Community of enquiry and Philosophy for Children

(from the ideas of Robert Fisher)

Creating a thinking circle

A community of enquiry can be described as a thinking circle. The seating of participants in a circle, or its near equivalent such as a horse-shoe, allows for equality of position with maximum vision within the group.

Community setting

The ideal arrangement is to sit in a circle, either on chairs or on the floor. Many teachers find that creating a physical setting that approximates to a ‘thinking circle’ helps to model and create a sense of com¬munity that encourages participation. It is most important that every member of the class has the opportunity to enter into the discussion. 

Teachers use a variety of strategies to help create a special setting and ambience for discussion time. Some put a sign outside the door, such as: “Do not disturb - Philosophy in progress”, or find a special place in the school for uninterrupted discussion.

Presenting a stimulus

A stimulus is the starting point for enquiry. It is something to stimulate the creative, critical or imaginative response in the pupils. It will engage attention and stimulate enquiry.

There are many different kinds of stimulus. It could be a story or episode from a philosophical novel. The community might be asked to share the reading. Other forms of stimulus could include the presentation of one key question, a poem, observation of an artefact, a picture, listening to music, viewing a video or a shared experience (visit).

The stimulus could relate to any area of the curriculum, but should be interesting enough to arouse curiosity and invite reflection and discussion.

After the initial stimulus, thinking time should be allowed so that sufficient time is given for sustained attention and reflection. At this point pupils should be encouraged to ask themselves questions and to think about what was interesting, strange or puzzling.

Listing questions

Distinctive to the thinking circle is the experience of having time to think, reflect and question. Thinking time should follow the experience of the stimulus to allow children to reflect on what is interesting, puzzling or problematic about what was presented.

During this time, the children think of a comment or question to share with the group. They do this in pairs. The children are setting the agenda for discussion. It is they who are interrogating the stimulus and their own thinking. Give the children some paper if necessary to write down the questions. Younger children may have difficulty in coming up with a question which will produce useful discussion. We are after “philosophical” questions – they often begin with “how”, “why”, “what”.

The questions are then shared with the class and listed on the board for all to see. It is customary for the child’s name to be written alongside their question, both to identify the questioner and to provide public recognition of the contribution a child has made to the enquiry.

Choosing a question for discussion

The method for choosing a question to discuss should be reasonable, democratic and agreeable to the majority of participants.

Methods could include: lottery, list order, voting with first past the post, second round system. It is recommended that children are given experience of different methods. 

Facilitating the discussion

The facilitator’s task is to encourage the expression of as many different ideas and opinions as possible in the group.

The function of the facilitator involves pushing for depth, not to be content with the mere articulation of ideas but to ask continually “Why…what do you mean by” or by providing a challenging counter-argument. 

The approach is that of a systematic, serious and sustained enquiry. 

Rules for enquiry

One session needs to be spent thinking about what rules would be useful for the discussions. A pair-share approach means children first think individually, then in pairs and then report to the whole class. The process moves from inner talk to oral expression to written form. Other small groups can be used. 

Rules for discussion should be posted up for all to see as an aide memoire, e.g. Take everyone’s views into consideration; always listen carefully; be sensible; be polite, disagree respectfully, etc.

Listening and responding

Both the facilitator and the children need to demonstrate the skills of listening and responding. When we are listened to, we feel that who we are and the value of what we have to say, are affirmed.

Responsive listening is giving undivided and thoughtful attention in a way that communicates genuine acceptance and empathy:


  • Try to avoid paraphrasing a child’s ideas, but rather try to get the words spoken when writing down a child’s comment or question.
  • Use “Socratic questioning” or a discussion plan which focuses upon a particular concept.
  • The facilitator models attentive response and a keen interest in the ideas of others.

Leading the discussion

The following elements of mediation can be provided by the teacher:

  • focusing and maintaining relevance by directing attention to important points and issues
  • seeking meaning by asking for reasons, explanation or clarification of ideas
  • expanding by showing links between ideas and links to new ideas for discussion
  • discouraging the tendency of students to focus on their own ideas rather than responding to and building on the ideas of others.

The aim is to enable group members to experience the many¬ sides of concepts and to achieve a better understanding of the topic under discussion through shared enquiry.

Shared enquiry is achieved by:

  • encouraging children to talk and listen to each other rather than to direct all their talk through the teacher
  • helping children to focus on what is being said – e.g., no-one puts their hand up to speak until someone has finished what they want to say
  • asking each participant to say who they are responding to, by agreeing or disagreeing or adding to what the previous speaker has said – e.g. “I agree with Julie because…"
  • distributing “interruption” cards which can be used once in the discussion if what they want to say can’t wait
  • giving each member of the group five tokens which they must place down after every contribution that they make
  • arranging for half the group sitting outside the circle as observers noting the strengths and weaknesses in the discussion. They then change places so that each has a turn at discussing and as observers or reporters.

Closing the discussion

Although the enquiry does not end with the discussion but is part of a continuing process of questioning and reflection, there needs to be a closure. 

The closure can be achieved by:

  • summarising – either by the teacher or the children (after a paired discussion)
  • providing an opportunity for last words or final comments from the children in reviewing the session:
  • What good questions did we ask?

  • Did we change/improve any ideas?

  • What did we learn from it?
    How could we make it better in the future?

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