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Communities of Inquiry in Undergraduate Education: Part 1

Updated: May 27, 2020

‘at its core, education is about active engagement of students with inherited knowledge, with new research, and with more senior academic guides and mentors. Of course, education is also about preparing students for life in the wider world, for careers, and for making a contribution to the community.’ (Prof Stephen Toope, The future of UK universities)


It seems to me that this extract from a blog post of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge captures, in a very succinct way, the essential purposes of Higher Education.

Students engage actively with knowledge, in the process developing themselves as critical, creative and caring thinkers. This prepares students to take their place in professional life and in society. Our task, as teachers in higher education, is to help to make a reality of this vision of higher education. I argue that this can be achieved by trying to create classroom communities of inquiry.

What is a community of inquiry?

A community of inquiry has been described as:

any group that makes it its collective task to construct new meaning in a field of knowledge through collab­orative, dialogical deliberation’ (Kennedy and Kennedy, 2012); and

a group of individuals who collectively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding’ (Garrison, 2011)

In a sense, this is a ‘back to the future’ vision of teaching and learning in higher education; small groups of students work with a more experienced teacher to actively create new understandings, new knowledge.

The communities of inquiry pedagogy calls to mind the idea of the Oxford tutorial. Students use the knowledge resources and ways of thinking that characterize their discipline and produce their own solutions to some of the major problems that interest experts in the field.

Maharg (2007) comments that. ‘active learning should be structured upon the intellectual tasks required by disciplines’. Through this process of active learning, students learn to think like experts. They are inducted into scholarly and professional communities of practice.

Learning is inquiry not memorisation

The communities of inquiry pedagogy is process-driven; learning is about the ability to engage in the process of inquiry carefully and competently. Teaching is about ‘content discoursed upon, actively researched and represented interactively in real social settings’ (Jones, 2011). It is not about learning a collection of right answers.

This contrasts with a commonly encountered ‘information transmission’ approach to teaching and learning which places the accurate transmission of an 'official’ body of knowledge from teacher to student at the heart of education. Learning, on this view, involves memorizing this knowledge and reproducing it in an examination. Students ‘acquire bits of knowledge that, like ice cubes … remain inert and incapable of interacting with one another’ (Lipman, 2003).

The communities of inquiry approach invites students to engage in collaborative knowledge-building; in the community of inquiry, students build on pre-existing knowledge and shared perspectives to create new knowledge. Not so in the information transmission approach.

The communities of inquiry approach helps students to understand that knowledge is socially constructed by professionals working in their disciplines. In the communities of inquiry approach, students learn through collaborative discourse; in a sense, they teach each other under the supervision of a more experienced and knowledgeable guide.

The communities of inquiry approach sees value in the work done by students that includes but goes far beyond the awarding of a grade. Learning is about engaging in and reflecting on the process of critical inquiry.

The information transmission approach, by contrast, sees students as spectators of the research process and passive recipients of its fruits. It is an approach that is all too easy to fall into given the demands of a curriculum to be covered, large numbers of students to be taught and even the physical layout of the lecture theatre.

It is not that lecturing, even information transmission, has no place in the community of inquiry; it is just that lecturing and other ways of inducting students into disciplinary knowledge are subordinate to student inquiry. They are examples of scaffolding that allow the student to get further, more quickly, than might otherwise be possible.

The community of inquiry offers the right pedagogical basis for e-learning

Helping students to engage actively with inherited knowledge and with the work of knowledge creation takes on extra urgency with the advent of learning management systems and other e-learning tools. These tools can facilitate careful, critical, collaborative discourse in a community of inquiry; they make possible student production of useful knowledge artefacts such as blog posts, videos and podcasts. Equally, they can replicate and reinforce the information transmission approach. The starting point is the pedagogical design chosen by the teacher. As Selwyn (2014) reminds us, there is no guarantee that the hoped for benefits of digital technologies will be realized.

The challenge of collaborative learning

Creating classroom communities of inquiry clearly presents challenges for the teacher. Students may have little prior experience of working in collaborative groups. They may have a lively awareness of the ways in which things might go wrong, without having received any guidance as to how these pitfalls can be managed or accommodated. They may not appreciate the professional benefits of learning how to work collaboratively. Law students may feel more accustomed to an established model based on individual competition and assessment that is designed to sort the ‘strong’ from the ‘weak’ (Zimmerman, 1999).

The Practical Inquiry Model

Garrison et al (2000) provides a four stage ‘Practical Inquiry Model’ of the process of critical inquiry in a community of inquiry:

  1. A ‘triggering event’ (some difficult text, issue or research question that evokes a sense of puzzlement, that there is something troubling but interesting, that requires and merits investigation);

  2. ‘Exploration’ (a divergent phase involving discussion and information sharing);

  3. ‘Integration’ (a convergent phase where students synthesise the ideas that they have discovered or generated and propose solutions); and

  4. ‘Resolution’ (real-world testing and defence of the solutions proposed).

