Dewey's Creative Ontology.

Author:Stoller, Aaron
Position:John Dewey - Essay


Inquiry-based and other experiential pedagogies are increasingly being adopted as powerful tools to enhance learning and engage students in the classroom. Inquiry-based learning, for example, has been found to effectively promote the acquisition of new knowledge, abilities, and attitudes when compared against traditional pedagogical methods (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Bruder & Prescott, 2013; Friesen & Scott, 2013).

While John Dewey is often referenced as an important originator of contemporary theories of inquiry, as well as experiential and problem-based forms of learning (Giles & Eyler, 1994; Schon, 1992; Downey & Clandinin, 2010; Savery, 2015), his wider philosophical thought is frequently evacuated from the very same educational literatures that take up the implications of his ideas. Such approaches inadvertently ignore many of the core insights in Dewey's philosophy. Stripped of this context, for example, inquiry is reduced to little more than an "active learning" strategy (Lee, 2012, p. 6) that is deployed to ensure students will be more likely to recall, reproduce, and mentally manipulate predetermined academic content (i.e. "enhanced" learning) (Prince & Felder, 2006). As such, Dewey's vision for liberating, humanizing education is turned into yet another kind of uncritical pedagogy that indoctrinates students into pre-existent social practices (Garrison, 1998, p. 114).

While it may be argued that holding a deeply theoretical conception of inquiry is less important than simply bringing inquiry strategically into the classroom, such a view ignores the fact that a teacher's beliefs about teaching and learning play a significant role in shaping his or her approach to pedagogy and the curriculum (Monsour, 2009; Phillipp, 2007). Virginia S. Lee (2012) argues that "an instructor who sees himself as a presenter of knowledge and trusts primarily his own control over knowledge delivery will implement [inquiry guided learning] quite differently from an instructor who sees herself as a collaborator with students in the process of inquiry and trusts the process of inquiry itself as a force in learning regardless of the level of the students." (p 10). Grasping the philosophical complexities of inquiry is fundamental to embracing and advancing progressive forms of pedagogy.

This essay is an attempt to illuminate a significant aspect of Dewey's philosophy that is largely absent from contemporary educational discourses on inquiry, which is the relationship between the self and the process of inquiry. While there has been much written about Dewey's theory of inquiry, there has been less scholarship devoted to his notion of the self (Blanken-Webb, 2014, p 156), particularly as it relates to this theory of inquiry.

By understanding the relationship between inquiry and the self, it will become clear how and why Dewey's theory of inquiry was not simply a strategy to acquire academic content. For Dewey, inquiry is a way of taking seriously the school as a site of social self-formation which establishes the conditions for meaningful, just, and equitable forms of associated living. This is because inquiry is not a process of "active" learning (i.e. actively "taking in" knowledge), it is a mode of creative inhibition that is enacted in and through the world. Inquiry-driven pedagogies fundamentally alter a student's relationship to knowledge and themselves. In this way, inquiry is a process of reconstructive becoming that serves as a significant corrective to dehumanizing effects of traditional forms of education that Dewey faced in his own lifetime and continue to plague the education system today.

Dewey's Transactional Metaphysics

Many of the central elements of contemporary educational research and practice can be traced to the work of psychologist E.L. Thorndike. Thorndike's view of education is rooted in a foundationalist metaphysics which maintains that the self and the world are ontologically discreet and causally related. The self is little more than a behavioral agent who encounters the world as a mind from outside. Thorndike writes, for example, that "no response of any human being occurs without some possibly discoverable cause; and no situation exists whose effect could not with sufficient knowledge be predicted. Things to not happen by mere chance in human life ... The same situation acting on the same individual will produce, always and inevitably, the same response" (Tomlinson 1997, p. 371). Educational research following Thorndike's legacy is largely devoted to developing single-factor causal models that attempt to explain and direct student behavior in the static environment of the school.

