inquiry as a subversive activity

I’ve been reading Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (more info), and I’m finding myself extremely drawn into it. It’s the kind of book that I may have read as an undergrad, but just wasn’t ready for. It’s the kind of book where you need to be ready to really engage with it before it makes sense. And it’s the kind of book that has me rethinking pretty much everything, and seeing new patterns everywhere. The book was written before I was born, and published only a few months before I was. But it feels so intrinsically relevant and important today – maybe moreso now than in 1969.

One of the chapters is describing inquiry, and what an honest adoption of inquiry would mean for curriculum, education, and society at large. What does it mean when curriculum isn’t predefined, and must be pulled from individuals and groups through the act of questioning, and the process of making sense? What does that look like?

Although much of it rings as important, even critical, to adopt in education, I think a full-scale adoption of inquiry would require more than just a tweak of the education system – it would require essentially nuking every concept of curriculum, and assessment, which would in turn require nuking large parts of entire educational institutions (and non-educational ones as well) and rebuilding from scratch. Sounds nice, but it’s just not practical.

Then, I turned the page and hit something I hadn’t seen before. A blank page, filled with handwritten sentences. At first I thought there was something wrong with the book. Postman and Weingartner had been talking about eliciting questions from the reader. And their implementation was to actually leave room inside the book for contributions from the reader. Not a blank page at the back of the book with “Notes:” stenciled on the top. Not a generic page for random scribbling. A blank page, with the specific purpose of eliciting responses from the reader: What questions would you ask if there was no curriculum? What is worth knowing?

page 61

It’s a simple technique, but shows a few things in action.

  1. The simple act of honestly asking for contributions radically changes the nature of the experience. One is no longer simply “reading” the book – they are helping to write it.
  2. Inquiry doesn’t need to be a Big Scary Thing – it can be as small and simple as asking a question, and allowing all responses. Note that the authors didn’t say “what topics are important?” or “what are the fundamental subjects that should be taught?” – they asked “what is worth knowing?” and that is a pretty simple yet powerful question, leading to further simple yet powerful questions in response.
  3. Starting from a set of open-ended questions, one can start to define some paths for further inquiry pretty quickly. Inquiry isn’t chaos – it’s finding out what matters to the individual participants, and then searching for strategies to finding solutions and answers. It’s not the absence of content, or the absence of direction. It’s placing the focus of the activities of teaching and learning on the individual, and finding what their needs are, in various contexts.

And others have used similar strategies to draw people into conversations and presentations. I was able to help facilitate an inquiry-based session a few years ago with Brian and Alan, and it was one of the most powerful experiences I can remember. Stephen Downes has been doing this for years – I had the pleasure to see his new EduRSS (now gRSShopper) backchannel running at TLt this summer during his presentation.

stephen downes with the backchannel

Sure, some of the responses are silly when there are no restraints placed on contributions. But some responses are deep, thoughtful, relevant, engaging, engaged, and enriching. And the participants care about what is going on.

If inquiry is honest, and participants are working together to identify questions that they feel are valid – and then to answer them – that is a powerfully subversive activity that can change education from simple content dissemination into something that is so much more engaging and relevant. It changes education from being an industrial age “teaching factory” to an organic, adaptive, extensible process.

And I’m not using subversion in a negative sense. From Wikipedia:

Subversion refers to an attempt to overthrow structures of authority, including the state. It is an overturning or uprooting.

7 thoughts on “inquiry as a subversive activity”

  1. Questions from the book, post these where ever someone is interested in the topic:

    What do you worry about most? What are the causes of your worries?

    Can any of your worries be eliminated? How?

    Which of them might you deal with first? How do you decide?
    Are there other people with the same problems? How do you know? How can you find out?

    If you had an important idea that you wanted to let everyone (in the world) know about, how might you go about letting them know?
    What bothers you most about adults? Why?

    How do you want to be similar to or different from adults you know when you become an adult?

    What, if anything, seems to you to be worth dying for?

    How did you come to believe this?

    What seems worth living for?

    How did you come to believe this?

    At the present moment, what would you most like to be – or be able to do? Why? What would you have to know in order to be able to do it? What would you have to do in order to get to know it?

    How can you tell ‘good guys’ from ‘bad guys’?

