Last week, we put up Session 7 of our summer-long Tapestry Teacher Training (TTT) webinar series, entitled “Holding Socratic Discussions.” This was a particularly fun webinar to produce, because I partnered up with some good friends here in Frederick and we did some videotaping of mock demonstrations using kids in our local co-op. While the Internet-delivered version of this website is a little grainy (’cause we couldn’t use the hi-res versions of the videotape and not crash the system), the DVD version is crisp and beautiful! I’m excited about this series, called “The Foundational Series” because the feedback that we’ve been getting lets me know that they are truly helping moms be better homeschoolers, and that was (and always is) our goal!Below is an excerpt from the opening of Session 7, just to whet your interest! In 2011, during the conference season, you can get the Foundation Series FREE with the purchase of a year-plan as our Conference Special!
What IS Socratic discussion?
Most simply put Socratic discussion is teaching others by asking leading questions that are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand.This form of discussion is named for the Greek philosopher, Socrates. Socrates lived and taught in Athens, Greece during its golden age, in the late fifth century before Christ. He was actually one of the founders of Western philosophy. Socrates went around Athens during his life and asked questions of others. When they answered, he asked another question. When they answered that, he followed up with yet another question. In each interchange, the one being questioned had to reconsider his last point in light of a new vantage that the next question gave him. As I said in my definition, the purpose of Socrates’ questions was not only to draw out individual answers, but to encourage fundamental insights into issues under discussion. This is the essence of Socratic discussion when properly done.
What Socratic Discussion is Not
Let me further define for you what Socratic discussion is by contrasting it with other forms of discussion.
- Socratic discussion is NOT lecturing. In a lecture, the expert speaks for long periods of time, and the student listens. The lecturer may use slides, a white board, or other aids, but his basic mode is to teach by means of presenting, and there is typically no active part for the student to play.
- Socratic discussion is also not simply a conversation among peers. It’s not a wandering talk with no predetermined sense of direction. It’s not an “open forum” where equals all throw into the ring what they think on an issue.
- Socratic discussion is not a panel discussion, where three to five experts give their opinions on an issue, and children watch.
- It’s not a debate, where two teams argue a series of points, and a judge (as well as the audience) decide the outcome of the encounter.
- Finally, it’s not “educational ping-pong.” By this I mean the kind of “discussion” – though this is hardly a worthy name for what I’m describing—wherein the teacher has an answer book and the student has a series of questions to answer at the end of the text book and now the teacher and student have a session wherein they go over this material.
Socratic discussion is none of the above: rather, it’s the intentional questioning of a teacher (you) that leads the student through an ordered series of thoughts and ideas. The point of the exercise is to cause him to think about his opinions and ideas more deeply and to give reasons for them. By adopting the Socratic approach, we arm ourselves with a powerful tool for equipping our students to explain to a dying world the hope to which they have been called.
Socratic Discussions within Tapestry
Socratic discussions form the centerpiece of our “READ—THINK—WRITE” approach when teaching older students with Tapestry of Grace. What we encourage is that your dialectic and rhetoric students read independently for information first. Then, they think about what they have read by having you lead them through a Socratic discussion. For dialectics, your goal is to help them see and form new connections. For rhetorics, your goal is to help them analyze the issue at hand and then synthesize their own views on the issue and, ultimately, to form biblically informed opinions and worldviews from these discussions. They then write about what they’ve read and thought about, so that they interact again with the material, and crystallize their own opinions about matters they’ve studied.
Why do we make such a point of helping you to become a Socratic discussion leader?
Well, first, it’s just straight up good teaching. It is effective because questioning retains focus of student. Unlike such methods as lecturing, there is no ohming out while a teacher drones on. Think of yourself during Sunday sermons: unless the preacher’s subject or delivery are of immense interest to you, chances are that during his 45 minute presentation, your mind will wander. And, even if it doesn’t, how much did you retain from the sermon you heard two weeks ago? While I’m not knocking sermons in any way, most lecturing is not a highly effective method for teaching content that you wish the students to retain for long periods of time.
Socratic discussion, by contrast, engages the students constantly. Think of your last conversation: you probably remained far more engaged in it (unless you were multitasking) than you did in the sermon two weeks ago, and I’ll take a guess that you retained more of the content, too.Beyond simply paying attention, people remember conclusions they draw for themselves. For this, I’ll offer the analogy of four women going together to a location that’s new to them all: say, to a bridal shower. Let us say that the subsequent rehearsal dinner is in the same location. The woman who drove the four ladies to the shower will remember how to get there far more readily than the other three. Why? She was paying attention, remembering the turns and landmarks, while the other three were enjoying uninterrupted conversation. Similarly, the student who is skillfully led through a series of questions that cause him to think about the issue at hand and about his opinions of that issue will remember the insights and conclusions that he draws far more readily than a student who has sat in a lecture and heard the professor’s brilliant insights and conclusions. It’s just how we work: we remember how we got there if we participate actively in finding the way.
Finally, and especially with youths, the Bible tells us that fools delight in airing their own opinions. Well, I’m not calling your student a fool, but young people seem to delight more in airing their own opinions than in getting wisdom from their elders. This being true, Socratic discussion is tailor-made to harness this tendency. Socratic questioning encourages your youth to express his opinions, and then questions those opinions so that he can examine and modify them to more biblical ones—and then remember and own them once the process is done!
Now, in Tapestry, we use Socratic questioning in different ways depending on the learning level, and maturity of the student.
Here, I begin to go into detail. Want to learn more? Go and watch the webinar!