Preparing Boys for Life.

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Igniting the spark with Socratic seminars
Brendon Jobs, Upper School history teacher

Teaching and learning has changed since I was in high school, particularly with regard to how students learn and how they make meaning of the world. In the latest Independent School Magazine, Ross Wehner, founder of World Leadership School in Boulder, CO, reminded me in his article “Igniting the Spark” how changing modes of social interaction have transformed the way students learn and how teachers structure learning experiences. 

Wehner writes: “Smartphones, technology and a transforming workplace are making the industrial ‘sit and get’ model of education increasingly irrelevant. In addition, neuroscientists are revealing in dazzling detail how the adolescent brain develops critical skills such as problem solving, creativity and empathy.” 

My IV Form Modern World History students recently performed a Socratic seminar on Freedom and Revolution. A Socratic seminar is a classroom experience that promotes inquiry and collaborative idea generation.

The Socratic seminar demands that students not only interact with each other in ways that create new ideas, but also places them at the center of driving inquiry in the classroom.

The boys began with a reading of Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” and a review article on the form and function of revolutions. They also explored Arab Spring and Winter, the extent of their own personal freedom, and Freedom House’s report “Freedom in the World 2017" in small “Team Teach” groups: teams the boys have been working in together since October on various learning tasks. Before the seminar, each class generated a list of questions to direct each Socratic session derived from their readings, annotations, and digital discussions.

The Freedom and Revolution Socratic seminar directly responds to this transformation in teaching and learning that schools are embracing across the country: a shift from rote memorization and recitation towards a pedagogy that promotes interaction, practices critical inquiry, and inspires knowledge generation. The Socratic seminar encourages this kind of cognitive “sparking” for students. 

Over two class sessions, I witnessed all of these pieces gel in a way that profoundly deepened the boys discussion:
 

Everyone is engaged. Every role matters. Inquiry drives the interaction and accelerates the creation of new ideas. 

During the seminar, students take on any number of roles with leadership: 

  • Moderator: Leads dialogue. Sets and maintains norms of interaction throughout the dialogue. Ensures that the seminar continues to generate new ideas and synthesis
  • Discussant - Inner Circle: Actively participates as a vocal member of the seminar referring to documents and readings used to prepare for engagement. Practices text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections. 
  • Observer - Outer Circle: Partners with a discussant and uses a rubric to capture behaviors and notable comments he makes during the seminar. Critical for helping discussants and the class reflect on seminar quality.  
  • Scribe(s): Captures a “live feed” of the dialogue on a shared Google Document ensuring that everyone has practical notes to take away from the seminar period.

Everyone is engaged. Every role matters. Inquiry drives the interaction and accelerates the creation of new ideas. 

As a teacher, I love the moments where I see student learning “spark.” And it shows up in so many different ways! It might be the student who rarely speaks in class participating as a discussant. Or it might be the scribe salvaging gold nuggets from a dialogue that appeared aimless. Or maybe it’s the students generating new ideas in place of proving who is right versus wrong.  As one student said, “Initially, I only thought of the topic and texts in relation to the documents and history class. Through the seminar, I was able to connect the document topics to those of life, and topics relevant in today's society.”  

The Socratic seminar demands that students not only interact with each other in ways that create new ideas, but also places them at the center of driving inquiry in the classroom. When I was  in high school, Google didn’t exist, Amazon meant jungle, cell phones were for emergencies, Apple was a health food, and any good student both had and regularly used a library card. As the educational landscape continues to evolve, the Socratic seminar challenges boys to create their own meaning of what they learn. Preparing boys for life requires training them to problem solve, and such classroom experiences help them practice.