It is well known that Dewey lost the education wars of the early twentieth century to Thorndike. This occurred, in part, because Dewey's radical vision required not only deep practical changes to schooling, but also a wholesale revision of its underlying philosophical foundationalism. Thomas M. Alexander (1987) writes that Dewey's metaphysics are "so radical and divergent from traditional [views] that thinkers whose intellectual habits have been formed by the tradition are compelled, often against their inclinations, to give a systematic misreading of Dewey" (p 60).

Dewey refers to his metaphysical system as "empirical naturalism," "naturalistic empiricism," and "naturalistic humanism," all of which attempt to express the central idea that human experience and reality are not ontologically discrete but are emergent and co-determining. Human experience and nature bring one another into being and are interrelated (Dewey, 1949/1989, pp 242-244; 348). In his final published book, Knowing and the Known (1949/1989), Dewey introduces the concept of transactional to describe his metaphysics, as opposed to foundational or interactional, which attempts to locate their emergentist orientation (Brinkman, 2001, p 299-303).

A central part of Dewey's position is a rejection of the Substance Realist assumptions that underpin classical positivist views of science, including the views that continue to guide much of educational research today. In order to explain the difference between traditional positivist views of science and his own, Dewey distinguishes between two forms of materialism: "reductive" and "naturalistic." Reductive materialism, which is embodied in Thorndike's work, assumes that all things are reducible to (and therefore predictable from) constituent parts (Dewey, 1945/1989, pp 112-114). Harold Morowitz (2002) argues that all classical science is built upon reductive materialism. He writes that "from the theoretical constructs postulated at each level, we can make a series of predictions or rules that work their way, often through calculations, back to the world of observation" (p 19). This view is, in part, what sets forth a quest for final foundations (what Dewey called the "quest for certainty") which are assumed to be the building blocks of reality.

Naturalistic (i.e emergent) materialism, which is Dewey's position, maintains that things are related, but not strictly reducible, to parts. All things emerge from parts to become something genuinely new. Morowitz (2002) writes that

in the domain of emergence ["naturalist materialism"], the assumption is made that both actual systems as well as models operate by selection from the immense space and variability of the world of the possible, and in carrying out this selection, new and unanticipated properties emerge. This type of outcome is similar in some way to the biologist's view of evolution, in which novelty occurs by mutation, translocation, selection, and differential survival. New structures, new species, and new ecosystems thus emerge. The evolving taxa and systems are not predictable in any exact sense. (p 20) For Dewey, existence is an event-structure which is always undergoing negotiation, adjustment, and revision (Dewey, 1925/1981, pp 5-6). There is nothing that exists as a thing-in-itself, but all things are manifestations of particular kinds of novel and complex relationships that take place in and through time.

Dewey's Emergent Self

Dewey's metaphysics yield a very different conceptualization of the self at the center of education than traditional foundationalist views. Dewey's view of the self has deep consequences not only for inquiry-driven

pedagogies, but also curricular structures and the very aims of education. Before turning to an articulation of inquiry as a process of social-self creation, it is first necessary to clarify Dewey's view of the self. (1)

Built on his transactional metaphysics, Dewey's view of the self stands in opposition to traditional Western conceptualizations in which the self is imagined as largely static, ontologically discreet from the world, and formed as a cause of various effects in the world. In the dominant Western view, students (selves) are mental agents, whose thoughts, decisions, motivations, and actions take place consciously, and who are largely in control, aware, and distinct from their own emotions and bodies (Kuldas & Bulut, 2016, p 200). The self, as a whole, is understood as an a priori entity that is context-free (i.e. transcending interpersonal relationships) with traits that are ontologically distinct from cultural and social roles (Kuldas & Bulut, 2016, p 201). This can be seen, for example, in the widely held belief that there are such phenomena as "core" skills (e.g. critical thinking) which are context-free, universal, and can be internalized by students as waiting tabula rosas. Broadly speaking, educational research and practice in the U.S. remains committed to this position (Garrison, 1998).

To the contrary, Dewey argues that the self is an emergent property of a process of ongoing reflection and action in the world. The self is an experimental consequence of social action and inquiry, rather than something that exists a priori. Dewey (1893/1971) writes that the self is...

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