The Power of Socrates

My sophomore students will finish reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies this weekend. If you’re unfamiliar with the work, or only know it by title alone, it is a novel worth your time and energy to read. I’m not the biggest ‘classic’ literature fan, but the story of a group of young English school boys marooned on an island during war times and their decent into human savagery and self-depravedness is nothing short of brilliant.

I’ve used the reading of the book as a way to introduce to my students a classical way of learning–a type of learning that is truly “old school.” Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher,

Socrates once stated, "An unexamined life is not worth living."

believed that people learned best through discussing and reasoning with one another. The famous Greek emphasized the need for his students to share their knowledge and by doing so actually increasing each students’ own knowledge base. In honor of this particular style of learning and the philosopher himself, educators and researchers have developed something known as a Socratic Seminar.

I have been a fan of the Socratic Seminar (SS) since I was introduced to the method in my undergrad studies, but my attempts to use it have been met with frustrations for the first few years of teaching. This may be the first year I’ve seen the SS work the way I think would make Socrates himself proud. For those of you unfamiliar with this method of learning, the Socratic Seminar focuses on a common reading (this could be a book, article, textbook, poem, etc.) and students preparing relevant, well-thought out questions meant to spark the sharing of knowledge. There are several ways for a seminar to take place, but my favorite is to have students sit in a circle facing one another, picking a group leader, and allowing the questioning, debating, and learning begin. In order for a seminar to truly work, there has to be guidelines for the questions. For instance, in my class they cannot simply ask a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, but must start almost all their questions with a ‘why,’ ‘how,’ or ‘what.’ You can have a student prepare as many questions as you’d like, but I’ve found you really only need them to create five: a close-ended question (answer can be found in the text), an open-ended question (takes debate and citing of evidence to answer), a world connection question (connects the reading with current events or history), an author’s purpose question (causes students to reflect on why the author wrote the piece to begin with), and a literary analysis question (questions literary purpose and causes students to analyze writing at a deeper level). The results can be magical. Students who might never show any interest in reading are suddenly talking and debating their views and perceptions; some students become leaders among the group and can direct conversation; most students will discover knowledge they did not have before listening and talking to their peers. Knowledge begets more knowledge.

Using a SS allows a teacher to teach his or her students group debating, ethics, and questioning skills that might otherwise never develop in a classroom. What I love most about the SS is how much I learn from my students by listening to their thoughts and connections. Because of my students involvement in using the SS during their reading of Lord of the Flies, most have honestly enjoyed reading the book, debating its themes, symbols and motifs, and maybe most importantly they have enjoyed not having to listen to me tell them what they should get out of the book. Simply put, this year it has been powerful.

I encourage any teacher of any subject area to give a Socratic Seminar a fair chance. Be forewarned, it won’t look or sound pretty the first few times, but as with all activities practiced and worth their weight in the classroom, the seminars get better and deeper with each exchange of student knowledge and perceptions. Do you really want to know what your students think and know about the content you’re teaching? I believe good ol’ philosophical Socrates may have revealed an answer to us long before we started this modern era of pedagogical research.

Here are some links and references if you’re interested in using the Socratic Seminar method:

http://www.studyguide.org/socratic_seminar.htm – SS Questions

http://www.studyguide.org/socratic_seminar_student.htm -SS Guidelines

http://www.wcs.edu/fhs/StaffDevelopment/socraticseminars.htm – More Info

YouTube also has some good videos of the SS in practice. Just search for Socratic Seminar  on the site.

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2 thoughts on “The Power of Socrates

  1. This information is useful for bookclubs as well. By making use of the SS, we will be able to explore titles that do not have questions provided by the publishers.

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