    How can ‘good’ be distinguished from ‘evil’?

    What kind of a person would you most like to be? How might you get to be this kind of person?

    At the present moment, what would you most like to be doing?

    Five years from now? Ten years from now? Why? What might you have to do to realize these hopes? What might you have to give up in order to do some or all of these things?

    When you hear or read or observe something, how do you know what it means?

    Where does meaning ‘come from’?

    What does ‘meaning’ mean?

    How can you tell what something ‘is’ or whether it is?

    Where do words come from?

    Where do symbols come from?

    Why do symbols change?

    Where does knowledge come from?

    What do you think are sane of man’s most important ideas?

    Where did they come from? Why? How? Now what?

    What’s a ‘good idea’?

    How do you know when a good or live idea becomes a bad or dead idea?

    Which of man’s ideas would we be better off forgetting? How do you decide?

    What is ‘progress’?

    What is ‘change’?

    What are the most obvious causes of change? What are the least apparent?

    What conditions are necessary in order for change to occur?

    What kinds of changes are going on right now? Which are important? How are they similar to or different from other changes that have occurred?

    What are the relationships between new ideas and change?

    Where do new ideas come from? How come? So what?

    If you wanted to stop one of the changes going on now (pick one), how would you go about it? What consequences would you have to consider?

    Of the important changes going on in our society, which should be encouraged and which resisted? Why? How? What are the most important changes that have occurred in the past ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years?

    In the last year? In the last six months? Last month? What will be the most important changes next month? Next year? Next decade? How can you tell? So what?

    What would you change if you could? How might you go about it? Of those changes, which are going, to occur, which would you stop if you could? Why? How? So what?

    Who do you think has the most important things to say today? To whom? How? Why?

    What are the dumbest and more dangerous ideas that are ‘popular’ today?

    Why do you think so? Where did these ideas come from?

    What are the conditions necessary for life to survive? Plants? Animals? Humans?

    Which of these conditions are necessary for all life

    Which ones for plants? Which ones for animals? Which ones for humans?

    What are the greatest threats to all forms of life? To plants? To animals? To humans?

    What are some of the ‘strategies’ living things use to survive’?

    Which unique to plants? Which unique to animals? Which unique to humans?

    What kinds of human survival strategies are (1) similar to those of animals and plants; (2) different from animals and plants?

    What does man’s language permit him to develop as survival strategies that animals cannot develop?

    How might man’s survival activities be different from what they are if he did not have language?

    What other ‘languages’ does man have besides those consisting of words?

    What functions do these ‘languages’ serve? Why and how do they originate?

    Can you invent a new one? How might you start?

    What would happen, what difference would it make, what would man not be able to do if he had no number (mathematical) languages?

    How many symbol systems does man have? How come? So what?

    What are some good symbols? Some bad?

    What good symbols could we use that we do not have?

    What bad symbols do we have that we’d be better off without?

    What’s worth knowing? How do you decide? What are some ways to go about getting to know what’s worth knowing?

    Standards for evaluating your own questions

    Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as his capacity to learn?

    Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning?

    Will they help to provide the learner’s with confidence in his ability to learn?

    In order to get answers, will the learner be required to make inquiries? (Ask further questions, clarify terms, make observations, classify data, etc.?)

    Does each question allow for alternative answers (which implies alternative modes of inquiry)

    Will the process of answering the questions tend to stress the uniqueness of the learner?

    Would the questions produce different answers if asked at different stages of the learner’s development?

    Will the answers help the learner to sense and understand the universals in the human condition and so enhance his ability to draw closer to other people?

  2. thanks alot!
    I’ve just spent an hour ripping apart my library
    in search of my dog-eared,wine soaked copy of “Teaching as a ..
    with no luck

    from a fortunate 65 yr. old poppa
    whose six & three yr. old grandsons
    help keep him focused each week

    still searching….


    “Subversion refers to an attempt to overthrow structures of authority, including the state. It is an overturning or uprooting.”

    unlike myself
    my wife regularly uproots plants in our garden
    without reservation

    plunking them down in different spots
    switching them around
    playing with new locations

    her anal husband
    grows frustrated
    wanting to dig them in

    “They are going to die if you don’t get them planted.”I tell her
    she shrugs her shoulders
    and continues

    I love her garden

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