Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Socratic Seminar is life: Dialogue vs. Debate"

Dialogue: to be open to other people’s ideas
Debate: to convince others your argument is the only argument.

The best thing about starting a new school year is the hope that comes with it.  Last year was difficult, but paradoxically so. It was truly the best year I’ve had as a classroom teacher, but it was one of my most challenging because of the politics and debates surrounding the thing I love the most--teaching kids. I just felt helpless, even hopeless because the conversations impacting teaching the most excluded teachers and students.

Then it hit me. 

Learning doesn’t truly happen unless all parties involved are willing to open themselves to new ideas, ones that even contradict their current perceptions. Okay, I know, that’s not anything new.  Common sense, right?  But think about it.  So many educators, administrators, politicians, (everyone really), have forgotten how to have a dialogue because we’ve gotten sidetracked by our emotions, our passions, and our best intentions. We’ve forgotten the importance of trying to understand where the “others” are coming from and so we only have debate, not dialogue.

No wonder we’re not getting anywhere.  No wonder students feel they have no voice; no wonder teachers are willing to strike during school hours instead of teach; no wonder administrators and politicians would sell their souls for funding rather than take a stand against the tyranny of capitalism.  Everyone’s just talking, but no one’s listening. So emotions heighten, screaming begins and debate is sparked.  But still, no one is listening and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness spreads.

I was first taught Socratic Seminar eight or nine years ago by David Stickrod, one of the most effective principals I’ve ever had.  He understood and valued the importance of shared inquiry, which is dialogue (the foundation of Socratic Seminar), and the power of allowing students to make meaning from the text rather than being bestowed the knowledge by the teacher. More importantly, he taught me that controlling my classroom with leading questions, canned conversations and worksheets would result in little if any long-term retention because that is more or less "pretend teaching."

If students are allowed to create meaning and participate in creating a new living text, they’re going to feel valued and invested not only in their own learning, but in the pursuit of knowledge through dialogue, which is Socratic Seminar’s purpose.  And what’s more exciting, we’ve taught our students how to communicate critical issues effectively with the willingness to change their own perceptions because ego has no place in the conversation. 

Imagine, shaping a society of young leaders whose mission is to understand the other side’s perspective first so that their own understanding is enhanced.  If everyone was trained in seminar, there would be very little if any gridlock in congress like we’ve seen recently; there would be dialogue without spite and a sense of community in all decisions being made because people’s primary focus would be on learning, not defending; on dialogue, not debate.

Now imagine…

What if I was to apply the principles behind Socratic Seminar to my life?  Let me explain, but bear with me because it’s going to feel like tangent at first.  Just the other night my husband came home after working his typical eleven-hour day. All day I had been stewing about the fact he left the ironing board out, tossed my nicely folded clean laundry all over the place and, to top it all off, he didn’t get the recycling out.  Well, needless to say, I launched and went off about how careless, even thoughtless he was and we just started yelling…about laundry.  Duh.  Rather than taking the time to first ask myself, “What would happen that would cause Jim to make such an enormous mess?” I instead reverted to emotion and prepared for battle because I was going to prove he was the one at fault.  It wasn’t even about laundry anymore, it was about being right; it was a debate and so dialogue was impossible and all that resulted were hurt feelings. 

And so why does this even matter?  Why is this relevant to education, to our classrooms, to our world?

We have to get a grip on our own emotions and egos so we can listen, because listening is the cornerstone of dialogue. Let’s go back to the idea that there may be an overwhelming feeling of helplessness or lack of control in some aspect of our lives (professional or personal).  That helplessness comes from a lack of control and not feeling valued on a personal, intellectual and/or professional level.  It’s the same feeling we’ve all had one time or another in a department meeting, district meeting, while reading the newspaper or even in the middle of a fight with a spouse. It’s the same feeling our students have in our classrooms when we’re teaching our students what to think rather than letting them come to their own meaning through dialogue.  Helplessness then turns into fear, and fear metamorphoses into anger and debate is all that remains. Debate feeds and crushes egos. It doesn’t promote change.

Just a few days ago I was given a second opportunity to be trained in Seminar by my current district and the experience was amazing; however, by the second day the principal had allowed all faculty to excuse themselves from the training except for the English and Communicative Arts departments. The word was he had received complaints it wasn’t relevant to other content areas such as Science, Social Studies, Math, World Languages, etc.

Understandably, they wanted time in their classrooms (so did I), time to get ready for the first day, but it worries me to consider what was lost because of system issues.  Seminar isn’t just for English teachers.  Seminar teaches people how to communicate civilly, with open minds and through reflection. 

As explained above, it applies to life, every content area and every classroom because dialogue is the foundation of any productive relationship, business, and society.  So, I’ll leave you with a quote Socratic Seminar Guru Oscar Graybill said during our training that stuck with me. Its simplicity calmed me when I started worrying about everything I wasn’t getting done,

“If you don’t have time to reflect then you don’t have time to learn.” 

And if you don’t have time to learn, then how can you teach? 

I’d love your thoughts, insights and comments!


  1. There are is lot of professional development and educational practices that don't necessarily apply to my specific subject. However, I think that in any PD setting what is really happening is we are saying, "Here's a way to teach, adopt it if you like it, don't use it if you don't like it. Either way, think about how you teach and why you teach the way you do."

    PD is about reflection so I am disappointed when a vocal group dismisses the topic and dismisses themselves from it.

    I hope we see more PD throughout the year, relevance be damned.

  2. I couldn't agree more with Derek and that's how I try to go into every PD. I must admit, however, I found it very difficult considering the timing of the training. While I did learn a lot, I can't help but wonder how much I could have taken away had my emotions not been so peaked. I think it's a great tool, and I wish I could have done had it implemented in my classroom when I was in school.

  3. Derek,
    Eloquently stated and thank you so much for saying it. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is pretty amazing and I too hope our district gives more opportunities for PD. Thanks everyone for your comments!