"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Socratic Seminars in Grade School

When I ask my son about his day in school, the first answer I often get is "good". I then have to follow up my question with more detail like "What did you do in math today?" to obtain a response that goes much farther than "good". This week, however, is different as my son talks about his participation in a Socratic seminar. He seems excited and engaged although he appears to exercise enough caution so as not to give me the impression that he thinks it is better than what they do normally in class.

The following is a definition of the Socratic seminar from Elfie Israel:
The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly.
It is no wonder that one of the first things that my son tells me about this seminar is that they get to address each other with Mr. or Ms., and their last names. And my son, Mr. de Dios, sits with tables and chairs arranged for some real discussion.

Photo courtesy of Mason Crest Elementary School principal Brian Butler
The topic being discussed in this Socratic seminar is about the brain, how it grows and develops, which becomes quite evident with the questions posed and reading materials used during the seminar:

Photos courtesy of Mason Crest Elementary School principal Brian Butler
My son relates to me one part of the seminar during which he raises a disagreement with another classmate. During that exchange, my son is citing his experience with another classmate who always loses in this game. My son says that through practice one develops skills and true enough, after some effort, this other classmate finally wins. Of course, while relating this story, my son never fails to emphasize that during the exchange they were all acting civilly.

Robitaille and Maldonado, in their close examination of the Socratic seminar, find that a proper climate is indeed required for questioning and discussion in an elementary classroom:
The teachers in the current study unanimously agreed that creating an environment of respect and rapport and creating a culture for learning were prerequisites and co-requisites to being able to engage students in learning and engage students with each other in meaningful, authentic, and genuine content-based high-level discussion driven by higher-order questions.
Pleasantly surprising, this point seems very clear to my son. He appreciates the conditions necessary for an effective implementation of a Socratic seminar. It can only work with an environment of respect and rapport plus a topic that is purposeful, engaging and relevant. It is evident that my son's school does know how to implement questioning and discussion techniques inside the classroom.

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