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Navigating disagreement in democratic education: The potential of the Community of Philosophical Inquiry

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posted on 2022-05-26, 00:16 authored by Baptiste Roucau

Democracy is premised on disagreement, yet polarisation, passion and populism are everywhere on the rise. In this troubled political context, democratic educators face the daunting challenge of educating young people to navigate disagreement. The theory that provides the framework for this thesis—agonism—understands political disagreement as ineradicable, inherently passionate and enmeshed in relations of power, and it offers an innovative approach to democratic education with the potential to reduce polarisation and promote political renewal. However, the agonistic approach lacks clear pedagogical methods and empirical research investigating how young people engage with, and experience, agonistic democratic education. This thesis seeks to address these gaps by developing a novel educational framework and by offering the Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CPI)—the dialogical method at the heart of the Philosophy for Children (P4C) programme—as a promising pedagogy to advance the objectives of agonistic democratic education. Yet the CPI faces two sets of challenges: the dangers of mentalisation, harmony and apoliticism jeopardise its agonistic potential, while the dangers of distress and antagonism cast doubt on the suitability of the CPI and existing agonistic pedagogies for young people living in a volatile political context.

To explore the CPI’s agonistic potential, a qualitative case-study was conducted with 76 young people (aged 8-17) involved in CPI dialogues in formal and informal educational settings, in Canada and New Zealand. This exploratory study combined interviews, video observation and body mapping to investigate how participants navigated disagreements and addressed political issues in CPI dialogues, and how they emotionally experienced these exchanges. In most cases, participants managed to sustain disagreement, in part by toggling between amicable and heated disagreement dynamics through moves that defused or stoked the emotional atmosphere of the dialogue. However, the amicable and heated dynamics each had an associated drift—the avoidant and the antagonistic drifts—which threatened to derail disagreement. In CPI dialogues, young people examined the abstract and concrete aspects of multiple political issues, envisioned society as it ought to be and reported feeling powerful political emotions. Yet the primarily philosophical way in which they approached political issues did not emphasise relations of power or political action. Lastly, while most participants enjoyed CPI dialogues, a few had strong negative experiences. Overall, these findings suggest that the CPI can only partially advance the objectives of agonistic democratic education, revealing the need to historicise, politicise and supplement the CPI with other pedagogies to empower young people to navigate disagreement and take political action. This study also underscores the importance of careful facilitation to support inclusive and productive dialogues, particularly when discussing complex political issues. Finally, it highlights the pedagogical and theoretical importance of recognising the entanglement of the emotional, epistemic and social aspects of dialogue.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

160302 Pedagogy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

3 Applied research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Milligan, Andrea; Bacharach, Sondra