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

Price and prize in the community of philosophical enquiry

Graeme Tiffany, Independent Researcher and Education Consultant at N/A

Community of philosophical enquiry (CPE) methodology is usually associated with Philosophy for Children (P4C) in schools, although it is used also in a variety of informal, non-formal and (other) formal educational settings. Proponents of community of enquiry tend to have one thing in common: they are passionate about participative and democratic educational practices. For all, ‘the prize’ is being able to work in the kind of way that first attracted them to teaching.

Schools tend to value P4C as a means to help pupils develop capacities those institutions consider educational goods, including critical reasoning skills and emotional and social development. Typically, these goods are articulated in terms of ‘impacts’, ‘outcomes’ and ‘effects’, which implicitly render them ‘ends-oriented’. In conversation, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education Wilf Carr once asked me: ‘Why do we so often ask: “What is education for?”, and so rarely: “What is education?”’ Therein lies the ‘price’. Locating P4C in an instrumentalised paradigm degrades its democratic character. Conversely, informal and community educators have greater freedoms, to work in negotiated, dialogical, and non-‘outcomes-prescribed’ ways – a prize derived of these ‘alternative’ educational geographies.

The community of enquiry is a way of learning, a process, a social practice. It demands working in ‘uncertainty-appreciative’ ways, wherein communities determine their own ends. This is the very antithesis of instrumentalisation. For example, in Community Philosophy, time and care is invested in participatory research that not only helps educators develop and maintain relationships with communities but also generates questions that those communities want to ask, rather than questions being presented to them by others.

How can such instrumentalisation be resisted? Foremost, it is the political geography of who constitutes the community of enquiry. I theorise pupils in schools as ‘captive audiences’ (Tiffany, 2020), and contrast this with the practice of Community Philosophy that works with people voluntarily in non-institutional settings.

This captive context is also defined by a prescribed curriculum and expected outcomes, which constrain the democratic nature of the CPE process. It might be as simple as, for example, pupils concluding the imposition of school uniform is unreasonable, and should therefore be scrapped, but having no power to do so in the face of an institution with ultimate power to dictate other ends. Is this ‘power-neutralised’ reality what explains the absence of a ‘social action’ stage in the model of community of enquiry used in schools?

This is not to say that in Community Philosophy there is no price to pay. The irony is that the time and effort that informal and community educators invest in securing relationships is one that formal educators working in compulsory settings rarely consider. But the prize of this investment is the privilege of working with self-determining communities able to reflect on the learning derived through community enquiry and free to ask: ‘Is there action we might take that builds upon our learning?’

‘The irony is that the time and effort that informal and community educators invest in securing relationships is one that formal educators working in compulsory settings rarely consider.’

While some communities might decide against this, and others might wish to continue their enquiries, others conduct research to illuminate their philosophical findings and commit to social action projects. In the ‘Thinking Village’ project (Tiffany, 2009), community reflections on the issue of antisocial behaviour informed a series of ‘pro-social’ responses, including continued inter-generational dialogue sessions and campaigning activities that were successful in securing new leisure facilities for young people. The process also supports participatory evaluation, which contributes further to feelings of empowerment and a virtuous cycle of ‘think, do, and review’ (Kolb, 1984).

The community of enquiry is a political endeavour. The struggle, then, is for freedom from constraint, and for the advancement of the uncertainty-appreciative and risk-taking practices that emancipatory and democratic education relies upon. Perhaps then there is a wider prize, in resisting and re-imagining autonomy-constraining fake and compulsory ‘communities’, in getting beyond ‘capacity-building’, and actively celebrating ‘outcomes’ – quite literally – in terms of ‘what comes out’, whatever that may be.


Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Prentice-Hall.

Tiffany, G. (2009). Community Philosophy: A project report. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Tiffany, G. (2020). Community Philosophy and social action. In Fulford, A., Lockrobin, G., & Smith, R. (Eds.) Philosophy and community: Theories, practices and possibilities. Bloomsbury.