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On the Nature of Inquiry: The Individual Student

David W. Jardine PhD

It is not at all a question of a mere subjective variety of conceptions, but of [this topic’s] own possibilities of being that emerge as it explicates itself, as it were, in a variety of its aspects. Gadamer (1989, p. 118)

In part one of the Series on the Nature of Inquiry, I proposed that it is vital to inquiry to choose a topic of inquiry that is rich and generous enough to embrace all of those who venture into it. Rather that breaking up a topic/topography into developmentally appropriate “bits,” inquiry leaves the topic/topography intact and finds ways that we can all venture into it with our differences. By beginning with this image of a rich, living topographies as the places where we come across our students in an inquiry, many of the commonplaces of educational discourse take on a new and invigorating emphasis.

Once such change of emphasis is around this commonplace: each individual student will make sense of his or her venture in her or his own ways. As the saying goes, each student “brings to” this topography different backgrounds, experiences, skills, interests, likes and dislikes, hopes, boredoms, learning style, family troubles, previous school experiences, and so on. Each student, so to speak, “constructs” an understanding of the venture from his or her own point of view. What can happen if we follow the logic of this commonplace is that each of us can be imagined as somehow “having” one of a whole “subjective variety of conceptions.”

In an inquiry, this commonplace about the “individual student” doesn’t disappear. It is simply treated differently.

Certainly each individual student develops his or her own understanding of the topography that is ventured into (geometry, say, or Ancient Greece, or the ways of punctuation in the grammarye of English). However, in an inquiry, this sentence requires a particular emphasis: each individual student develops his or her own understanding of the topography. That is to say, in an inquiry, each individual student’s understanding in this venture is treated as an understanding of the place and not simply of the individual student. It is treated pedagogically rather than pathologically. That is to say, in an inquiry, the task is to take up a particular student’s question as a way of opening up to conversation and question the rich possibilities of the place. How might this individual student’s question help us see something about the place that might have been lost but for this question? The multiple, various and differing questions and experiences that each individual student brings forward are treated, not as an aggregate of a “subjective variety of conceptions” that each belong to each individual, but as openings and enrichments and articulations of “[the topic’s] own possibilities of being.” Each person’s work is therefore taken up as adding itself to the richness of the place that we all find ourselves living in. This is why Gadamer (1989, 140) suggests that such living topics undergo an “increase in being” because of our ventures. As our understanding of a topic increases, the topic gets better and better, richer and richer, more and more constituted by hidden histories and ancestries and voices that had been forgotten or ignored. In an inquiry, then, we can begin to see that the topics outlined in our curriculum guides can be treated as living topics, living, ongoing, unfinished conversations to which we add our own voices in venturing into them in order to understand.

Part of the undeniable task of being a teacher is that there are times when it is pedagogically necessary to take up an individual student’s questions about a topic as helping us see something about the individual student. However, when we developmentally disassemble a topic and dole it out to an individual student in light of what we presume about their “individual needs” we run the risk of the student not being able to show us the full range of what they know because the work they’ve been allotted won’t allow it. I am suggesting that we are far more able to see something about the individuality of a student in the process of an inquiry into a rich, living, generous topography that can allow such difference to show.


Gadamer, H.G. (1989). Truth and Method. New York: Continuum Books.