Posts Tagged ‘discussion’

Classroom Socratic Seminars: Teaching the Art of Dialogue

Statue of Socrates in Trinity College Library

Statue of Socrates in Trinity College Library (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International/(c) Bar Harel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Information literacy skills are integral to today’s rising students for many reasons, including tendencies toward information overload and the trend of fake news.

The gathering of information begins with a need or desire for an answer to a question. Perhaps that question is posed by a teacher or by the student herself. The next course of action in schools these days is usually to consult a website, or perhaps a book. Information literacy skills support students in navigating this process of finding answers.

But once students are equipped with these vital research skills and find answers to questions, what is the next step toward understanding and integrating the information they find?

Another way to ask that question might be this: How can we turn information gathering into wisdom?

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”—Socrates

Socrates prized questioning over information gathering. He valued the qualities of critical thinking and engagement with a topic. He believed in creating a learning atmosphere of cooperation, dialogue, listening, and further questioning—cornerstones of the Socratic method, and foundations of the Socratic seminar.

Socrates believed that collecting and memorizing information provided little opportunity for true learning. And as learning was best nurtured in a social atmosphere, the lone activity of research provided little support for critical thinking and comprehension.

Navigating and bridging the educational essentials of research and the art of critical thinking may be a challenging journey.

The Socratic seminar is one way to help connect these two elements of a successful classroom.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”—Socrates

The Socratic seminar provides students with a forum to ask questions and exchange ideas with their peers on a specific topic, event, or piece of literature. Students come prepared to engage in discussion with fellow students, having read assigned materials, conducted appropriate research, made personal connections, and formulated questions to bring to the seminar.

The teacher becomes the seminar’s facilitator, keeping the students on topic and asking open-ended questions when necessary. The goal is to allow students to practice the art of true dialogue. Emphasis is placed on the value of listening and respecting everyone’s questions and opinions. Socratic seminars are not debates; rather, they are cooperative conversations geared toward critical thinking and discovery.

Interested in learning more about this teaching and learning tool? Check out this Socratic Seminar Strategy Guide and this Seminar Discussion Rubric, and select from these Socratic seminar lesson plans on literary texts, immigration, and human gene editing.

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”—Socrates

CultureGrams Extremes Tables

Can you list the ten largest countries in the world? What about the smallest? Can you name the ten most populous countries? The ten countries with the youngest or oldest populations? Do you know which countries have the most women in parliament or the fewest internet users? What countries have the largest number of airports or the smallest number of physicians per 10,000 people. For answers to these and many other questions, check out CultureGrams Extremes Data Tables. These fascinating tables list top and bottom ten countries in a variety of categories. Links to the tables can be found in the lower portion of the left navigation bar on our Graphs and Tables page.

Extremes Table via ProQuest CultureGrams

But these top ten and bottom ten tables aren’t included merely as a source of geographical  and cultural trivia. They can also foster discussion and critical thinking. Students might be asked to think about why particular countries are on a specific Extremes table and what those countries have in common. For example, what do countries with a low population density have in common? What factors might result in certain countries having high or low life expectancy?

Also, they could discuss the impact of a country being very high or low in a particular category. What impact does it have on a country if it has low public school enrollment or high life expectancy? What effect might an aging population have on a country? What about a very young population?

And another option might be to look at some of the tables and consider how certain data in the tables might be misinterpreted. If one looks at the countries with the highest public spending on education, does that mean that those populations are the best educated? Why or why not?

Although they make up only a small part of the CultureGrams database, the Extremes tables are a tool that will  yield valuable insights to those who are able to think critically about what is revealed in the numbers.

All the Things That Are Difficult to Discuss

This was supposed to be a blog post on human trafficking and slavery. In honor of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Preventing Month, I put together the January Spotlight of the Month on this topic, using materials available to students and teachers on SIRS Knowledge Source. Although I had done the research and felt I had a handle on this emotional and challenging content, I still was feeling ill-prepared to write a blog post about it.

My apprehension got me to thinking…how would I one day talk with my 10-year-old daughter about this complicated issue? We have pretty intense discussions about human history and difficult events, but have we discussed human trafficking and slavery?


Then I remembered…this horrific topic was broached very delicately in her classroom last year. And it’s come up again this year in her Model UN discussions at school. Not in great detail, of course, but enough so that she is aware that human slavery is a modern-day reality, not just one of the tragic truths of U.S. history.

She learned about this issue in school, from a seasoned professional, with proper context and adult support.

So this blog post is a heartfelt THANK YOU to all teachers for navigating countless emotional and demanding discussions in the classroom about events and issues that touch all of our lives.

My daughter has come home from school knowledgeable and talking about the Holocaust, slavery, terrorism, poverty, hunger, war, lack of education in many parts of the world and contemporary women’s rights issues. She has been a part of classroom discussions on divorce, bullying, and death. I have been fortunate to be in her classroom for a few of these conversations. I’ve admired the aptitude with which her teachers directed the dialogue, and have observed the benefits of having a peer community surrounding you when developing an understanding of new and challenging concepts and ideas.

My daughter and I have talked about these issues, too–sometimes before they are discussed in the classroom, sometimes after. Sometimes both. And I am always thankful for my ability to help my daughter understand and integrate these complexities of life.

Today, I am so grateful for the teachers who have done the same.