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Case Study: Socratic Practice

I began my experience as an educator training teachers in Socratic Seminars in Chicago Public Schools for Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Project in the late 1980s. Paideia was a public school reform movement that aspired to give poor children as high quality an education as more fortunate children had.  The slogan was Robert M. Hutchins’ “the best education for the best is the best education for all.” Socratic Seminars – text-based open-ended discussions – were a deliberate attempt to integrate higher-level thinking skills as well as meaning and purpose into public school curricula where they had been lacking.

From roughly 1988 to 1996 I spent much of my time training thousands of public school teachers to lead Socratic Seminars. Despite the opportunity to continue working as a public school consultant making $2,000+ per day, I became depressed over the outcomes.  While a few teachers were capable of leading rigorous Socratic discussions, most were not.  I realized that I could not ensure high quality intellectual development among students by means of providing brief in-service trainings of teachers at public schools.

Sadly, even with more in-depth training most existing teachers cannot be trained properly:  Another Socratic Seminar teacher trainer was named the administrator for a $10 million grant to Timken High School in the 1990s, at the time the largest single philanthropic gift to a public school.  Although the terms of the grant stipulated that it could only be spent on educational improvements, and not bricks and mortar, this man quit well before he had finished spending the money.  He realized that the teachers, many of whom were hard-working and conscientious, had never experienced intellectual inquiry themselves.  With no power to hire, fire, or promote staff, he realized that no amount of spending on teacher training would result in the necessary improvements.

Meanwhile programs that I supervised personally were successful. In an inner-city Anchorage public school I created a program in which minority female students gained as much on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal in four months of Socratic Practice as the average American student gains in four years of high school.  Later at a private Montessori school in Palo Alto, I created a middle school program in which students averaged 100 point annual gains on the SAT vs. 15-30 point annual gains for the average American high school student.

I received supportive letters from leading educational experts, including Project Zero founders Howard Gardner and David Perkins, MacArthur “Genius” Award winning educator Deborah Meier, 1994 National Teacher of the Year Elaine Perkins, brain-based learning experts Renate Numella and Geoffrey Caine, authentic assessment expert Grant Wiggins, and others.

One of the differences between the highly successful projects that I oversaw personally and the inconsistent outcomes in most public school implementations was due to the transition from “Socratic Seminars” to “Socratic Practice.” “Socratic Seminars” were weekly events in which teachers led a discussion. By contrast, “Socratic Practice” was the daily practice of the prerequisites to intellectual dialogue:  Close textual analysis, group dynamics, and the habit of taking ideas seriously (a trait that defines “intellectual” but which is only irregularly encountered in K-12 student populations).

In collaboration with colleagues in Alaska, I had discovered that children without educated parents often lacked the social, emotional, and intellectual skills needed to engage in classroom intellectual dialogue.  This creation of a learning culture rather than merely a classroom activity inspired my book, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.  It is misleading to describe the issue as one of skill development:  The process of holding students accountable for their own moral beliefs and, even more importantly, getting students to hold each other accountable for acting in integrity with their beliefs, goes well beyond “skill.”  The goal is to transform culture by means of instilling a new set of interpersonal norms.

While it may sound unexpected that such a focus on interpersonal norms could result in improved academic performance, it is worth considering the extent to which much of secondary school in the U.S. resembles Beavis and Butthead.  At the most banal level, subcultures that watch less television tend to perform more highly than do those that watch more television.  Consider that on an international comparison of test scores (PISA), the U.S. ranks 20th among OECD nations.  But the average score of students from U.S. homes with only one television set would rank us third in the world.  Almost 80% of American children live in homes with three or more television sets, and scores from children in those homes are almost 40 points lower than are those from children from one television homes – a score difference that is roughly the same magnitude as the difference in scores between 20th-ranked U.S. and top-ranked Finland (see Table 2 here).  Simply creating a school in the U.S. at which students take learning seriously can result in significant improvements.

In 2002, after several years creating private schools, I had the opportunity to create a charter school based on Socratic Practice in northern New Mexico. The students there had never taken an Advanced Placement course; indeed, a representative of University of New Mexico-Taos told me point-blank that northern New Mexico students were incapable of passing an AP exam.

