D. Randy Garrison
September 5, 2017

I would like to continue my consideration of cognition in a community of inquiry with an examination of the foundational literature associated with critical thinking. A recent examination of the Cognitive Presence construct by Jens Breivik (2016) attempted to spark debate about the place of critical thinking in the CoI framework. I very much welcome this constructive critique as it provides an opportunity to clarify and refine the conceptual foundation of the CoI framework.

As Breivik’s title suggests, the paper focuses on the critical thinking (CT) construct and its relationship to cognitive presence (CP). Breivik defines CT as “evaluating the tenability of claims” and argues that if CP essentially operationalizes CT (as he interprets the CoI literature), then the validity of the CP construct is brought into question; at least in terms of the quality of CT in online discussions. Perhaps not surprising, my departure with Breivik’s thesis is with the premise that CP is essentially a derivative of CT – essentially defined as evaluation of an argument. In short, critical thinking does not fully operationalize the CP construct. I view CT as a broader concept in which to understand the genesis of CP in higher education. More specifically, CP is operationalized through Practical Inquiry (PI) which represents both personal reflection (CT?) and shared discourse. CP extends CT through “discourse and a disciplined exchange of ideas that initiate further thought” (Garrison, 2016, p. 13). The true genesis of CP is Dewey’s reflective thinking and the scientific process of inquiry. CP is a process ofcollaborative inquiry and not simply evaluating arguments as Breivik appears to define CT. Notwithstanding, CT is an important thinking and learning ability and invaluable in the inquiry process.

To be clear, cognitive presence is a process of inquiry that includes thinking, listening and expressing thoughts in the process of critical discourse. It is a collaborative process of thinking and learning in deep and meaningful ways. Cognitive Presence goes beyond CT by supporting thinking and learning collaboratively (Garrison, 2016). The Practical Inquiry model, which operationalizes CP, iterates between the private/reflective and shared/discourse experiences of a purposeful educational transaction. Yes, part of the process is to test the “tenability of claims” (confirm or disconfirm) but it does not end there. Educationally CP goes beyond evaluation by exposing participants to new ideas and perspectives. Inquiry is a process of collaborative examination that includes evaluation but its goal is personal meaning and mutual understanding.

Implementing and assessing the quality and sustainability of CP (practical inquiry) bring into play the essential elements of teaching presence and social presence. CP cannot be understood in isolation; it is a purposeful and collaborative process interdependent with teaching and social presence. Teaching Presence is an essential element that ensures intended outcomes are effectively and efficiently achieved. TP collaboratively facilitates and directs inquiry such that the process does not overvalue solutions at the cost of deep and meaningful learning.

In summary, inquiry is more than simply evaluating the tenability of an argument. As Breivik suggests, cognitive presence may “define and measure other important educational rationales” (p. 12). This is exactly the point and I am appreciative of the opportunity to clarify the relationship between CT and CP. I regret if I left the impression in my previous writing that CP operationalized CT. Careful reading of the genesis of CP will show that it is based on Dewey’s reflective thinking and a collaborative practical inquiry process. Most importantly, CP is operationalized in the environment of a community of inquiry, shaped by social and teaching presences.


Breivik, J. (2016). Critical thinking in online educational discussions measured as progress through inquiry phases: A discussion of the cognitive presence construct in the Community of Inquiry framework. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, 31(1), 1-16.

Garrison, D.R. (2016). Thinking Collaboratively: Learning in a Community of Inquiry. London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis.



D. Randy Garrison
Professor Emeritus, University of Calgary
D. Randy Garrison is professor emeritus at the University of Calgary. Dr. Garrison has published extensively on teaching and learning in adult, higher and distance education contexts. He has authored, co-authored or edited twelve books and well over 100 refereed articles/chapters. His recent books are Thinking Collaboratively: Learning in a Community of Inquiry (2016) and E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice (3rd Edition) (2017).



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The Community of Inquiry is a project of the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University, researchers of the Community of Inquiry framework, and members of the CoI community.