Introduction: Education as Restless Inquiry

Module Introduction


Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teachers she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are. Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. Paolo Freire, “The Banking Concept of Education” (from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1972)


Learning Objectives


  • Discuss how Plato’s allegory is used in The Republic to analyze systems and experiences, including your own.
  • Compare and contrast the educational narratives of Frederick Douglass to those of free Americans in the first half of the 19th century.
  • Compare and contrast Maria Montessori’s child-centered educational model with your own educational experiences.
  • Analyze John Dewey’s   explanation for the critical importance of thinking, problem-solving, and metacognition to student learning.
  • Evaluate Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

In this module, you will learn about educators from around the globe whose philosophies – shared through written works – shaped the educational landscape throughout history. The “Education as Restless Inquiry” module guides you through primary sources written by Plato, Frederick Douglass, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and Howard Gardner.

Change lies at the heart of education. As Paolo Freire states, “knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue.”

The verb educate is derived from a compound Latin word: e-ducare, meaning to lead out of. Note the complex metaphor at the heart of this word: it implies physical movement from inside a container to the outside (as Freire claims). From where to where? Consider how all forms of education involve both the mind and body: whether I am learning to play the piano; to sculpt a bowl from a block of wood; to take flour, water, and yeast and turn it into bread; to read a book; or to write a successful essay in my college composition class; I am engaged in a complex, open-ended process to create a complex and (if successful) unified product that can always be improved. There is no endpoint to my education. My piano playing, reading, or analysis skills can be improved through diligent and persistent practice (supported by good coaching). I thus move from a state of ignorance to one of proficiency. Every aspect of learning includes complex interactions with the physical and abstract universe, involving body and mind working together in harmony (at least some of the time). In order to receive a successful education––whether playing a sport, singing an aria, or writing an essay––one must be adept at learning. Learning is another interesting word, etymologically derived from an Old English word leornian, meaning “to acquire knowledge of (a subject) or skill in (an art, etc.) as a result of study, experience, or teaching” (OED). If learning is a process that we, as students, engage in, education might be described as the process that encourages and supports learning among a variety of individuals, a collective and harmonic movement when it is successful.

So what does the metaphor embedded in the word “educate” imply? Our first two related essays by Plato and Douglass will provide some important insights into the meaning of learning and education. Subsequent essays in this module will explore a variety of educational models. At best, our educational systems promote individual learning. We all know that there is need for improvement of our schools. How do we define and put into practice educational models that best promote student learning?

In Nineteenth Century America, school systems concentrated on helping students learn fundamental literacy, stressing the foundational skills of reading, writing and calculating. But in the subsequent centuries shifting cultural needs and the increasing demands of an industrialized workplace for highly skilled workers, necessitated radical changes in the complexity of skills and knowledge “learned” in our increasingly nationalized (even internationalized)  education systems. Information has grown way beyond the ability of any individual to retain. None of us can hope to memorize all that is known about any subject, and thus the goals of education in our contemporary world has shifted. As a recent educational text notes:

The goal of education is better conceived as helping students to develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that allows people to think productively about history, science, and technology, social phenomena, mathematics, and the arts. Fundamental understanding about subjects, including how to frame and ask meaningful questions about various subject areas, contributes to individuals’ more basic understanding of principles of learning that can assist them in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learning.  How People Learn (2000), p. 5

If the focus of contemporary education has shifted to meet new demands, the fundamental purpose has not. If education implies movement and self-fulfillment, the lack of education implies constraint and stasis, even the loss of liberty (imagery central to Plato, Douglass, and Montessori)—what William Blake called the “mind-forg’d manacles” by which oppression is internalized.