Through daily Socratic Practice by the second year of operation our school ranked 143rd best public high school in the U.S. on Newsweek’s Challenge Index.  Our third year we ranked 36th, with a pass rate (score of “3” or higher) on AP exams that was more than double that of the national average.  The schools more highly ranked were either magnet schools or in elite suburbs.

The statewide AP coordinator of New Mexico hired my faculty and me to train teachers from across the state. Parents moved to our area to enroll their children in our school at Moreno Valley High School.

Nonetheless, I was forced out of the school because I had never obtained an administrator’s license.  When NM charter school legislation had originally been signed by Governor Gary Johnson, no such license had been required.  But after I founded the school Governor Bill Richardson signed new legislation requiring all charter school principals to be licensed.  In order to enter an administrative licensure program in New Mexico, I would have needed to have had seven years’ experience as a licensed teacher.  Despite my fifteen years in K-12 education, I had never been a licensed teacher.  Appeals to the State Board of Education fell on deaf ears.

Contrast the existing world of education reform with that of technology:  Steve Jobs as a 12 year old kid picks up the phone and calls Bill Hewlitt.  He spends the next few years learning at HP, then goes to Reed, drops out, and goes to India.  He later sees the mouse and the GUI interface at Xexox Parc.  Xerox fails to develop the technology, Jobs and Wozniak do, and the rest is history.

In order to create an innovation, Jobs did not need to persuade professors of anything.  He didn’t have to ask any governments to change any rules.  All he needed was an idea, a partner, some capital, and customers.  Most business people and engineers ridiculed the personal computer for a long time.  If Jobs had had to get permission from professors, governments, and leading experts at IBM, Apple would not exist.  Ex ante no peer reviewed journal would have accepted an article showing that a college drop-out hippy would create the world’s greatest computer company.

Tomorrow:  How can we scale the work of individual educators?  And what institutions are missing that prevent us from doing so?

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  • TracyW

    Paideia was a public school reform movement that aspired to give poor children as high quality an education as more fortunate children had.

    I don’t know about Paideia, but in Lower Hutt, NZ that goal had apparently been achieved when I was a student. And I think it’s a pretty common achievement – lots of schools in rich areas coast on their students’ abilities. There’s quite a bit of evidence that once you control for student intake’s socio-economic class, private schools don’t do any better on average than state schools.
    (Note, I am not an unbiased observer).

  • eselpee

    Socratic Questioning works well for some students, but leaves many out (maybe the teachers knew more than you thought…). Differentiated directed classrooms, on the other hand, allows students to work more in small, teacher chosen small groups. The teacher acts as more of a conductor, support staff (SLP, SPED, Paras, enrichment) “push-in”, and diiverse student groups engage. These have been the most exciting I have ever worked in, and where my students have learned the most: all students from learning impaired to gifted.

    • michaelstrong

      I’m all for a radically diverse market in which thousands of different pedagogies are refined and combined into distinctive pedagogical packages. Here I am simply reporting my experience. I would no more want everyone to do things my way than I would want everyone to do things your way. When I started in education, I did – I thought there was one right way to educate. Now I envision a world in which a family with four children might want to send them to four very different schools. Human beings are radically unique, and there is no one right way to educate any two different human beings.

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        First, I really dig your posts. Second, you are aboluitely right about the four kids/four schools scenario. The problem of course, is that the authorities attempt to restrict competition as much as they can. So, your hypothetical family may be facing a monopoly situation where it is even against the law to send their child to a public school outside their district. Keep up the good fight!

    • Well I hate to say this but you know what also works well? A very highly structured old style classroom where students are expected to shut up and learn something. My school district has one such high school and is getting great results from previously hard to reach students.
      Any of these approaches can work if they are worked by people who can teach.

      • Jackson Wilson

        @Les – Any chance that the “previously hard to reach” classification has introduced bias into the selection of students to which this approach is applied? If so, “works well” as you have applied it may have a more limited scope than you have assumed.

        • There may be bias, but the bias may be justified, These were students who were not really delinquent, but were not responding well in the normal more open high schools. This particular school introduces much more structure and hard expectations, rather than the soft expectations of the rest of the District.

