Let Them Go

Plato called Socrates “the wisest, and justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known” (Phaedo) and yet Socrates did not write down his lessons nor stand at the front of his class imparting the results of his experience, personal study and reflection. Instead he questioned his students and, once they came up with an idea, he questioned them again!

My title this week is a direct quote from a former head teacher after observing a lesson in which I was at my didactic ‘performing seal’ best thinking I was delivering an outstanding lesson; I wasn’t!  She was, of course, trying to steer me towards the Socratic Method. A method which I have truly come to understand as a fifty-something teacher who simply does not have the energy to spend four or five lessons a day at the front of the class chalking and talking.

With this in mind, I decided that every lesson this week was going to follow the same Socratic framework and that I would measure outcomes in terms of student engagement and retention and in my own fatigue level and work output at the end of the week.

Thankfully, there is a predictable set of elements to this method that holds for all subjects and disciplines.

  1. Problem centred: with the student as the primary agent in learning.
  2. Teacher’s role: to prompt students to solve the problem. To be a co-learner.
  3. Primarily inductive: using discussion, dialogue, and problem solving.
  4. Test of truth: reason and evidence.
  5. Learning is a conflict of ideas: a thesis, antithesis, and a synthesis that results in new knowledge (Hegel).
  6. Student’s role: to be active, questioning, critical, and learning to trust one’s own judgement (independent thinking).
  7. Evaluation is application of understanding interpretation of data–commonly in an essay, speech, journal, or a review.
  8. Ultimate goal: wisdom viewed as an informed ignorance (knowing what one does not know–the Socratic paradox).

Adapted from: http://www.collegeenglishbooks.com/two-models-of-teaching-learning.html

Point number 8 is problematic as ‘wisdom as an informed ignorance’ does not pass exams. Therefore, I approximate this method as closely as possible whilst ensuring that students have the knowledge and skills they need for success.  I am a co-learner/ facilitator who knows the end product from the start.

Here are two examples.

A Yr7 lesson on the characteristics of living things began with a picture of a Zombie on the whiteboard.  I asked students to tell me if the Zombie was dead or alive and to use biology knowledge to find out.  Very soon they came up with MRS GREN (mnemonic for movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition) they had a great debate about whether zombies pooped or not and then wrote a paragraph to discuss what they knew about Zombies using every key term from MRS GREN.  As they worked I prompted and asked questions such as ‘what happens when a Zombie is injured; can its body repair?’  I floated around happily sitting with different groups of students and marking their work as I went!  Result: one set of engaged students one set of books marked!

A Yr 13 lesson on the circadian rhythm in which I asked them to discuss the relative importance of the biological clock and external factors, such as light and social cues, in its regulation.  I gave a brief introduction on circadian rhythms and then gave some studies (a page photocopied from a book) so that they could back up their ideas with empirical evidence and reach a conclusion. All students produced a mind map of their ideas. At the end of the lesson the class synthesised their ideas and a student wrote them on the whiteboard whilst I slept in a corner (only joking!)

This method is now my new way of teaching for two main reasons.

Students are active and engaged in their learning, they are far less distracted by talk of relationships, food and shopping and they learn problem-solving strategies instead of facts.

I am much more relaxed and have decreased my workload. Powerpoints no longer contain knowledge to be copied down (they can get that from a book) but typically consist of a slide with (no more than) three key facts to give a common framework of understanding from which to start and then a picture, film clip or quote as a prompt.

Jobs done:

  • All prep, teaching and marking (most of the marking in the lesson)

Pending for weekend: nothing!

Jobs not done:

  • data entry/admin jobs


Wishing you a restful weekend and a Socratic week!



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