Better Together: How the Right Friends Improve Each Other

While many of us like to show up at training events with friends, or make new ones at them, learning is generally still thought of as a solo activity. We enjoy beers after class and “like” each other’s InstaBook pictures in the weeks following, but learning and training together not under the eyes of a watchful instructor? Not so much.

In 2018, I will be a student for somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 hours of firearms and self-defense training. I train to build my personal skills, to build my skills as an instructor, and to keep an eye on what’s out there in the training world. It’s important to me to have personal experience with a wide variety of instructors so that I can speak to their work more specifically and so that I can understand the field as a whole more fully. Plus, like you, I enjoy training with my friends. What I do with them between class weekends is even more enjoyable and important, though, and not just because of the epic after-hours shenanigans.

The Inquiry Process

Having a broad background and continued new inputs are necessary parts of the inquiry process of learning. It’s an open-ended process that requires an open approach to broad questions, digging deep into a subject matter, and gaining a deep understanding that informs conclusions that themselves may be further questioned as new information becomes available. Inquiry is neither finite nor static, but rather a continual journey of investigation.

Learning via inquiry isn’t a solo activity, though, and it goes far beyond the classroom (or, in my case, the range). New facts and skills need to be acquired from somewhere (or rather, someone). Formal training and education is only one route to do so, and is best paired with a more interactive and collaborative approach. This is especially true because knowledge doesn’t just slot into existing frameworks; it needs to be integrated into the cohesive whole that makes up the entirety of a person’s knowledge base. Deep discussion, particularly with subject matter experts and experts in related fields, can increase every participant’s understanding.

Communities of Inquiry: The Group Approach to Learning

One of the ways that I filter my experiences and work through the inquiry process is through an informal version of what educators call a Community of Inquiry (CoI):

“A critical community of learners, from an educational perspective, is composed of teachers and students transacting with the specific purposes of facilitating, constructing, and validating understanding, and of developing capabilities that will lead to further learning. Such a community encourages cognitive independence and social interdependence simultaneously.” (Garrison, Randy & Terry Anderson, (2003). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice, 2003, p. 23.)

I do this because my Community of Inquiry helps me contextualize my observations and critically examine them. Whether that means I’ve learned something that bolsters what I already knew, or need to reshape what I thought I knew, is a question that can sometimes only be answered through the inquiry process possible in this type of community. My Community of Inquiry helps me bat around ideas to ensure that what I have to say is objectively defensible and as free as possible from personal biases. A gut check for my gut check, if you will.

Not Just Another Clubhouse: Elements of a Community of Inquiry

There are three defining qualities that turn a group of people into a Community of Inquiry: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. The first is what you might expect in any community: trustworthy interpersonal relationships between individuals. The second is where the shift starts happening from “friends hanging out together” to “people doing work together” – intellectually honest and penetrating discussion, specifically that focused on an academic or professional field. But talking about work isn’t enough to make a group of people a Community of Inquiry without the final element of a teaching presence which focuses the community on the goal of finding the best possible answers to tough questions.

At base, Communities of Inquiry work because they are a sustained group of individuals with an investment in the community. Cognitive and social presence are key elements of these types of communities, and that requires engaged participants in a sustained group relationship.  Continued involvement and the construction of a true community, with all of the types of ties that implies, result in the kind of virtual space that allows for absolute frankness. Because the inquiry process is often about asking the hard questions and not having answers going in, there is a vulnerability that is inherent in bringing the discussion part of the process into a Community of Inquiry. That’s why it’s so important that there be a culture of stability and privacy so that participants can trust in the integrity of the community.

It’s possible, of course, for a Community of Inquiry to devolve into a groupthink echo chamber. This is especially true when participants are unwilling to authentically challenge each other in an environment where open communication is the rule. In a formal Community of Inquiry, the teachers lead the process of creating this type of atmosphere; in my community, it is the responsibility of all participants as we trade off on who may be an authority in a particular subtopic or who is coming in as the inquirer on a specific issue. A culture of respect for each member’s knowledge and skills, in what they can bring to the table in a conversation, is a big part of making this sort of organically grown Community of Inquiry work.

The inquiry process that this type of community facilitates demands an open mindset. It’s an investigative journey that starts with the sort of questions that dig deep beyond the whats and into the whys and hows. It continues with data gathering, evaluation, and critical analysis. Discussion is an integral part of the process, necessary to more clearly articulate hypotheses and test them in friendly – though perhaps vociferous – argument to arrive at a more complete understanding of the problem posted and, perhaps, answers to those initial questions. Conclusions may be guessed at, but they aren’t foregone.

Community of Inquiry participants must fully and authentically engage with each other for the inquiry process to work. That requires a willingness to pose questions of all types, and to challenge them in ways small and large. And that requires a space where the process can take place without interference, because getting from beginning to end may require delicate and difficult conversations that meander in a way that would not be easily understood without full immersion in the community.

A Call to Arms: Your Own Community of Inquiry

I’ve been fortunate to have fallen into a CoI that’s been enormously productive for me, giving me access to a wide variety of subject matter experts who are truly dedicated to the inquiry mindset. The important part of the equation isn’t necessarily what they already know, though, versus their willingness to pick apart what they and I think we know by continually asking questions and discussing their implications.

It’s that dedication to the inquiry process that, perhaps obviously, turns a community into a community of inquiry. A trustworthy group is an important element and one that is necessary for a community of inquiry to work, but it’s still only the start. Being willing to question even the most established group dogma and work through the conversations that lead to new conclusions? That’s the challenge.