings involved in the conciliated constitution of the social representation of science.
Conference Paper
While problem solving may seem like an intuitive process as demonstrated by experts, there are steps in the process that are clearly identifiable and can be systematically applied. To understand a problem and to develop effective problem-solving skills, students must learn to identify learning issues and locate, evaluate, and apply resources relevant to those issues. The purpose of this study was to investigate the design and impact of an innovative learning and performance-support system to facilitate students' development of metacognition and problem solving skills. Detailed descriptions of the theoretical and design frameworks are provided and discussed. A field test including survey and group interviews was conducted to initially study the impact of this innovative design approach. Findings related to the design and how the system supports problem solving activities are discussed, and future research suggestions are offered.
In this chapter, we explore the possibility of designing microworlds that support exploration of overlapping perspectives of two (and perhaps more) disciplines. Mathematical and computational points of view are presented together in a Boxer microworld called “ClockGame.” We draw attention to the sketch-like properties of the microworld, and the possibilities this creates for student learning. A second point emphasizes our construction process; we give accounts of how sketching a learning environment together provides opportunities for collaborators to learn from each other.
Full-text available
The abstract for this document is available on CSA Illumina.To view the Abstract, click the Abstract button above the document title.
The present work develops ideas first presented in Studies in Logical Theory. "All logical forms (with their characteristic properties) arise within the operation of inquiry and are concerned with control of inquiry so that it may yield warranted assertions." "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." After an introductory section, the three remaining parts of the treatise deal successively with the structure of inquiry and the construction of judgments, propositions and terms, and the logic of scientific method. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
For people to contribute to discourse, they must do more than utter the right sentence at the right time. The basic requirement is that they add to their common ground in an orderly way. To do this, we argue, they try to establish for each utterance the mutual belief that the addressees have understood what the speaker meant well enough for current purposes. This is accomplished by the collective actions of the current contributor and his or her partners, and these result in units of conversation called contributions. We present a model of contributions and show how it accounts for a variety of features of everyday conversations.
Experience and Educationis the best concise statement on education ever published by John Dewey, the man acknowledged to be the pre-eminent educational theorist of the twentieth century. Written more than two decades after Democracy and Education(Dewey's most comprehensive statement of his position in educational philosophy), this book demonstrates how Dewey reformulated his ideas as a result of his intervening experience with the progressive schools and in the light of the criticisms his theories had received. Analysing both "traditional" and "progressive" education, Dr. Dewey here insists that neither the old nor the new education is adequate and that each is miseducative because neither of them applies the principles of a carefully developed philosophy of experience. Many pages of this volume illustrate Dr. Dewey's ideas for a philosophy of experience and its relation to education. He particularly urges that all teachers and educators looking for a new movement in education should think in terms of the deeped and larger issues of education rather than in terms of some divisive "ism" about education, even such an "ism" as "progressivism." His philosophy, here expressed in its most essential, most readable form, predicates an American educational system that respects all sources of experience, on that offers a true learning situation that is both historical and social, both orderly and dynamic.