Socrates: Inspiring Student Interaction

“Socrates: The Teaching Superstar,” by Eric Westervelt, NPR’s Morning Edition, 10/29/14

Socrates, the superstar teacher of the ancient world, was sentenced to death more than 2,400 years ago for “corrupting” the minds of Athenian youth. But Socrates’…question-and-dialogue-based teaching style lives on in many classrooms as the Socratic method.

I went to Oakland Technical High School in California to see it in action.

It’s first period and student Annelise Eeckman is sparring with teacher Maryann Wolfe about Social Security. They get into the…question of what role the US stock market should play, if any, in workers’ retirement plans.

“It’s not influencing me,” Wolfe says.

“You’re not retired currently,” Eeckman counters.

“But I have stock,” Wolfe says. “You know what happened Thursday and Friday, right? Friday it started going back up again; yesterday it went up a little bit more.”

“And what if tomorrow it dips?” Eeckman says.

“Well, yeah, but you depend on one day?”

In this 12th-grade AP American government class, students are…expected to question the teacher — and each other. That’s at the heart of the Socratic method: dialogue-based critical inquiry. The goal is to focus on the text, ideas, and facts and to dig deeper through discussion.

On this particular morning, students are tackling the history of third parties in American politics. They’re poring over the platforms of past candidates….

“I’m just trying to figure out what the Republicans must be thinking, what Pat Buchanan must be thinking,” says Wolfe as she leans on her lectern.

“Well, if we look at the group of people that the Republicans tend to focus their opinions on, they’re usually of the more wealthy classes,” one student says.

Senior Jonah Oderberg confidently pushes back on the idea of school vouchers, which Wolfe is defending.

“If you have that high-enough income to afford that private education,” says Oderberg, “that should be coming out of your own pocket. There’s already adequate public schools.”

“So you want me to pay double?” asks Wolfe, smiling as she walks closer to Oderberg’s desk in the back of the room.

“Um, no,” Oderberg says. The class laughs.

“Sounds like it,” Wolfe counters and turns back to the front of the class.

This is good classroom jousting…. “The Socratic method means you’re going to have a whole bunch of ideas floating to the surface,” says Wolfe…. “I want them to see the complexity of the issues. Students really learn that way. They have to speak, they have to be engaged….”

For Wolfe, the Socratic method at its core means getting students to listen to each other and to differing opinions…. “Maybe we won’t find exact truths in this class,” she says. “But we will at least look at all possibilities, and they will have a truth right at that moment. And the moment comes when they have to stand up and debate it. They have to take a side.”…

Socrates didn’t write anything down. And details of his life remain largely unknown…. But we do know that he valued reasoned, logical oral arguments that sought truth through probing discourse.

Today you can call Wolfe’s Oakland classes Socratic. But maybe this is just what good teaching looks like: an engaged, passionate teacher facilitating a critical dialogue and acting as a kind of intellectual coach. Not a teacher merely lecturing or teaching to a test.

I asked 17-year-old Maddie Ahlers what she’s gotten out of the program: “The Socratic method has to be a part of good teaching. It’s one thing to write an essay or take a test, but later in life, you have to be able to articulate what you think about an issue.”…

At Black Pine Circle, a private school in Berkeley, Socrates’ stenciled face peers out at students from many of the walls and hallways.

“Now remember, in the inner circle we don’t need to raise hands,” sixth- and seventh-grade teacher Tim Ogburn tells his students. “Let’s just have a conversation. Outer circle for right now, I just want you guys listening.”…

The pedagogy includes regular Socratic seminars. Students sit in [two circles] discussing a Japanese creation myth. [The inner] is tasked with talking while [the outer] is supposed to just listen — and think. Ogburn is trying to get students to look beyond the basics: that the myth was part of a pre-scientific society trying to explain the world.

“So, inner circle, tell me: How is this story about balance?”

Ogburn says he is facilitating a real dialogue…. “The Socratic method forces us to take a step back and ask questions like: What’s going on here? What does this possibly mean?” Ogburn says. “What’s important? What’s less important? What might be motivating this person to say this?”

Head of School John Carlstroem agrees. “What we’re trying to teach kids is to ask the question, ‘What makes you say that? ” he says. “The best scientists and mathematicians — that’s the question they’re asking in all of their work.”…

In the eighth grade English class, teacher Chris Chun sits to the side and largely stays quiet while [student] Alexander Blau leads a small-group discussion on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Another group silently listens while a third group will offer critical feedback.

“Does anybody here know what ‘beatifically’ means, and could you guess it based on the context?” Blau asks the group. “Tommy, do you think you have an idea?”

After the discussion, teacher Chun asks the class how they did. One student suggests Blau shouldn’t have let another student, David, take over as the leader. Then the groups switch, and another student-led discussion begins….

“I think of it as the teacher doesn’t have the one true answer; the class constructs knowledge together,” says teacher Leila Sinclaire. “They need to learn how to listen to one another and learn from one another and celebrate mistakes.”…

See also in ClassWise:

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