Wisdom Begins in Wonder

Jacques-Louis David 1787

Death of Socrates

Wisdom begins in wonder. ~Socrates

In preparation for our first Socratic seminar, students learned of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, and his belief that genuine knowledge is gained only through questioning and dialogue. We spent time discussing the difference between dialogue and debate. The most significant difference being that dialogue is collaborative in which all members play an important role in constructing a common vision of shared truth and understanding. Whereas debate is oppositional; the goal being to prove the other person wrong.

Once students understood the features of dialogue, we began preparing for our Socratic circle. Presented with a passage from Roland Smith’s novel, Peak, students engaged in a close reading of the text. Individually, students explored several aspects of the passage, looking to annotate the following:

  • Vocabulary: Students might define unfamiliar words and note the author’s word choice – do the words carry positive or negative connotations? They might also research terms involving places or people to gain a more in-depth understanding of the content.
  • Literary Techniques: Students note techniques used by authors to enhance meaning. Such devices include the use of similes, metaphors, personification, repetition, alliteration…
  • Literary Elements: Students note how characters are presented, the setting described and its role in creating mood. They might also identify plot points and/or theme(s).
  • Connections: Students note any connections they make to other texts, world events (historical or current), or self.
  • Questions: Students craft a minimum of two questions to pose to the group. Questions must be provocative – causing others to pause and possibly rethink original viewpoints.

Following their individual annotation of the text, students shared their thoughts with their table group and added to their annotations. For homework that night, students reread the passage one final time and made any further revisions and/or additions.

We followed Matt Copeland’s, author of Socratic Circles, model of Socratic circles. The class was randomly divided in half. Half became the inner circle whose goal was to listen and construct a shared understanding of the passage. The other half became the outer circle whose goal was to observe the inner circle and reflect on their behavior of dialogue and offer suggestions for improvement. Each group was granted 10 minutes in each circle.

Nervous bundles of energy clamored into the room on the day of the seminar. It took me a few minutes to reassure them – that it would seem less nerve-wracking as we they grow accustomed to dialoguing. We rearranged the classroom and students reluctantly settled in their circles. My role was to kick-off the conversation with a question. As the question floated from my lips towards the circle, it was met with resistance. After an awkward silence, one brave soul found their voice and spoke up. We were off.

Despite the awkward silences, nervous giggles and shaking voices, students persevered. It was challenging for me to take a back seat and allow the students to work through their struggles; several times I wanted to swoop in and save them from the deadly pauses with a question or response. With great restraint, I refrained and they rose to the occasion and produced positive results. The inner circles developed a deeper understanding of Peak’s character and the theme of family and the outer circles provided specific, reflective feedback that will help students improve their dialogue skills. Students felt proud of themselves and hopefully, in turn, they realized the value of dialogue.

Lesley Lambright (1995), another author of dialogue in the classroom, states students “are more creative when they are engaged in a group, listening to the thinking of others, watching the play of one idea bouncing off another, while being encouraged to dig below the surface of thought and feeling. Transactions spark the imagination.” Isn’t that what we want – to spark the imagination of students and watch them fly? I know I do.

Sorry for displaying photos rather than video. I did film the Socratic circles; however, the quality of sound was so poor that the students couldn’t be heard.

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