Community of Enquiry Pedagogy 

An Overview

Quotes from Students' Critical Reasoning in the Classroom course (CLTD Course evaluation 28 August 2009):

“The Community of Enquiry was what impressed me the most and I think it helped challenge our thinking with peers.”

“Tutorials are inclusive. Tutorials give everyone the chance to be involved.”

“The grouping of us in circles around the lecturer was good. What added to that being interesting was that every student participated freely with doubting his or her contributions. Questioning and exercises were random and captivating.”

“...he got the entire class thinking”

“What impressed me the most what that we had a very interesting discussion during the tuts and everybody got the chance to say whatever they thought was right without being critisisd.”

“No answer is less than any of the answers, because if you have to justify your answers it becomes more valuable.”

“[What impressed the most is] How the learners were engaged in the group discussions. Collective active participation.”

“The fact that the lecturer was promoting engagement of the students really impressed me, because it shows that she valued the students’ thoughts.”

“[What impressed the most is the] Discovery method where students discover things by themselves.”

What is it?

This pedagogy emphasises the importance of enquiry/questioning skills, imaginative and meaningful dialogue, and careful reasoning/reflection in the process of education. It aims to improve students’ abilities to think creatively, critically, caringly and collaboratively through well-guided discussion. The teacher’s role is that of facilitator and the class learns to evolve as a ‘community of enquiry’, defined as a rigorous, democratic and reflective approach to discussion built up over time with the same group of learners. This powerful pedagogy reinvigorates learning and teaching experiences. Laurance Splitter and Ann Margaret Sharp, who have written extensively on the subject, prefer not to give a definition of a community of enquiry, because it is one of those key concepts, they say, that takes on new aspects and dimensions as teachers and students apply it and modify it to their purposes. Each community of enquiry is unique.

How did it begin?

American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was the first to fuse together the terms ‘community’ and ‘enquiry’ in the domain of scientific inquiry, but it was Matthew Lipman (who introduced the phrase to describe) what he developed as the pedagogy of an innovative approach to teaching and learning called Philosophy for Children (P4C). This programme was initially developed to teach the subject philosophy by Professor Matthew Lipman and his associates at the I.A.P.C. (Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children) at Montclair State College, New Jersey, USA in the late 1960’s. Rapidly it has been adopted and adapted to various formal and informal teaching situations and also incorporated in various subjects and disciplines, such as social work, mathematics, sociology, psychology. P4C’s roots lie in the philosophical practice of Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.

Intelligent conversations

It has been claimed that the pedagogy of a community of enquiry is based on the Vygotskyan assumption that students will learn to think for themselves if they engage in the social practice of thinking together. Dialogue can be understood as the externalisation of thinking, and thinking as the internalisation of dialogue.The idea is that the internalisation of the ‘voices’ that build on each other’s ideas in a community of enquiry will lead to a richer, more varied ‘inner’ dialogue and, as a result, a better, more reasonable thinking, through ‘self-correction’. Reasonableness is broader than rationality as it includes the social and emotional dimension of thinking.

Which teaching materials can you use?

In principle anything can be used that is engaging, complex, thought-provoking, and opens up a space for thinking, curiosity, puzzlement and the search for meaning and truth. Teaching materials can include a range of texts, such as curriculum material, museums, bodies, children’s literature, maps, images, objects, music and events. At the School of Education, University of Cape Town we also use the community of enquiry as a pedagogy for the small group tutorials that follow the lectures. Questions raised come either from the lecture or, more often, from carefully selected parts of the course reading pack. Ideally groups are not larger than 30 and diverse.

How does it work?

Building a Community of enquiry

  • Sharing a text: The tutor brings some reading, viewing or listening material which the group will share together as a starting point for the enquiry.
  • Thinking time: Once the material has been introduced and made accessible to all the students, they take time to think. This time may be spent in silence, or drawing or writing notes in response to the starting point.
  • Discussing in pairs/small groups: In pairs, students explore the material briefly and develop some questions.
  • Questioning: Students devise their own questions; and it is examination and pursuit of them that forms the enquiry. The teacher does not offer questions unless invited to do so.
  • Discussing: The teacher helps the students search together for an answer to the question they themselves have chosen.
  • Building: Students are encouraged to build on each other’s ideas during the discussion.
  • Closure: The teacher brings the enquiry to a close, and the members air suggestions for the next time (and discuss any follow-up work or homework).
  • Evaluation: The student and teacher evaluate the enquiry (at group and individual level) and share their achievements.

What is the role of the tutor/teacher?

The educator is more like a facilitator and needs not only to be knowledgable, but also a good listener. This means of course, s/he needs to be open-minded, tactful, responsive, challenging, respectful and a skilful questioner in ways that enable students to express ideas, get greater clarity, explore a wide range of possible answers to questions and to express reasons for their beliefs and theories.

How does it help to develop creativity and critical thinking?

The community of enquiry creates conditions in which thinkers can flourish because the medium is mainly oral, and they create the agenda. Participants are given time to think, and opportunities to rehearse ideas. There are no ‘right answers’, and all ideas are given a fair and equal hearing. Arguments are cross examined and strengthened. Answers are provisional. Support is given to ‘alternative’ positions and to minority points of view. Disagreement is normalised and there is freedom to change one’s mind. The teacher is not the ‘ultimate authority’, the source of all knowledge, which means there is an enabling shift in power relations.