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Communities of Inquiry and the professional development of legal educators

by Prof. Michael Lower, Associate Professor of Practice in Law, CUHK LAW


In a previous blog post I argued that teaching, including teaching in higher education is a profession. The conception of teacher professionalism that I argued for demands that we, as teachers, can give reasons for our teaching practices.

In a second blog post on the professional knowledge of higher education teachers, made some suggestions for arrangements that universities and departments could put in place to help teachers draw on educational theory and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (‘SoTL’).

In this blog post, I argue that the Communities of Inquiry pedagogy can be used to allow teachers to work in small collaborative groups to engage in reflection on their own practice or to think through important issues related to their teaching practice.

The community of inquiry can be a setting for small groups of teachers to collaborate in projects that draw on, and develop, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

Communities of inquiry

The communities of inquiry pedagogy envisages student collaboration on research projects. The learning process begins when the group identifies a ‘triggering event’, a research question of interest to the students. They brainstorm ideas and search for relevant literature in an ‘exploration phase’. The group then produces some kind of artefact to articulate their answer to the research question in an ‘integration’ phase. This might be a presentation, a blog post, article or report presenting the group’s research work and its findings. Finally, there is a ‘resolution’ phase where the group presents its work to the outside world in a conference or by publishing it in some way.

The communities of inquiry pedagogy lets students learn by engaging in the knowledge creation practices of their discipline. Collaboration allows students to teach other, to generate a wider pool of ideas collectively than any individual might have achieved working alone. Group members have to articulate their ideas and conclusions to each other and so learn to engage in the process of intellectual give and take that characterises higher education. The community of inquiry can also make learning a pleasanter experience by emphasising its social dimensions.

How might a teachers’ community of inquiry work?

It is not only students who can engage in high quality learning by working in communities of inquiry. Teachers at all levels, including teachers in higher education, can form communities of inquiry to reflect on educational issues and on problems rooted in their teaching practice.

We could, for example, imagine a group of academics in a Department (such as a Law School) reflecting on whether to make recordings of their lectures available to students. This question would be the triggering event.

They might explore the issue in a meeting or seminar (or in a series of such events). To prepare for these meetings, they might read some of the SoTL literature on this issue (perhaps especially literature related to their own discipline). They may also interview students or other academics to learn from their experiences and perspectives. These sources would enrich their brainstorming of ideas. This represents the exploration phase of the project.

The integration phase of the project involves the preparation of a presentation, an article, blog post, report or other artefact in which the group presents the question, the group’s interpretation of the literature and data that it has drawn on and its conclusions.

Making the work available to colleagues, perhaps publishing it in some form is the group’s contribution to SoTL. This is the resolution phase of the group’s work.

What are the benefits of teacher communities of inquiry?

There is a lot to be said for having teachers getting into the habit of talking through practice issues in a methodical and reflective way.

There is, for example, no shortage of opinion about the benefits or otherwise of recording lectures and of the various ways in which lecture recordings might be produced and incorporated into teaching and learning.

There is probably no single ‘right’ answer to these questions. There will always be room for legitimate differences of opinion and what is helpful in one context may be less so in another. That said, opinions about teaching questions such as the use of lecture recordings will be more valuable if they are based on reflection, a calm exchange of views and experiences and draw on educational theory and on SoTL.

Teacher communities of inquiry can provide a forum for cultivating reflective practitioners who share their ideas, experiences and practice-based research findings with each other and with colleagues. They offer the prospect for better thinking about educational practice both in the local setting of the Department or Faculty and beyond.

Teacher communities of inquiry can be forums that allow teachers to learn how to frame practice-based research questions and to engage in systematic inquiry drawing on, and contributing to, the professional knowledge base.

Engaging in these communities of inquiry will also help teachers to strengthen their professional identities since one’s identity as a professional is intimately tied up with an active engagement with the profession’s knowledge base. The more intense and creative the engagement, the deeper one’s professionalism.

SoTL on teacher communities of inquiry

Baumfield makes the point that the community of inquiry is an ideal vehicle for the professional development of teachers, ‘as it provides a form in which teachers are more likely to inquire into, and self-correct their own pedagogical methods and habits’.

In an earlier article, Baumfield made the point that establishing teacher communities of inquiry is a challenge. It is one worth accepting, however, since it allows teachers to integrate theory and reflection on practice. It is a form of professional learning that can transform teachers and local teaching and learning practices.

Willemse argues that the community of inquiry approach to the professional development of educators emphasises both group and individual local knowledge construction, the improvement of teaching practice and the development of new curricula.

Teacher communities of inquiry enhance teacher agency and research skills. Like Baumfield, Willemse notes that there are challenges in sustaining commitment to the work of the group. He also suggests that it can be helpful to include educational researchers in the group.

Orchard et al describe the use of the communities of inquiry framework by a community of inquiry comprising an educational researcher and practising teachers, all working in the same discipline. They combined the community of inquiry approach with collective writing to create a ‘Shared Space’.

There is a lot to be said for having the community of inquiry produce a shared text embodying the group’s ideas and conclusions concerning the question being considered by the community of inquiry. The need to produce a shared text provides a focus for the work of the group. It means that there will be an artefact embodying the group’s work that can be used, adapted and shared.

Michael Lower

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