Friday, August 22, 2008

Is This Too Good To Be True?

What instructional strategy helps promote active learning and deep processing of information?

What instructional strategy will improve reading comprehension, communication skills, promote Habits of Mind, and build a community of learners?

What instructional strategy will combat apathy, engage instead of enrage, provide choice, allow for creativity, and strum the heart strings of all students?

Interestingly enough it has nothing to do with technology - the answer to the questions above is:

Socratic Seminar


Socratic Seminar by definition is an authentic dialogue centered around an essential or content essential question.

Let's break that down a bit and sort through the language here.

Dialogue by Definition:
Dialogue is not a discussion and it's the exact opposite of a debate. According to Daniel Yankelovich, dialogue has three distinctive features that differentiate it from a discussion or other forms of talk. They are:

1. Equality and the absence of coercive influences.
2. Listening with empathy.

3. Bringing assumptions into the open.


Senge suggests that the "practice of dialogue consists of a free flow of meaning between people, where the group accesses a pool of common understanding such that the whole organizes the parts. What is promised is that dialogue can enable people to go beyond their individual understanding by exploring issues from different perspectives, suspending assumptions, and communicating freely."

Now for a bit more of the abstract...the essential questions.

Essential Questions
  • Have no right answers
  • are open ended
  • require you to take a stand
  • require higher level thought processes
  • universal
  • divergent
  • require introspection
  • involve meta-cognition
  • are thought provoking
  • are haunting
Examples of Essential Questions
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Are leaders made?
  • Are we really free?
  • What is truth?
If you have never experienced a Socratic Seminar it is incredibly enlightening. In an effort to gain a true meaning of the power of such a strategy we actually practiced during the Socratic Seminar Workshop I was a part of. The group took some time to read through a short poem by Maya Angelou called Song for the Old Ones, which I was not familiar with.

The inner and outer circles were formed. The inner circle participated in the "dialogue" while the outer circle listened and took notes using a graphic organizer that was handed out. After 15 minutes of great dialogue the outer circle took the time to report our observations. Then we reversed roles and I had the grand opportunity to be sitting in the inner circle.

Here I am now entering the dialogue after 15 minutes of already intense intellectual questioning and reasoning from the first group...what depth could we possibly add? Low and behold the second inner circle was able to take the dialogue in another direction, go deeper in our understanding of the poem, and the group as a whole felt as if we knew the poem so much better after this session.

Honestly, this was a fantastic experience and worth the price of admission. I am hooked and will frame this in a way where I can make effective use of this strategy at a fifth grade level. Oh, sure there will have to be a great deal of back work and explicit teaching to really get to a point where the kids are going "deep."

I wonder though as we see more and more people, kids especially, text messaging and spending their days in the virtual world if this puts the art of reading body language, the art of conversation, or in this case the art of dialogue in serious jeopardy? This strategy requires students to make eye contact, restrain impulsivity, and find the right moment to interject. Socratic Seminar puts the human touch so much into play where we can see the face and read the body. This strategy forces us to pause and ponder and wonder and continue to ask questions where ultimately there may be no answers.


Further Reading:


Lambright, Leslie. "Creating a Dialogue. Socratic Seminars and Educational Reform." Community College Journal Feb/Mar 1995: page 30-34.

Metzger, Margaret. "Teaching Reading Beyond the Plot." Phi Delta Kappan v80 1998.

Tredway, Lynda. "Socratic Seminars: Engaging Students in Intellectual Discourse." Educational Leadership September 1995: page 65.



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