Socrates Café by Maureen Wittmann

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wittmann_maureenOne thing that I have learned in leading a history co-op over the past several years is that if I spend all of my time lecturing the children, they do not retain a great deal. However, if I engage them in conversation and ask probing question they make connections, come up with insightful conclusions, and retain their lessons.  This is known as the Socratic Method. The method is, of course, named after Socrates.

Though the most well known Greek philosopher, Socrates did not leave the world any great writings.  What we know of Socrates comes from his students, Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon.  Socrates did not teach through lecture, but rather through questioning.  He would approach his students as though he were ignorant and then ask specific questions about a subject until the student had to confess their own ignorance.  At this point, Socrates would start asking questions that would bring up a new way to view the subject thus opening the student’s eyes to new ideas and aspects.

Once, when my husband asked me to substitute teach his Confirmation class at the last minute, it was the Socratic Method that came to my rescue.  There was no time for lesson planning.  As I walked out the door, I grabbed a Catholic question and answer book for teens and decided to build my lesson around that.  I asked the students to pick a topic and I pulled a related question out of the book.  I didn’t lecture, hand out workbook pages, or organize a craft.  I just asked questions.  As the students answered, I resisted sharing my own opinions and instead threw out new questions.  “Just because” and “I don’t know” were not acceptable answers.  I forced them to look deep into their souls and really think about why they believe what they believe.  I was not worried about them ending up with erroneous conclusions, as I was there to guide them.

It was one of the best CCD class that I’ve ever taught.  The discussion was lively, almost every student spoke up, and everyone left with a lot to think about until the next class.  The students did not get bored or lose concentration, because they were actively participating.  It is much more fun to learn when you make a discovery on your own, even if it is guided by a facilitator.

This experience reinforced my desire to start a Socrates Cafe for the high school students in my local homeschool group.  Now that I have teenagers abound in my home, I have found it necessary to provide them with their own activities.  Play group just doesn’t cut it with teens.  Fortunately, Socrates Café has been a huge success with them.   We meet twice a month during the school year, however the teens have been trying to get me to agree to once a week year round.

Socrates Cafe is based on Christopher Phillips book by the same title. I don’t agree with everything Phillips writes in his books, but I love the idea of people gathering together for Socratic discussions. Phillips also promotes something called Philosophers Club for young children and has a children’s book published by the same name. I wouldn’t buy the book as the publisher puts out highly questionable materials, but you should be able to find it easily your library if you want to check it out.  Phillips has a website at www.philosopher.org/ which will give you all of the specifics needed to start your own Socrates Café or Philosophers Club.

One of the great things about Socrates Café is that it doesn’t cost any money to run. We meet at a local coffee house, so the teens and I do spend a little money on refreshments but that just adds to the fun.  We used to meet at the library, but the coffee house is so much more grown up and the teens enjoy the atmosphere more than the dungeon-like meeting rooms that my library offers.

We meet for an hour and a half. The first half hour is social time. We get our refreshments and chat before getting down to work. Sometimes we talk about what we are reading.  I try to encourage the teens to read philosophy related books. The final hour is spent in Socratic discussion.

The topic for the Socratic discussion is chosen at the previous meeting.  I let the teens pick the topic.  Everyone gives their ideas and then the group votes.  We try to keep the questions on current issues, yet general in nature.  For example, during the last November election, questions that came up were: What is a just war (Iraq and President Bush), Is it okay for a politician to ignore their religion when making laws (John Kerry and Catholicism), and What makes an excellent marriage (we had a gay marriage ban pass in Michigan).

I usually act as facilitator, though I sometimes let a teen take over the duties or invite a guest facilitator such as a priest.  I decide on many of my questions before the meeting. However, depending on what answers are given, some questions have to be thought up extemporaneously. At first this was a little hard to do, especially if the teens gave answers that were pretty far from what I anticipated, but I’m getting better at it with experience.

The best Socrates Cafes are when the members leave with more questions than they brought with them.  I want them thinking all the time.  Someday these kids will go off to college where their faith and world views will be not only be questioned but strongly challenged.  I hope that our meetings at the coffee house will help prepare them to answer those challenges confidently without their belief systems being shattered.

I encourage you to learn more about the Socratic Method and how you can implement it in your homeschool.  What can you lose?

Resources:

Websites
www.thomasaquinas.edu/curriculum/socratic.htm
The Socratic Method.
From Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in California. TAC’s entire curriculum is based on the Socratic Method.  This website explains the method and will give you some ideas on how you can apply it in your homeschool.

www-ed.fnal.gov/trc/tutorial/taxonomy.html
Taxonomy of Socratic Questions
A list of probing questions to ask your students and, again, will give you some ideas and lead you in the direction of becoming a teacher in the tradition of Socrates.

www.newadvent.org/cathen/14119a.htm
Biogaphy of Socrates along with information on how he used questioning with his students.

www.garlikov.com/Soc_Meth.html
Transcript of a teacher using the Socratic Method to teach third graders about binary numbers.

Recommended Reading:

Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy
by Jostein Gaardner
This novel that teaches about the great philosophers through an intriguing story.  Should be read by parents first as it is a secular book and there is an inappropriate reference late in the book regarding a teenaged couple.

Books by Peter Kreeft including Socrates Meets Jesus and Philosophy 101 by Socrates

Copyright 2009 Maureen Wittmann

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