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Lesson helps adventure students understand Dewey's pattern of inquiry

This is an excerpt from Teaching Adventure Education Theory by Robert Stremba & Christian Bisson.

How Do We Learn? An Exploration of John Dewey's Pattern of Inquiry

In some ways, "experiential education" has become a catch phrase among educators across the world. While experiential means of teaching may not fit into every curriculum, one can easily notice the immediate results when hands-on experience engages the mind. But experiential education does not have to be used simply to teach material; it can be used to allow students to literally explore the process that occurs when they learn.

This lesson presents a concrete activity that can be used with students to investigate John Dewey's "pattern of inquiry." Once students gain an understanding of the process that takes place each time they question and learn a topic, they may be able to better contextualize other lessons and materials across disciplines. Moreover, understanding the pattern of inquiry can create a passion for lifelong learning-the ultimate goal for all students!


John Dewey, considered one of the forefathers of experiential education, developed a progressive view of education and the ways in which it needed to be transformed (Kraft 1999). Dewey believed that education must include participation and cooperation and that people "need contact with groups of individuals so that [they] can broaden [their] own personal ideas" (Wurdinger 1997, p. 9). In this way, societal and personal growth are encouraged. Participatory group learning has become an essential element of modern-day adventure education. Individualized ropes course elements, for example, have their place, but broader and more intensive learning almost always occurs in a group setting.

Not only did Dewey believe in creating a stronger sense of community through cooperative learning; he also believed in the introduction of experience into the traditional educational system. It is the responsibility of the educator to create and develop experiences that will lead to learning (Dewey 1938); if the intention of an experience is to control the learner, or if the experience is above the maturity level of the learner, then the educative qualities of the experience are lost. Additionally, Dewey emphasized that the "individual is in control of his or her own learning, and determines what is of most interest and value. When individuals are forced to participate they sometimes resist, or may feel captive and obligated to learn what the instructor wants them to learn" (Wurdinger 1997, p. 12). Thus, the "primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but that they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth" (Dewey 1938, p. 40). It is these concepts of experience that are at the heart of adventure education.

While providing experiences sits at the core of Dewey's philosophy, a specific component of experience, which Dewey termed the pattern of inquiry (POI), reflects the philosopher's ideas on how people use an experience to gain knowledge about a topic or concept. The POI is a cyclical process, detailing the journey of learning instead of the ultimate destination. Dewey believed that true learning comes from a passionate quest for knowledge that develops a thirst for lifelong learning.

The first step in this process is to have an opportunity to test the knowledge students already have (Wurdinger and Priest 1999). This opportunity comes in the form of an experiential inquiry. The learner must be interested in an idea, want to know more about it, and become engaged in an experience to gain additional knowledge. This inquiry, an indeterminate situation, is an experience without a known outcome. From this indeterminate situation, learners begin to question and challenge the problem at hand. Out of the questioning arises the formation of cognitive ideas, concepts, and potential resolutions to the situation-or a determinate situation. To conclude the POI, a learner uses these ideas and concepts in other situations, testing their validity and either adopting them to knowledge or abandoning them for ideas with stronger resonance. Dewey's POI can be represented by figure 11.1.

It is the cyclical nature of Dewey's POI that points to the importance of lifelong inquiry. The POI can take place in isolated form, or several POIs can occur at the same time. For example, a novice backpacker may have the large POI of the expedition that is taking place. Within the trip, other, less complex POIs may also occur, like the most efficient way to light the stove, how to stay warm at night, how to hang a bear bag, or how to use a map and compass. All of this information is being confronted at the same time. Each time the stove is lit, for example, information from the last experience of lighting the stove is being used. On the whole, all the information gained from the expedition will be taken into the next expedition and so forth. This, Dewey claimed, is the learning process of life in both academic and nonacademic settings (Kraft 1999).

Knowing how to use and create educative experiences is essential for all adventure educators since experience is the basis of all their work. Dewey developed strong ideas about how experience is processed by the human brain and how it leads to learning. The POI can be a tool for comprehending how people learn and can enrich the learning experience of both the learner and the educator.


Dewey, J. 1938. Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.

Kraft, R.J. 1999. Experiential learning. In Adventure programming, eds. J.C. Miles and S. Priest, 181-186. State College, PA: Venture.

Wurdinger, S.D. 1997. Philosophical issues in adventure education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Wurdinger, S.D., and S. Priest. 1999. Integrating theory and application in experiential learning. In Adventure programming, eds. J.C. Miles and S. Priest, 187-192. State College, PA: Venture.