This model provides a template for teachers in the work of design and for the process of engaging in and reflecting on the process of collaborative, critical discourse. It also provides a model of the process of inquiry that can be used to explain this process to students. Part of the promise of the community of inquiry is that students can internalize an understanding the processes of critical thought by applying it and seeing it applied in the work of the community of inquiry.

The resolution phase of the community of inquiry can be thought of as an opportunity for students to develop ideas that are a useful contribution to public knowledge. Scardamalia and Bereiter (2006) comment that creative knowledge work, ‘advances the state of knowledge within some community of practice’ involving the creation of ‘epistemic artefacts’. They suggest that, ‘'student-generated theories and models are to be judged not so much by their conformity to accepted knowledge as by their value as tools enabling further growth’.

Students as knowledge producers

Chang (2005) provides an example of what is possible. Students in a final year undergraduate course in the History of Science were each required to carry out a research project, with each project relating to a common theme, ‘that was focused yet flexible .. conducive to building a community that could accommodate students with various interests and inclinations’. The theme chosen was the history of the chemical element chlorine.

The student projects completed by one cohort were handed down to students in the next year for them to improve upon. Some of the projects were being developed as articles for publication in scholarly journals and the author intended to gather the projects together as a book for publication. This project reveals, in Chang’s words, that: ‘[l]earning can go beyond knowledge acquisition to take the form of knowledge production’.

The benefits of the communities of inquiry approach

Creating classroom communities of inquiry can develop students’ critical thinking and research skills. By making the process of critical inquiry explicit, it can help students’ develop an understanding of their own capacity to engage in critical inquiry. Working in groups can help students to be aware of any gaps in their own knowledge or ideas. The communities of inquiry approach gives students the opportunity to practice working in small collaborative groups; a very important skill in the contemporary workplace.

Golding (2015) argues that members benefit from participation in the community of inquiry because they: clarify their personal conceptions and make them more explicit; better understand the inquiry topic and the concepts of other participants; arrive at better conceptions than they could have articulated before participating; and develop a stronger community.

The communities of inquiry approach can develop students’ digital literacies if they are asked to produce, for example, a blog post, video or podcast. Students can learn to present their ideas in these digital forms. Kennedy and Kennedy (2012) point out the new communicative possibilities opened up by the online environment; a new balance is struck between orality, literacy and the imagistic. They also make the point that online writing is a distinctive ‘orality-tinged’ form which is always for a real and immediate other.

The communities of inquiry approach helps students to see that knowledge is embedded in professional or scholarly communities of practice; that it is the fruit of work carried on in those communities and that it is always provisional and open to development. It offers students the possibility of seeing themselves as legitimate peripheral participants in those communities (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

Students are no longer spectators of the work of inquiry that goes on in universities but take part in it themselves. Students are offered the opportunity to acquire a new identity, a new way of making sense of their place in higher education and a new way of appraising the significance of the work that they do at university.

Communities of inquiry in the age of super-complexity

Understanding the ethos of the community of inquiry, learning how to contribute effectively to the work of a community of inquiry, is more important than ever before. Traditional ways of organizing knowledge through the professions are subject to disruption due to the rise of Artificial Intelligence (Susskind and Susskind, 2015). Education has to prepare students for life in the Knowledge Economy and the Knowledge Society (Hargreaves, 2003).

In the era of fake news, the ability, developed through the process of higher education ‘to distinguish sense from nonsense’ (Barnett, 1990) is more important than ever; the communities of inquiry approach engages students in the process of collaborative, critical inquiry that is characteristic of higher education.

Barnett (2000) argues that we now live in a world, not of complexity, but of supercomplexity: ‘a world where nothing can be taken for granted, where no frame of understanding or of action can be entertained with any security’. As a result, ‘[h]igher education is called upon to develop meta-qualities of self-reliance ... that will enable graduates not just to survive amid super-complexity but also to prosper in it and even to go on contributing to it’. Carefully constructed communities of inquiry, I suggest, can be important elements of higher education for the age of supercomplexity.


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(2000) Supercomplexity and the curriculum. Studies in Higher Education, 25:3, 255 - 265

Chang H, (2005) Turning an undergraduate class into a professional research community. Teaching in Higher Education. 10:3, 387 – 394

Garrison, D. (2011) E-learning in the 21st century: a framework for research and practice. New York: Routledge

Garrison, D., Anderson, T. and Archer, W. (2000) Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education. 2, 87 – 105

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Jones, A. (2011) Teaching history through communities of inquiry. Australian Historical Studies. 42, 168 - 193

Kennedy, D. and Kennedy, N. (2012) Community of philosophical inquiry online and off: Retrospectus and prospectus. In Akyol, Z. and Garrison, R. Educational communities of inquiry: theoretical foundations, research and practice. Hershey, Pa: IGI Global, pp. 12 – 29

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Scardamalia, M and Bereiter. C. (2006) Knowledge building. Theory, pedagogy and technology. In Sawyer, K. (ed.) Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press

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Zimmerman, C. (1999) "Thinking beyond my own interpretation:" Reflections on collaborative and cooperative learning theory in the Law School curriculum. Arizona State Law Journal. 31, 957 - 1020

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