Finding community in diversity

Anthony Cupitt, English Teacher

In a recent Insights article published in BGGS News, Brisbane Girls Grammar School Deputy Principal, Mrs Anna Owen, stated the case for diverse thinking as ‘a variety of perspectives and thoughts [that] stimulate individuals to examine and carefully think through their own opinions’.

This notion resurfaced as I read the reflective essays written by my Year 12 English class. Reading the girls’ insightful responses as they grappled with ideas presented in Hamlet, including misogyny, revenge and surveillance, I smiled at their ability to variously accept and reject aspects of the play. As they interrogated the play and their subsequent reactions with equal scrutiny, I was certain that not only were they learning to think, but to think about their own thinking.

The ‘variety of perspectives’ with which these students engage as they ‘think through their own opinions’, taps into an argument at the heart of the national curriculum. Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT), one of the general capabilities (that is, skills every student is expected to develop) of the curriculum is embedded in each subject area. It involves students solving problems, but also understanding what they should do when they encounter new problems and ideas or engage in an argument. In short, CCT aims to develop students into confident, autonomous problem solvers.

The fundamentals of CCT are, of course, clear to see in even the youngest of scholars. Engage any four-year-old in conversation, and you are bound to be asked one of the three great questions: ‘What’s that?’ (the question of ontology); ‘How do you know?’ (the question of epistemology); and ‘Why should I?’ (the question of ethics). When harnessed in the classroom, these scholarly impulses can be shaped into a ‘Community of Inquiry’, a term coined by Matthew Lipman, who founded the Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement in the 1970s to ‘encourage reasonableness in citizens’ — a worthy goal indeed (D’Olimpio, 2014).

Rather than quashing this spirit of inquiry, P4C encourages student-led discussions, facilitated by a teacher who is open to diversity of thought. While this can be a change to previous behaviour, students quickly learn the importance of respect through the discussion of ideas. This is what makes the Community of Inquiry a community. Guidelines for discussions help students listen to each other, think about and build upon each other’s ideas, respect them and accept that there is often no single ‘correct’ solution to a problem.

Problems are explored through the key principle of clarity. Students agree on, and define, terms relevant to the problem. They agree on the point at issue, so they do not — unlike so many of our elected representatives — become side-tracked by minor details. They can then start to formulate and experiment with arguments, test different reasonings, identify hidden premises, and limit ambiguity by a willingness to go back to the beginning and revise items upon which they have already agreed.

Communities of Inquiry engage in discussions, not debates. They are not trying to ‘win’ by defeating each other, but rather, work with each other to solve the problem together. It is necessary for them to take time and reflect, as they need to support their ideas with reasoning. Critically, and in another key difference from the adversarial strictures of debating and parliament, students learn that it is reasonable to change their minds, if an idea they had previously agreed with has had its flaws exposed.

The healthy exchange of ideas, guided by principles of clarity and respect, allows students in a Community of Inquiry to address difficult and relevant questions in a non-adversarial manner: under what circumstances a person should lie; what it means to live a good life; whether there is anything we can know with absolute certainty; what makes something a work of art; or whether it makes sense to talk about natural rights. This community requires diversity to function, as — in contrast — a homogeneous community of students and faculty, all with the same thoughts would agree on everything, inhibiting the emergence of new ideas.

Communities of Inquiry don’t just make for dynamic classrooms — they propel students toward success beyond school. According to Piovarchy and D’Olimpio (2016), philosophy students in the USA score the highest out of any discipline in tests used for admission to graduate schools. The same research suggests that students who embrace philosophical thinking are more likely to achieve stronger academic results, as well as having ‘better self-esteem’ and ‘the demonstration of empathy for others’ (D’Olimpio, 2014).

Beyond these pragmatic concerns, critical and creative thinking also allows students to resist the powers of conformity and self-censorship that threaten the free and open exchange of ideas. The 2009 UNESCO report, ‘Teaching Philosophy in Asia and the Pacific’, recognises the value of philosophical thinking to ‘the business of exploring alternative possibilities and different points of view through dialogue and discussion’. These are the pillars of democratic decision-making and citizenship, supporting the broad, liberal education for which Girls Grammar is renowned.

In an age when corporations and governments collect data about citizens from social media to calculate ‘reputation scores’ and ‘exert social pressure to be a good citizen’, we need our students to resist the pressure of what Dutch technology critic, Tijmen Schep, refers to as ‘social cooling’ — the increasing conformity and rigidity of citizens so petrified by potential criticism, that they censor or second guess what they do or say (O’Neill and Donoughue, 2017).

True diversity is more than skin deep, and more than a cultural buzzword. It stems from open dialogue among a variety of perspectives, based on mutual respect and a commitment to honesty and clarity in discussion. This is the diversity of thought on which a broad, liberal education is based and that I am proud to see in classrooms across Brisbane Girls Grammar School. Perhaps Hamlet’s tragic ending could have been avoided if anyone had thought to listen to Polonius’ one piece of good advice, when he tells his son to ‘Take each man’s censure [opinion], but reserve thy judgement’. I think I will ask my Year 12s for their opinions, and we may discover some new ideas together.


ACARA (2017) Critical and Creative Thinking. Retrieved from

D’Olimpio (2014) Why children should study philosophy. The Conversation. Retrieved from

O’Neill, Margot and Donoughue, Paul (2017) Social cooling: Does the fear of surveillance make you self-conscious about what you click on? Retrieved from

Owen, Anna (2017) The importance of diversity of thought. BGGS News 35(23).

Piovarchy, Adam, and D’Olimpio (2016) What to improve NAPLAN scores? Teach children philosophy. The Conversation. Retrieved from

Shakespeare, William (1996) Hamlet, Nelson Education (I:iii:73).

UNESCO (2009). Teaching Philosophy in Asia and the Pacific. Retrieved from