As I talk and consult with classical schools and teachers, I am frequently asked what makes for great Socratic teaching. Good Socratic teaching is an art that is hard to define and takes time to master. Every Socratic class is a kind of performance or drama, and no class (even with the same students) will be the same. I hope to take some time on this blog to define and explore great Socratic teaching, because without it no one will build a truly excellent upper school. I would like to start, however, by showing and example of excellent Socratic teaching. The featured teacher is Grant Horner who is dean of the rhetoric school at the Trinity Classical Academy in Santa Clarita, CA. Grant is a master teacher (in my opinion) and also a professor at the Master’s College where he teaches literature and philosophy. Grant is also a Fellow with the Alcuin Fellowship (which is part of the Institute for Classical Schools). In my view, this video is worth showing to new upper school teachers for analysis and inspiration. His topic is culture and film.
One final note of thanks: This video was made in November, 2010 in a sophomore class at the Regent’s School of Austin. Grant was a guest teacher in the class. Thanks to the Regent’s School for permission to tape this class and to Dr. Rosenberg and his 10th grade class for hosting Grant.
Thanks for sharing this, Chris. It really helps to put flesh on the bones of Socratic teaching.
This is indeed an excellent example of Socratic teaching. What strikes me about it, though, as someone who primarily uses the Harkness model, is how much talking the teacher ultimately does. He is the center of the class. Every comment is filtered through him. The students almost never address one another. This isn’t a criticism necessarily. It’s an observation. I’m struck by the difference between this and what I do every day–with the same kids, in fact, since I teach most of these very students now as 11th graders. There is certainly value in Socratic teaching. It is a useful tool. It would be interesting to consider the way this approach forms students vs. the way Harkness forms them.
Interesting. I would call this a discussion, a great one too, but not sure I would term this a socratic discussion because the teacher is the main spokesperson in the group summarizing and synthesizing information rather than consistently pushing open ended questions back on the students more e.g. develop that, unpack that, define that, someone help them out, give me a contrary illustration, etc. The approach too seems more piecemeal compared to what I’ve seen. Typically, you start with one big question you want to answer (or claim to examine) and the discussion moves along wooded paths as it were branching off here and there but coming back to the main path and the main question regularly. e.g. Meno asks Socrates, “How is virtue acquired?” And Socrates spends a lot of time defining what is/is not virtue first before coming back to discuss how one acquires it. The question leads the conversation and all the side trails are explored for the single purpose of furthering the answer to the question along. Used this way it is more student centered, the facilitator can pause and have students break into groups to discuss something and brainstorm then come back and share (that always increases student participation). A Socratic discussion, not just a question/answer free flow discussion, also follows a model or stages (Ironic, Metanoi, Maiuetic) ideally (of course one conversation may not do all three but a series of conversations is meant to move through these and one conversation with a well crafted question can go through all three in one session). CiRCE institute has some great courses on Socratic Seminars worth checking out to understand both the theory and praxis of it. Of course, this is still not the Harkness model, but the two are not mutually exclusive in a classroom setting either.