Pedagogical Approach

Answers serve questions, and servers rank below the served; both serve truth, which is the true sovereign, but asking is the firstborn and heir apparent of this king. To hear the askin, and not merely the several questions, in the dialogue is thinking at the highest level.

- Michael Gelven, Asking Mystery: A Philosophical Inquiry

The Thomas More Institute’s discussion courses got their start with the Great Books program, launched by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago in the 1920s. In 1948, directors of the Institute invited leaders from the Great Books Foundation to Montreal for training in reading and discussion-centred pedagogy. During the next 6 years, 29 Great Books discussion courses were offered at TMI, despite resistance on the part of mainstream educators who maintained a preference for traditional lecturing methods in student learning. Nevertheless, TMI members were convinced that learning through reading and discussions was better suited to adults who benefitted from a more fluid and interactive pedagogical style.

In accordance with the Great Books model, TMI ran their discussion courses with two trained volunteers as discussion leaders. While one questioned, the other remained attune to the needs of the group working to create an environment that encouraged open dialogue and reflection. Over time, a third participant-leader was added in an effort to assist with participant engagement. Classes were a mix of degree, post-degree and non-degree students – reflecting the Institute’s core belief that learning is about making knowledge one’s own, with no limits set around what is supposed to be learned and when. In Informed Dialogues (2004), Tansey reflects on the promise of TMI’s methods, drawing special attention to the insights born of a convivial learning environment:

“The kind of conversation is different when it is one person meeting another than when one gets together around a reading, in a group of several. It is a matter of distance and level. When a reflective, meditative atmosphere is achieved, the member of the conversation does not feel an outsider, to be laughed at …. It is important not to close off the discussion by one of the leaders summing up what he or she decided had happened in session. It is preferable to leave it open for the echoes – different for each participant to hear in memory, and be affected by.” (p. 3)

TMI leaders were intent on cultivating a spirit of generosity and encouragement in the classroom. They recognized the potential of discussion groups for deeper learning – by coming together to share thoughts and questions; listening to other responses; and gleaning unexpected insights upon further reflection – what Tansey elegantly describes as “the echoes heard in memory.” For TMI, a spirit of inquiry was fostered in community – with leaders and participants learning with and from one another.  

Pedagogical Approach