  • TracyW

    But the average score of students from U.S. homes with only one television set would rank us third in the world.

    Did you adjust the rest of the world’s scores for those from homes with only one TV?

  • Ilir Deebran

    Alex Gheg has a new consumer theory that makes more accurate predictions and allows the measurements of previously hidden thoughts, which means we can measure utility growth. Quantity, quality, variety and convenience in one equation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6tFLGpcOpE

  • famadeo

    Western formal education is a joke. It was concieved to domesticate people in order to meet the demands of the market. A far cry from providing tools for personal developement, as the pretense goes. Montessori, Dewey, Steiner, Kohn, among others have provided evidence that innovation or creativity need not be dynamized by external stimuli (be it grades, competition, the profit motive, etc.) but that given the right circumstances (mostly, not being constrained by necesity) people dedicate themselves to activities they enjoy for their own sake. Unfortunately, alternative modes of education cannot take flight in a world which’s guiding value is productivity.

    • TracyW

      Western formal education may have been “concieved to domesticate people in order to meet the demands of the market”, but it doesn’t seem to have been effective at said aim.
      For example since the start of Western formal education we’ve seen massive civil rights movements – the idea of the US having a black president would have horrified many of the people who originally set up Western formal education.

      I think you undervalue Montessori, Dewey, Steiner, Kohn’s contributions to education, they did far more than simply reprove the already widely-known truth that innovation and creativity do not need to be dynamized by external stimuli. Praising them for this is like praising Newton for his grasp of basic arithmetic. And the idea that given the right circumstances, people dedicate themselves to activities they enjoy for their own sake, is such a trivial point that I’m amazed that you bothered typing it out. Next you’ll be telling us that Montessori, Dewey, Steiner, Kohn were known to suggest that if you’re hungry, it’s probably a good idea to eat some food.

      Your assertion that “alternative modes of education cannot take flight in a world which’s guiding value is productivity” has gotten causality the wrong way around. A world in which the guiding value is productivity is a world that would encourage alternative modes of education to take flight. One can only improve productivity by trying new ways of doing things.

      • famadeo

        Can’t say I understand your point about the civil rights movement. Sure, plenty of things occur in political (or human) life that elude the realm of formal education (luckily). Are you saying one thing accounts for another?

        Firstly, I wasn’t reducing the importance of these thinkers to that one point. I highlighted that point becuase it is, in my view, the most relevant.

        Secondly, you’re not appreciating the importance of this point. Alternative modes of education have demonstrated that given the right circumstances kids (and people in general) will dedicate their attention to all sorts of activities, not to out compete someone, not for mere survival, not because they might get something out of it (such as money), but because they find them inherently enjoyable which has become the most effective stimuli to excel. The reason this is relevant is because such freedom is not possible in the context of a market economy. Markets install the need in people to remain competitive which means that staying afloat becomes the main concern, over the art or the craft itself. As such, people are still constrained by necesity. In this light, suggesting that productivity necesarily stimulates creativity is simply naive.

        • TracyW

          I’m not saying that Western formal education accounts for the civil rights movement, I’m saying that Western formal education failed to prevent it. Correlation does not imply causation, but a lack of correlation does imply a lack of causation.

          Firstly, I wasn’t reducing the importance of these thinkers to that one point. I highlighted that point becuase it is, in my view, the most relevant.

          So why mention them at all? I’d be heartily surprised if they were the first to notice such banal points.

          Secondly, you’re not appreciating the importance of this point

          Actually I appreciate the importance of it precisely correctly.

          Alternative modes of education have demonstrated that given the right circumstances kids (and people in general) will dedicate their attention to all sorts of activities, not to out compete someone, not for mere survival, not because they might get something out of it (such as money), but because they find them inherently enjoyable…

          I agree with you on this point.

          …which has become the most effective stimuli to excel.

          Interesting assertion. What empirical evidence do you have to support this? For a start, what alternative stimuli did you consider and what measure/s of excel did you use?

          Markets install the need in people to remain competitive which means that staying afloat becomes the main concern, over the art or the craft itself.

          An interesting assertion, how do you account for the creativity of such people as Piccasso then, or Dickens, who spent their early years in poverty? Or the Kenyan marathon runners?

