Community of Ethical Inquiry Project Pilot and Evaluation

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Photo of male and female at desk reviewing documentCommunity of Ethical Inquiry Volunteer Training

Volunteers were recruited via the Humanist Society of Victoria. Those who were selected enrolled in the Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools (VAPS) professional development program to acquire skills in facilitating a Community of Inquiry. The course ran for a total of 18 hours, with several additional hours of practice in the classroom. On completing the training program and being situated in a school the Community of Ethical Inquiry volunteers were provided with three newly constructed resources:

  1. Curriculum Guidelines designed by Dr Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper. Topics included rights, responsibilities, punishment and reward, reasons, excuses, telling on people, knowing right from wrong, morality and fairness.
  2. Lesson Planners for Facilitators (designed using Survey Monkey) to record on three templates their preparations for the class, their observations of what actually happened in class, and reflections on what occurred to assist in planning the next sessions.
  3. Thinking Books for Students to record their ideas. Facilitators were asked to invite students to answer all or any of the five sets of questions outlined below, before, during or after any session.

Around half of the applicants completed the course and the assessment successfully. Of these, seven chose to participate as facilitators in the pilot program. Three Victorian government primary schools agreed to participate in the trial program, which occupied Term 4, October to December 2014. One of the schools offered it as an alternative to SRI.

Community of Ethical Inquiry Project Evaluation

In order to investigate the outcomes of this project three research questions were posed:

  1. Was the CEI program feasible?
  2. How could the training be improved?
  3. Is the CEI project worth promoting?

The first question was addressed through analysis of the written materials of students with a view to establishing to what extent primary aged students were capable of engaging in ethical inquiry, in the context of a Community of Inquiry. Two sets of criteria were used: the level of complexity of student assertions and the kinds of questions they asked. The value of the experience to students was also noted. The second question was addressed through examination of the planners completed by facilitators, including their mode of preparation and reflection on their students’ work, as well as a summary of interviews with facilitators. The third question was answered by predicting how these achievements would fit in with future developments in Victoria.

The data collected for the evaluation included:

  • Thinking Books containing questions answered by 85 students
  • eighteen surveys completed by Facilitators on their preparation using Lesson Planners, their observations and reflections on their class
  • recordings of interviews with Principals and Facilitators, conducted informally to ascertain the responses of the school community to the program

Given the small sample size and the limited time frame, the project evaluator, Dr Janette Poulton, could not show that students gained in ethical understanding over the course of this trial. However, the records of students’ varied and fascinating responses to the program demonstrated that grade 5/6 students are capable of engaging in ethical inquiry in the environment established by the volunteers.

The dedicated work of the volunteers in setting up the classroom for dialogical inquiry was also successful in encouraging students to express their ideas freely, as evidenced by their heartfelt appreciation of the opportunity to talk constructively with one another and learn of different points of view.

One of the most challenging features of working in a school classroom is the time restraints. Forty minute sessions are very difficult for the untrained teacher to manage optimally. Nonetheless, the evaluator concluded that volunteers were able to produce an environment conducive to ethical inquiry; that you do not need to be a philosopher or a teacher to achieve this, given sufficient training and experience in setting up a community of inquiry.

The analysis conducted determined that VAPS Level One training could and should be bolstered for non-professional trainees by providing a better understanding of school and its procedures, including classroom management. This could be achieved by having a half day workshop and associated manual.

Another lesson learned was that more scaffolding needs to be provided to assist volunteers in understanding pedagogical strategies. Volunteers need to be encouraged to commit to using resources, such as planners and journals. Not being versed in literacy issues, they can underestimate the benefits of including written reflection as a regular activity. For example, the Thinking Books were introduced so as to help students both structure and modify their thoughts, rather than simply to record isolated ideas.

Finally there a number of basic philosophical moves that the volunteer needs to eventually master, such as distinguishing ‘Criteria’ from ‘Essences’. On-going training also needs to be provided to support the development of facilitators’ reasoning and reflection skills.

The result of this project is likely to excite parents and the extended school community to become more involved in the development of ethical understandings. Continuing with the project would provide opportunity to support governmental initiatives with regard to ethics.

HSV has demonstrated the feasibility of training volunteers to run CEI, although they may be better placed as assistants than as independent facilitators. Given the work that VAPS is doing to train teachers to address the General Capabilities, there is certainly the possibility of continued work for HSV and like-minded bodies in identifying volunteers amongst families and non-teaching staff in school communities who might assist in this development.

Volunteers can assist the school to get an ethics program started, by identifying suitable resources and by providing classroom support alongside a teacher, such as in organizing stimulus materials, writing the students’ ideas on the board, using concepts maps and other organizational tools, and assisting with small group activities.

VAPS would be honored to support HSV volunteers’ development as participants and facilitators of communities of ethical inquiry. Another possibility would be to support the development of a training team, through the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations (FAPSA) Level Two train-the-trainer course. This is conducted each year in January. HSV may even wish to consider developing their own unique model of training based on the COI.


Thanks to HSV members and especially Harry Gardner, John Russell and Stephen Stuart; HSV volunteer facilitators; staff and students of the volunteer primary schools; Dr Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper; VAPS training team; Dr Philip Cam, Dr Patrick Stokes, Ms Sharon Lomas.

Download a printable PDF version of Bringing Ethical Understanding to Primary Schools

  1. Project Background
  2. Philosophy and Methodology
  3. Training Community of Ethical Inquiry Volunteers
  4. Project Pilot and Evaluation