How We Teach at Black Pine Circle School
Socratic Teaching and Learning “A School of Thought”
What is Socratic Practice?
In the words of educator Michael Strong, “Socratic Practice is the work of constructing meaning from texts and developing a healthy social environment for intellectual conversation” (The Habit of Thought). A text can take many forms—including writing, artwork, music, historical artifact, or mathematical formula—but it should be capable of sparking deep inquiry and extended dialogue. As students analyze works together, they improve their close reading, critical thinking, and oral communication skills. Because they are in a conversation, they practice civility and engage with diverse points of view. The teacher acts as facilitator and co-learner; she models genuine curiosity, asks clarifying questions, keeps the discussion focused on the text, and ensures that all students have the opportunity to participate. A learning environment like this, in which scholarly conversation is central to the culture, nurtures both the intellectual and the social-emotional life of the child.
At Black Pine Circle School, our teachers create classroom environments where questions and strategies for understanding outweigh facts and answers. We all know that the 21st century will continue to value creative thinking, deep understanding, and problem solving. Our students are being prepared to participate and engage in our world at the highest levels.
What are the tenets of a Socratic Classroom?
BE A HUMBLE THINKER
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.
ASK BETTER AND BETTER QUESTIONS
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 are). He felt that a commitment to Socratic questioning forced a mind to engage in an argument of reason over emotion.
BE AN HONEST THINKER
Socrates never abandoned his pursuit of the truth, despite the fact that it ultimately led to his death by execution. 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 that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’”
BE A CALM THINKER
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.
THINK ABOUT WHAT’S IN FRONT OF YOU
Choose meaningful texts—books, pictures, songs, theorems, etc. —as the focal point of your discussion.
BE A GENEROUS THINKER
Keep 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.
ADD A NEW IDEA TO THE DISCUSSION
Polite interruption is okay. In fact, a politely inserted request for clarification is welcomed and encouraged. Be a generous learner.
BE AN ACTIVE LISTENER
In a Socratic classroom, democracy consists of everyone listening intently. 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. All give the discussion full attention and interrupt with questions when they do not understand.
TAKE A CHANCE
In a Socratic classroom, a wild idea is often more fruitful than a prudent opinion. The imaginative and the unexpected were frequent ingredients in Socrates’ own style, and are a hallmark of true Socratic instruction.
BE READY FOR THE UNEXPECTED
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, 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.
“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.” Remember, this is a “practice,” so relax and don’t judge yourself harshly in your work as a Socratic practitioner.