          I also note that you have gotten things around the wrong way again. Markets create the wealth that increases the number of people who don’t have to worry about staying afloat, so they can focus on creativity. For example, Darwin and Newton both lived on inherited wealth. Van Gogh lived off his brothers’ earnings. Bell Labs could afford to support pure researchers like William Shockley.

          As for your general implication that markets suppress creativity, you don’t say compared to what. When I look at the real world, I see far more creativity in market economies than in other economies. The French Impressionists, Picasso, Virginia Woolf, Faraday, Watson, Lagrange, Brummel, all lived in market economies. Market economies are far more productive than other economies, and productivity is made up of numerous inventions, some big (eg jet engines), some little (eg a 1% more efficient wind turbine) that all add up. Your assertion that such freedom is not possible in the context of a market economy flies in the face of the evidence. You imply that I am naive, this implication would be more convincing if you displayed some awareness of all the counter-examples to your assertions, and at least attempted to address them.

          • famadeo

            “What empirical evidence do you have to support this?” This is the smae point you agreed with and insisted that is so painfully obvious it doesn’t warrent a mention. The evidence can be found where alternative modes of education take place. A good illustration is the new documentary La Educación Prohibida (Forbbiden Education) which deals with this very topic (though, to my knowlledge it hasn’t been translated to english).

            “how do you account for the creativity of such people as Piccasso then, or Dickens, who spent their early years in poverty?” Moot point. What about countless other geniouses who die unapreciated during their time? What about the countless mediocre no-talents who became successful by basically calculating where the mood of the time was?

            “I also note that you have gotten things around the wrong way again. Markets create the wealth that increases the number of people who don’t have to worry about staying afloat, so they can focus on creativity. For example, Darwin and Newton both lived on inherited wealth.” Moot point. In fact, it only further proves my point that people unconstrained necesity will excel being driven solely by passion for their art (here you provide more empirical evidence you demanded of me). I don’t see this as a credit to the market. The lot in life of Darwin and Newton are more the exception than the rule.

            What I said was that productivity as a value par excellence can very well get in the way of creativity. I don’t deny that it’s possible for the two to go hand in hand. But they are seperate concerns and when you uphold one over the other there is bound to be tension. Instances of creativity *and* comformity abound in market economies. Compared to what? Compared to not being preassured by time tables, competition, utilitarian results, etc. This point has already been made at least twice in this comment. If you want to play the Cold War card, I’ll have no issue in taking a market economy over the USSR, for example. I frankly don’t think that’s enough.

          • TracyW

            No it isn’t the same point. The first point you made was:

            … innovation or creativity need not be dynamized by external stimuli (be it grades, competition, the profit motive, etc.) but that given the right circumstances (mostly, not being constrained by necesity) people dedicate themselves to activities they enjoy for their own sake.

            This I agreed with, and explicitly said so.

            But then you went on and said that finding something inherently enjoyable was the most effective stimuli. This is the bit I’m not convinced on. I explicitly separated out the two points. Just because people are creative and innovative without external stimuli doesn’t mean inherent enjoyment is the most effective stimuli. You’re trying to change arguments midstream.

            Moot point

            On the contrary, it’s entirely relevant. Your assertion was “Markets install the need in people to remain competitive which means that staying afloat becomes the main concern, over the art or the craft itself.” You gave no evidence for this assertion. The points I cited are examples that contradict your assertion. Your theory predicts that Picasso would be a boring, derivative artist. That he was the most creative artist I know of makes me seriously doubt your theory.

            What about countless other geniouses who die unapreciated during their time?

            The ones who lived in market economies, such as Van Gogh, are also problematic for your theory. How do you explain Van Gogh, as well as Picasso? While not as creative as Piccaso, he certainly wasn’t derivative. Market economies didn’t stop creativity in his case either.

            What about the countless mediocre no-talents who became successful by basically calculating where the mood of the time was?

            If becoming successful was merely a matter of calculating where the mood of the time was, which you imply is a simple thing that everyone of moderate intelligence could do, why isn’t everyone successful? Why doesn’t nearly every book sell as many copies as the Da Vinci code? (Nearly to allow for the odd author who is in it for the art, not the money).
            If it’s hard to calculate where the mood of the time is, which the empirical evidence implies, then the people who did successfully do this have at least one talent.

