Saturday, July 15, 2006

Answering My Own Questions

In my last post I was wondering how to go about conducting a Socratic dialogue with my fifth-grade students. I asked if it anyone thought students of this age had the attention span to sit a through a discussion of this depth. I also inquired about how to conduct one of these dialogues with my students since I had never done one before.

Shortly after posting I went after my own answers. It turns out most of the answers I am seeking I already had. I have been reading a book titled Socrates Cafe, in which the author (Christopher Phillips) describes various discussions he facilitates at cafes, schools, churches, and other places using the Socratic method. Interested in learning more, I went to his website (called the Society for Philosophical Inquiry) to learn about how to conduct my own Socrates Cafe and found a guide for doing just that.

Here I found answers to the following questions:
  • How do I decide on a question for discussion?
  • How do I launch a discussion on the chosen question?
  • How do I deal with people who monopolize the conversation or who do not show respect for other participants?
  • How can I encourage people to speak?

These are pretty much the same questions teachers need to answer if they are interested in classroom Socratic dialogues.

Framing a Suitable Question

The answer to the first question is obvious: any question up for discussion must come from the curriculum. The difficult part is deciding on how to frame the question. On the site, authors David Elkind and Freddy Sweet state that hypothetical situations are “…powerful springboards for discussion.” They force students to take a position. Here some examples that I thought of:

  • A man burns an American flag to protest the Iraqi war. Should he be arrested?
  • What would life be like if circles did not exist?

The site lists several different types of questions to ask during a Socratic seminar:

  • A world-connection question
  • An open-ended question
  • A close-ended question
  • A universal theme/core question

Guiding the Discussion

Once the discussion has started, begin to examine responses in a “Socratic” way. Look for the following:

  • Built-in assumptions (Is burning a flag a crime?)
  • Embedded concepts (What does it mean to protest?) (What is a circle?)
  • Differences of kind and degree (What other types of protest are there?) (What other shapes appear to be circular?)
  • Logical inconsistencies

When answering questions, it is important that participants offer specific examples that back up their responses. The teacher should try to get them to support their perspectives with well-constructed, reasoned views.

Allowing for Participation

First and foremost, it is extremely important to create a comfortable environment where everybody feels safe to speak. Make sure that there is no putting others down and no discussion is forced on those who do not desire it. If a student is not participating in the dialogue, gently ask them about their thoughts on a particular question.

A dialogue is meant to collaborative, not oppositional. The goal is to submit one’s views to the analysis of others and use it to learn or expand those views.

  • Could this work with blogs?
  • How do we assess students during a Socratic dialogue? Are we assessing knowledge of the subject matter, reasoning, or participation?
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