Skip to content

Blog post Part of special issue: Educators learning through communities of philosophical enquiry

Community of enquiry, ethics education and the tensile teacher

Grace Lockrobin, Director of Philosophy for Children and Communities at SAPERE

Among their many responsibilities, teachers are ethics educators. This role requires significant tensile strength because when teachers take it on, they feel pulled in two directions at once.

Day-to-day, ethics education is largely a matter of instruction. The ethics-educator-as-instructor will articulate, defend, promote, praise, reward, exemplify, model, uphold and police ‘conventional standards of good character and conduct’ (Robinson, 2016, p. 44). Instruction is an example of directive ethics education.

However, ethics is a contested domain and instruction alone will not equip students with a rounded ethics education. In order to encounter the conflicting views of others and develop the skills and dispositions necessary to resolve ethical dilemmas with good judgement, learners must also engage in enquiry via pedagogies such as the community of enquiry (CoE). This calls for the ethics-educator-as-facilitator.

‘In order to encounter the conflicting views of others and develop the skills and dispositions necessary to resolve ethical dilemmas with good judgement, learners must also engage in enquiry via pedagogies such as the community of enquiry.’

The facilitator encourages open-ended, conceptually focused dialogue, fuelled by questioning that, for the most part, ‘doesn’t offer any new ideas or information to the group but simply attempts to make visible, clarify, or connect what has already emerged’ (Kennedy, 2014, p. 755). Where a facilitator does introduce new information, questions or lines of enquiry, these contributions are not designed to lead the class to a particular conclusion.

When an educator reflects on these roles, they begin to feel the pull:

‘How can a teacher create space in which ethical standards can be challenged – even rejected – in the spirit of intellectually vigorous philosophical enquiry, whilst simultaneously upholding and reinforcing them as non-negotiable expectations?’ (Robinson, 2016, p. 45)

A possible solution to this tension comes from Michael Hand who urges teachers to employ directive teaching within the community of enquiry, when teaching so-called ‘non-controversial moral standards’ such as ‘do not steal’ (2020, p. 11).

However, even assuming that such standards exist, it is a mistake to reduce ethical enquiry to their justification. As Michelle Sowey and I argue (2020), within a CoE we also enquire into the meaning of ethical concepts and we look at the complexity of applying our understanding of those concepts, and the standards we endorse, to particular cases. In dialogic space, even supposedly uncontroversial claims can be contested: If you take something you earned, have you stolen it? What if you take something stolen from you? (Sowey & Lockrobin, 2020, p. 41).

Ethical instruction will be enough to bring students to an appreciation of the general rule, ‘do not steal’. But a student who knows this ‘uncontroversial’ standard is not yet ethically educated – even if they subscribe to the rule and try to abide by it. This is because standards have limited legislative reach, life throws up a myriad of exceptions to rules, and to apply rules requires perceptive judgement. This judgement is forged in enquiry – an environment where students enjoy both the freedom to try out ideas and the responsibility for the ideas that they accept. Sooner or later, they must embrace this freedom and responsibility, because beyond the school gates there is no ethics-educator-as-instructor who can adjudicate for them.

When a teacher facilities CoE well, they offer students the freedom and responsibility to explore the meaning of ethical concepts and their application to complex cases, along with the competing justifications for moral standards – that is, they cultivate the intellectual and moral virtues demanded by ethical life. But teachers will feel pulled back towards instruction, sometimes rightly so: contributors will say things that are prejudiced or misinformed; they will miss obvious arguments and fixate on minor details. These moments require the teacher to make her own micro-ethical-judgements about when to step in and when to hold back.

Herein lies the transformative nature of ethics education. When the teacher is pulled, she must consider the boundary between what she decrees and what the students may dispute. The line is porous. The tensile teacher reflects, but she doesn’t snap – she becomes stronger. She may even appreciate that her role is not only an ethics educator but an ethical educator. Ideally, teaching ethics is a process that cultivates the teacher as well as the student.


Hand, M., (2020). Moral education in the community of inquiry. Journal of Philosophy in Schools, 7(2).

Kennedy, D. (2004). The philosopher as teacher: The role of a facilitator in a community of philosophical inquiry. Metaphilosophy, 35(5), 744–765.

Robinson, G., [now Lockrobin]. (2016). Feeling the pull: Ethical enquiry and the tension it creates for teachers. Analytic Teaching and Philosophical Praxis, 36(1), pp. 44–54. 

Sowey, M., & Lockrobin, G. (2020). Against directive teaching in the moral community of inquiry: A response to Michael Hand. Journal of Philosophy in Schools, 7(2).\