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“A way of learning that’s full of connections”: Socratic discussion in Austin’s alternative schools

How would you define or explain Socratic discussions for a total newcomer?

Jesse: It’s an open-ended dialogue where you make sure everyone has a voice, and the goal is less important than the process.

Cade: Socratic is a more personal way to learn. Even if the group is divided somewhat in terms of the points everyone is making, you’re always connecting and learning from other people.

Sam: It’s really about learning to ask questions instead of giving and getting answers.

Can you talk about how the discussions work in practice? What’s a typical Socratic like?

Jesse: In our school, the student leader or the teacher/guide has a topic or question to consider, but then the floor is open to all students. Groups vary in size, but it’s usually about 10–12 people, which I think is optimal. We sometimes have as few as five people, but then discussion is slower. We each voice our thoughts in response to what someone else has said. Sometimes in philosophical discussions people do take sides, but in a lot of discussions there aren’t sides—there’s more of a spectrum. We do things mostly freeform and orally, but there is a whiteboard if someone needs to illustrate a point.

Cade: We practice Socratic dialogues in normal classes every day and I also host a “Bonus Socratic” after school. We usually have around 6 people, but it can be as few as 4 or as many as 11. The number doesn’t matter once you have a group that functions well. Michael—we call him a guide, not a teacher—often brings in a text, but students bring in poems and articles too. We might read the text, or part of it, to start the discussion. Then students just start sharing ideas.

Sam: We weave Socratic discussions through the day, not just in one particular time period. When you ask questions, you usually don’t just get one answer, you get another question to help lead you to an answer. So for example, if I ask someone about a math problem, instead of telling me the specific answer, the person might say: “What do you think the first step is in finding the answer?” Or they might say, “Could you try this? Or could you try that?”

Do you have any favorite discussions or moments during discussions in the past year?

Jesse: One of the best questions we had—and one that people kept talking about after class, like a running joke, was: If you have a boat and you take away one piece each year and replace it, until every piece is replaced, at what point do you have a new boat? We talked about this for three hours with no conclusion, but everyone participated and people changed opinions, and then kept talking about it after class.

Cade: I remember at one discussion a friend of mine was feeling a lot of anger coming into it, but having the Socratic turned the way he was feeling around. Discussion can help you alleviate some stresses because you can say what you’re thinking about issues—political or social or other things—and you can get some different contexts from other people and see things in a different light.
 

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