            <blockquote I don't see this as a credit to the market. The lot in life of Darwin and Newton are more the exception than the rule.

            But they are more common in market economies than in other sorts of economies, which does make them a credit to the market. This is another problem with your theories.

            What I said was that productivity as a value par excellence can very well get in the way of creativity. I don’t deny that it’s possible for the two to go hand in hand. But they are seperate concerns and when you uphold one over the other there is bound to be tension.

            Actually you said ” alternative modes of education cannot take flight in a world which’s guiding value is productivity”, which read to me like productivity as a value par excellence can stop creativity (at least in the forms of alternative modes of education).
            I disagree that productivity and creativity are separate concerns. Very often people are creative in order to be more productive, indeed I suspect that form of creativity is more common than the unconstrained artist exploring new ideas just for the sheer pleasure of it.

            Compared to what? Compared to not being preassured by time tables, competition, utilitarian results, etc.

            This is doubtful. We’ve seen massive innovation in competitive sports, which are inherently pressured by competition, and timetables (eg the race date). Wars are notoriously (and sadly) a time of innovation in weaponry, tactics, and in medical treatment.

    • liberty

      Your point, minus the assumption that the market is unsalvagable, I completely agree with:

      innovation or creativity need not be dynamized by external stimuli (be it grades, competition, the profit motive, etc.) but that given the right circumstances (mostly, not being constrained by necesity) people dedicate themselves to activities they enjoy for their own sake. ”
      Innovation and creativity flourish when people are not driven by necessity to do things – whether that necessity is coercion (by state or hierarchical education system which destroys creativity) or economic necessity in a marketplace or corporatist economy (in which some may dominate others through inherited wealth privilege, etc).
      So, all that is needed is the relief from this necessity – for example, a minimum income (or vouchers, credits, etc at worst) – I favor a minimum income since we are all born to this Earth and deserve a piece of the natural resources which exist, and to counter unfair privilege dating to the time of slavery, etc.
      But no need to wipe away the market system altogether – which would put us in a very precarious position at present, given our culture, and allow tyrants to rise to take over the state, with promises of equally dividing the resources absent a market to do so. We need the market, voluntary exchange, rule of law, and democracy – the building blocks of a decent society.

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  • liberty

    Please convey this all to Bryan Caplan – I would love to see you respond to his arguments about education in a paper if you have not yet. Both the importance of good education – the kind you describe – and the importance of a culture of learning versus one of the consumption of mere entertainment (t.v., Beevis & Butthead) which of course can result in a market system without the cultural change, are very strong anti-Caplan arguments.

    • michaelstrong

      I agree that my perspective is profoundly different than his on the potential of education. That said, I’m in almost complete agreement with him that most of existing education is merely credentialism. He is a great case study of someone who accurately assesses most of education-as-we-know-it as a waste of time yet someone who seems to have little or no awareness that education-as-we-know-it is a tiny microcosm of the full potential of education as enculturation and habituation. He is like an evaluator of proposals for new technology in the former Soviet Union who is intellectually honest enough to dismiss all the proposals coming in as garbage, without having the vision to see what a free market in technology would produce.

      That said, he is in good company. If all the world been Soviet, then such an assessment of the limits of technology would have been the most sensible position by far. Only by means of the existence of a free society have we been able to prove what would have been a bizarre counterfactual: innovation in technology is possible! Because all nation states are essentially the Soviet Union when it comes to education, very few can imagine the potential for innovation in education, culture, and habituation in a free society.

  • I don’t know that I will be returning to the classroom for some of the reasons you and Caplan site. I came across many great teachers, but sometimes going out on limb and asking students to do things they don’t in most other classes is often met with resistance and/or retaliation. That is, lecturing is easier and better received than dialogue or hands-on approaches which are hard to do anyway when State standards and testing ask for the mastery of a large amount of content in a short amount of time. It takes quite a bit of ingenuity on the teacher’s part to cover the needed ground by having students ‘build their own’ rather than filling them like empty vessels in a factory.

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