"I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think."
- Socrates

Never answer a question

Can you imagine your teacher in school never answering a question? Well, that's exactly the goal of a guide (teacher) at Acton Academy. In fact, students love to make it a game trying to trick the guide into answering a question 😉

As a teacher, or even parent, traditionally we answer hundreds of questions a day from the simple to the complex. But is that the best thing for our children? What does it teach them? When we jump in with an answer, we rob the child of learning something for themselves. We teach them that they don't have to think for themselves or figure anything out on their own.

As Jean Piaget said, "Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely."

At Acton we believe in equipping our students with exactly this: independent thinking and the confidence to solve problems and find solutions on their own. This is accomplished using the Socratic style of teaching.

"What a child digs for becomes his own possession."
- Charlotte Mason

The Socratic Teaching Style

The Foundation for Critical Thinking states that, "The oldest, and still the most powerful, teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking is Socratic teaching. In Socratic teaching we focus on giving students questions, not answers."

Throughout the day at Acton Academy, when a student asks a question the guide will respond, not with an answer, but with another question. They answer questions with questions! The guide's role is to do just what the title suggests, 'guide' the student to discover solutions for themselves. This teaches them how to learn independently and how to find/create their own solutions. When a student learns how to solve problems and find solutions on their own they build confidence in their ability to do so. They learn to learn. And they gain the ability to do it independently and confidently.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic method as defined by Wikipedia, "is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions...it is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape beliefs and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about a topic."

At Acton Academy, Socratic discussions (using the Socratic method) occur daily. During a Socratic discussion, a guide sets up scenarios and asks questions to stimulate critical thinking and independent learning. This could be on any topic from current events to history and civilization to personal character to classroom management and beyond. 

Acton uses Socratic discussions to replace lectures because through discussion student's are actively participating. Students are asked to make a choice, A or B?, and then to make arguments to support their beliefs. Throughout this process, students improve their critical thinking and speaking abilities and gain a better understanding of a topic than by passively taking notes during a lecture.

Furthermore, Socratic discussions at Acton Academy demonstrate to students that their thoughts matter and are valued. In a traditional adult-centered classroom/world children are taught that they are to learn from adults and that adults have the answers. At Acton we do things differently. We want to hear their thoughts. We believe that children are creative, intelligent, and very capable beings. Our goal is to empower them. 

Socratic Discussion Example

The following is an example of a Socratic discussion, that really happened, at Acton Academy Austin, TX. This account is from co-founder Laura Sandefer's book 'Courage To Grow'.

“Libby finished reading aloud the newspaper article and looked at the group of fellow students sitting on the floor in the circle around her. She'd just explained the premise for today's Socratic discussion, which she had blended from different sources to give a complete picture of the issue:

There were whales trapped in Arctic ice. They had only small holes to breathe through, and the holes were shrinking as the ice refroze. The open ocean was too far for them to reach in a single breath. The whales would drown as soon as the shelf above them solidified.

Three commercial ships were also stuck in ice, their crews near starvation and hypothermia. They weren't able to free themselves and couldn't travel over the ice to safety.

There were icebreakers near enough to help, but time was limited for both the whales and the ship crews.

"If you're the dispatcher for the icebreakers," Libby asked, "what do you do? Do you send them to save the ships or the whales?"

The young students called on each other, agreeing and disagreeing, specifying the reason for their opinion and building on each other's statements. A consensus was building around the possibility of saving them both if they worked fast enough."

"Libby was ready to turn up the heat. "There is one more important piece of information. The weather is worsening quickly. It's impossible to save both the whales and the humans with these conditions. Which do you choose to save: the whales or the humans?

The debate about the ethics of saving one over the other became more emotional but remained respectful and clear.

"There are plenty of humans in the world," Ellie said. "Isn't it more important to save the whales?"

"But can we just let people die?" Chris asked.

"These whales are included on the endangered species list," Anaya said, pointing to the whiteboard.

There were thirty-six students in the group. Libby stopped the discussion and took a vote. It was a tie: Half of them wanted to save the whales, and the other half wanted to save the humans. The debate continued. 

In perfect Socratic form, Libby didn't relent. She held up her finger to signal there was more information coming.

She said, "There are 20 whales still alive in the ice and 1,000 people on the boat."

This seemed to sway the group toward resolution, and the energy of the discussion abated.

Libby continued to turn up the heat to reignite the intensity of the conflict.

"These are the only 20 gray whales left in the world," she said. The students leaned in. This changed everything. Then she delivered the final punch: "And your family is on the boat.""

"Libby's questions - creating a fictional moral dilemma based on a real situation - did exactly what the Socratic method aims to do: force hard choices, change minds based on analysis of information, and instill the skill of careful listening and concise, purposeful communicating.

After five more minutes of heated but clear arguments, Libby looked at the clock. In pure commitment to the Socratic rules, she knew it was time to close the discussion. 

"One final vote. Please raise your hand if you'd save the humans." She counted. "Who would save the whales?"

It was clear. The humans had won this one.

"Thank you all for your participation. We have time for two people to share why they changed their minds and any lessons learned from the discussion." With a small smile of satisfaction, she closed the group right on time. The students stood up, giving her a round of applause. She had led them through rough intellectual and emotional territory with an air of professional elegance. They, too, were satisfied. All dispersed to their desks to begin their independent work time.

Libby was nine years old at the time. There was not a teacher in the room as she facilitated the discussion, nor did an adult choose the topic, advise her, collect the research, or write the questions. The ages of the children in the circle ranged from six to ten years old."

Stay tuned for my next post on another way 'Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down!' 😉

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