Socratic Practice

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Michael Strong began his 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.


  1. Anomaly UK says:

    The brutal fact about schools is that the system requires such a huge number of teachers (I would guess 2-3 million in the US?) that no attempt to improve their overall quality can possibly have significant effects.

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