Communities of Inquiry

The conception of a Community of Inquiry is usually attributed to Charles Pierce, an American scientist and philosopher, in the 19th century. He coined the phrase for use much as today we use the phrase ‘the Scientific Community’ – a collection of people with shared purposes and procedures communicating and collaborating with each other.

A later American philosopher, John Dewey, whilst recognising its use in similar academic contexts, e.g. a Community of Historical Inquiry, also idealised it as mechanism for healthy democracy. The idea(l) was that the best way to meet the ever-changing problems of society was through open-minded inquiry of a collective nature. Over 100 years later it is clear that the realities of politics are quite different.

The idea might have faded away altogether if it had not been for the new life that Matthew Lipman gave it. In the early days of P4C, he and his chief associate, Ann Margaret Sharp, realised that philosophical inquiry in the classroom provided the perfect testing ground for real time interpersonal inquiry.

The model that P4C developed, especially the 4Cs of P4C – Caring and Collaborative, Creative and Critical thinking – provides a perfect template for practising the skills of inquiry.

This is partly because philosophical questions typically deal with big ideas or concepts that are relevant and accessible to everyone, young and old, such as freedom, family, friends, fun and fear. 

It is also because the raw material of such inquiry is usually the recalled experiences and lessons of those involved, which are collectively reconceptualised, rather than matters that require complex research. (It may, however, be agreed by the community that out-of-session research might be needed to resolve relevant questions of fact.)

Two other points: I have no doubt that practice in Communities of Philosophical Inquiry develops attitudes and skills that carry over to learning in other lessons. I have reviewed many an inquiry of this sort by checking against both Costa’s Habits of Mind, and the IB Learner profile and attitudes, and always there is a tick against almost every item in the list. The evidence for transfer is less clearcut, but many a teacher reports that P4C creates significant and positive change in the ethos of their classroom.

The other is to emphasise that the democratic nature of the Community of Inquiry is an important part of its power, with the experience and perspective of each participant being equally respected. (N.B. This is not to say that every argument is equally respectable. The Community critiques arguments, not persons.)

Copyright © 2017, Roger Sutcliffe, All rights reserved