Lesson Plan


To expose students to Dewey's POI and how it might apply to their lives. As a foundation of experiential education, exposure to the POI is essential for all adventure educators.


As a result of this lesson students will be able to . . .

1. Cognitive: explain Dewey's educational philosophy on the pattern of inquiry and how it applies to adventure education.

2. Cognitive: describe how the pattern of inquiry applies to lifelong learning.

3. Psychomotor and affective: participate in an experience that explores their personal style of learning.


60 to 75 minutes

Group Size

6 to 30


Indoors or outdoors (a space big enough for students to move around in)


Paper and pens or pencils
Large rope or piece of webbing
Various objects of different shapes and sizes (i.e., fleece balls, stuffed animals, blocks of wood, etc.)
Risk Management Considerations

You will be asking the students to blindfold each other and lead each other around the room or open space outside, so be aware of anything that might cause slips, trips, or falls. Also, be careful to tend to the emotional safety of the students, ensuring that they can opt out of being blindfolded if need be.

Student Preparation

In preparation for this lesson, students should read chapters 3, 6, and 7 of Experience and Education by John Dewey and pages 8 through 12 of Philosophical Issues in Experiential Education by Scott Wurdinger.

Instructor Preparation

Before class begins, the activity you will use throughout the lesson should be set up in an area where the students cannot see it. Use a piece of long rope or webbing to create a border. To start, you will form a circle or other basic geometric shape. The size of the bordered area depends on the group size; but as a rule of thumb, the smaller the shape, the more difficult the activity will be. Within the border, toss the various objects (stuffed animals, fleece balls, wood planks, etc.) so that they are scattered throughout. The more objects inside the border, the more complicated the task will be.

Lesson Content and Teaching Strategies

Once the students arrive, ask them to define, on sheets of paper cut into fourths, the words experience, observe, test, and reflect. Have the students set the papers aside for now.

Activity 1: The Assisted Walk and Easy Minefield

Students should find a partner. One person in each partner team is then blindfolded. Once these students are blindfolded, they should sit down and wait. Bring the nonblindfolded partners to the location where the activity is set up and explain the problem that they are about to solve. Once you have finished the explanation, the participants will retrieve their blindfolded partner and guide them to the activity without touching them.

Traditionally this activity is known as "minefield," but you may want to use a metaphor that is more appropriate for your class and the theme of the course. You can call the activity whatever you wish and use the metaphor that best fits your class. For example, you might have the students imagine the setup before them as an expedition they are about to embark on. One end of the border represents the trailhead; the other end is the terminus of a successful trip. The goal is to get the blindfolded partner safely from the trailhead to the terminus. All the objects the blindfolded partner will encounter within the "expedition," however, are obstacles to inhibit the safe completion of the trip. These obstacles may be events like bad weather, injuries, food poisoning, snakebites, and so on. Emphasize that if while navigating the trip the blindfolded partner touches any of the objects or other travelers (other students), that person's expedition has been compromised and he or she will need to return to the trailhead and try again as many times as necessary to complete the trip safely.If some pairs finish before others, they should simply wait until all pairs have completed the activity. Students can, however, remove their blindfolds once they are finished. The most important part of the activity is the stipulation that the nonblindfolded partners can never touch their blindfolded partners or enter the expedition (cross over the border) at any point.

You should allow the students up to 15 minutes to complete the activity. If your minefield was set up in a basic geometric shape, you'll find that most students complete the task relatively quickly. Once the students have concluded this part of the activity, they will have completed the first and second phases of Dewey's POI. First, they were given a task to complete-an indeterminate situation. When they understood the parameters of the task, they could ask questions (observe and question) before they began. Upon completion, they have created a determinate situation and entered the third phase of the POI.

Once everyone has completed the first round of the activity, these are some questions you might want to use for discussion:

  • What was it like for the blindfolded people to go through the experience without knowing what they were getting into?
  • What was it like to guide someone through this activity?
  • For both people, what were the challenges? What was easy?
  • What led to your success? What caused you to have to start over?
  • If you could do the activity again, would you know how to do it better?

The purpose of these questions is to allow students to understand and reflect on the conclusions they have developed (the fourth part of the POI). Here, they form concepts and ideas about the experience they just had. In order to see if the concepts they have developed from this POI are valid and hold true, have the students repeat the experience-with a slight variation-so that they can experience the POI a second time and see if their conclusions stand up.

This is an excerpt from Teaching Adventure Education Theory: Best Practices.

More Excerpts From Teaching Adventure Education Theory