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How We Teach at Black Pine Circle School
Socratic Teaching and Learning “A School of Thought”
By John Carlstroem, Head of School
Black Pine Circle School has long held-up the Socratic method as the cornerstone of its pedagogy. Like many educational philosophies, much is said about the gestalt of Socratic teaching, and not enough about the “nuts and bolts.” As someone who admits to liking jigsaw puzzles, I’m fond of the aphorism “differentiation precedes integration.” In other words, one can’t fully appreciate the overall beauty of “a thing” until they have assembled or disassembled it, piece by piece. Allow me to introduce some metaphorical puzzle pieces. The first is what many consider to be the four key ideas from Socrates and his students, on his teachings. The second describes the core tenets of a Socratic classroom at Black Pine Circle School. The third,is a collection of ideas from our students about Socratic instruction.
Looking back, (way, way, back to the Fifth Century, BC) much of what we have in terms of how Socrates accomplished his educational miracles, is based on the writings of his ‘ace’ pupils, Plato and Xenophon.
Socrates believed in the generation of a formal dilemma, from (deceptively) simple questions (e.g. are the pious loved by the Gods for being pious, or are some people pious because of the Gods’ love for them?). One can invent a twenty-first century construction in a similar way “Does Black Pine Circle School forbid chewing gum at school because it is intrinsically wrong, or is chewing gum at school wrong because Black Pine Circle School forbids it?” The circular nature of these simple arguments (often associated with ethics) vexed Socrates so much that he felt the only solution was to inspire his student to use tenets of reason as a more truthful approach to problem solving. The core element of this was/is insistent questioning which, at its least effective, helps to eliminate unreasonable answers to serious questions and at its best, provides us with a sense of intellectual independence!
In Plato’s Apology (Apologhma) we are provided with excerpts relating to Socrates’ structure of how to live an “examined life.”
Explaining his mission as a philosopher, Socrates was fond of trumpeting his
strength as a teacher. He felt that his best attribute was his open awareness of
his own ignorance. In other words, those who think they have it all figured out, surely do not.
The goal of Socratic questioning is as much about achieving self-knowledge, as it is about discovering a truth. Socrates believed that the sophists had, too often, created their own reality, rather than seeing a world free of constructed illusions (e.g. the way we wish things were). Again, he felt that a commitment to Socratic questioning at least forced a mind to engage in an argument of reason, over emotion.
Devotion to Truth:
Prior to his death, following his sentencing, Socrates declined to abandon his pursuit of the truth. He steadfastly refused exile from Athens or a commitment to silence as his penalty. He believed that “public discussion of the great issues of life and virtue is a necessary part of any valuable human life and ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’”
Plato tells us that Socrates delivered his final public words with unusual calm. He confessed to having no sense about the fate of a human being after death, but reiterated his belief in reason and truth while one is alive.
These foundations are, indeed, at the center of almost all philosophers’ thinking,
since Socrates. The ideas are as vivid now, as they were in the Fifth Century BC. It is up to each of us, on a daily basis, to decide between convenient conventionality and our devotion to truth and reason. How we choose determines whether we, like Socrates, deserve to call our lives philosophical.
So how do these ideas play-out at Black Pine Circle School, each day?
Rules of Thumb for A Socratic Classroom
One hesitates to propound rules for a kind of discussion that is essentially spontaneous. It is hard, however, to see how these particular hints could stifle spontaneity.
KEEP THE LECTURING TO A MINIMUM:
The exchange of lengthy monologues should be eschewed at all costs. If discussions are to be probing and profitable, facilitators must be brief and to the point.
POLITE INTERRUPTION IS A-OKAY!:
Socratic dialectics have a different code of manners from the dinner party, where interrupting a long-winded speech is considered rude. In dialectic, a politely inserted request for clarification is welcomed and encouraged.
In a Socratic classroom, democracy consists of everyone listening intently, not in “equal time”. Like a well-coached basketball team, its players don’t snatch the ball from each other, but support the player who has it, who in turn passes it to a team mate whenever a pass is called for by the common purpose of the team. In a Socratic classroom, the opposing team “is” the difficulties all people face, as they search for the truth. It does not matter whose mouth gets used in overcoming this ‘antagonist’, provided that all are attending carefully and interrupting with questions when they do not understand.
TAKE A CHANCE:
In a Socratic classroom, a wild idea is often more fruitful than a prematurely prudent opinion. The imaginative and the unexpected were frequent ingredients in Socrates’ own style, and are a hallmark of true Socratic instruction.
DROP THE BUCKET TEACHING:
One important component of Socratic discussion is to follow an argument wherever it leads. This means that some of the components of a traditional classroom, or a formal debate, are unnecessary. The point is not to instruct one’s peers, but to think with them and trust the argument to lead to insight. Of course, in our classrooms, we still have lesson plan goals, and yearly academic objectives, however, we’re not afraid of tangents, and, in fact, we encourage them!
KEEP IT FUN:
“When free minds seek together for greater understanding, they tend as did Socrates to move with lightheartedness and a sense of the absurd. The relevant jest is never out of order, for good conversation always combines high seriousness with pertinent playfulness.”
WHAT IS SOCRATIC TEACHING?
In my quest for a succinct answer to the question what is Socratic teaching?” I interviewed nine Black Pine Circle Upper School Students, who, perhaps did the best job of synthesizing these ideas down to Socratic truths:
- “It’s not about the facts, it’s about what we can learn from the facts and how people react to the facts.”-8th Grader
- “Socratic teaching is good teaching!”-6th Grader
- “Let the kids talk, and tell the teachers they’re not allowed to just lecture.”- 6th Grader
- “Kids are the main part of the learning process.”-8th Grader
- “We have discussions about our answers and the adults tell us our opinions matter.”-7th Grader
- “What you’re doing right now is Socratic Teaching.”-8th Grader
- “When you guys make us figure it out on our own.”-8th Grader
- “It’s not making the students just accept stuff…It’s providing the logic around ideas.”-7th Grader
- “It’s more fun than just reading a textbook….You give us clues we discover as we go…”-7th Grader
Garth Kemmerling Philosophy of Socrates
“On Philosophy Teaching” (with Louisa Moon and Julie Van Camp) American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division), 2000.
The “Rules of Thumb for Socratic Discussion” were adapted from a collection of “Notes on Dialogue” by Stringfellow Barr, one of the founding fathers of St John’s College.