Socratic Discussion at Acton Academy

Socratic discussion at Acton Academy: The Thinker statue of Socrates against a clear blue sky

Written by Lisa Bean

Lisa is the founder and head of school for IGNITE: An Acton Academy. She is a Mom of two boys, an entrepreneur, and a coach for high-performance businesses, leaders, and parents. She is passionate about re-defining education for the 21st century, and is adamant that learning be a fun and engaging experience that honours a child's unique strengths and passions.

January 8, 2022

Life and learning at an Acton Academy is far different than what you’ll find at a traditional school, and the Socratic discussion is the cornerstone of our day.

At IGNITE: An Acton Academy we believe that asking great questions is far more important than regurgitating correct answers.

We want learners to be curious, and ask strong, thought-provoking questions. We also want them to practice and get comfortable with taking a stand, articulating their positions, and applying critical thinking to different opinions.

 

What is a Socratic Discussion? 

The term Socratic Discussion, Socratic Question, or Socratic Method is named after the famous philosopher, Socrates. He used an educational model that focussed on discovering answers by asking questions of his students. Socrates believed that “the disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine ideas and be able to determine the validity of those ideas.”

Someone who is applying Socratic questioning does so in a disciplined fashion. They might use their questions to:

  • Get learners to clarify their thinking or explore the origin of their thinking.
  • Challenge assumptions.
  • Request evidence to build a case.
  • Discover alternative viewpoints and perspectives that might conflict.
  • Explore implications and consequences.
  • Question the question, and it’s importance.

At IGNITE: An Acton Academy, our methods are heavily inspired by Socrates.

 

Socratic Discussion at Acton Academy

At IGNITE, we start and end our days with Socratic discussions and sometimes incorporate them in the middle too. The questions themselves are often tied into the quests (aka. Projects) learners are  working on, or other things that may be going on in the studio. 

We use Socratic discussions at Acton Academy to introduce and discuss world class examples that set the bar for excellence.

We use Socratic discussions to provoke thought, discussion, and intentional choice regarding moral decisions and character traits.

We use Socratic discussions to help learners develop theories, and problem-solving skills.

We use Socratic discussions to develop a child’s thinking, and to give those inner thoughts a voice.

We use Socratic discussions to bolster communication skills.

Through these open-ended, thought-provoking conversations, learners develop critical thinking and outstanding communication skills as they form and articulate opinions on tough questions with no right or wrong answers.

 

Socratic Guiding

At IGNITE, we don’t teach, we guide. And, one of the most powerful tools in our tool belt is the question. 

We start each day with a launch discussion, and we end each day with a landing discussion. But we also use our questioning tool throughout the day in individual discussions. As a general rule, our guides do not answer questions. Instead, we guide our learners to think for themselves and use the tools they have at hand to find the answers themselves.

During a launch discussion our objectives are to ask each learner to:

  • listen both to the guide and the presentation of the question, and to each other,
  • take a firm stand,
  • defend their stand concisely with evidence or an example.

Questions are typically asked in such a way that there are two or more concrete options to choose from.

For example, a question that might form a launch discussion closer to the beginning of the year when we are establishing clear ground rules is:  “Which behaviour contributes most to a powerful Socratic discussion—being concise, providing evidence, listening with an open mind, not distracting others, or something else?”

It’s common for learners to change their mind during the discussion, which is respected and encouraged. We want our learners to form solid opinions, but we also want them to listen to each other with open minds.

 

A Socratic Example:

The facilitator of the discussion typically sets up a scenario, which may include reading a passage, playing a video, or asking the learners to do some prep work. Then the facilitator asks the overarching question, in the form of “Which is more important: A or B?” or “If you were in ‘X’ situation, would you do A or B?”, for example.

While there’s a significant art to facilitating the discussion, managing the rules of engagement, and the energy level of the discussion, you can get a feel for the set-up by watching this video clip where Jeff Sandefer, founder of Acton Academy, provides a world class example. 

If you don’t have time to watch this 22 minute long video, the key Socratic questions asked are:

  • (at 1min) Which behaviour contributes most to a powerful Socratic discussion—being concise, providing evidence, listening with an open mind, not distracting others, or something else?
  • (at 6min 30sec)  Twenty years from now, you wake up and realize that you’re a successful entrepreneur. Which of these will be the most important for you? Will it be that you got to use your gifts with great joy; that you made something with your own hands that you’re proud of; that you served great customers and helped somebody else; or will it be that you have money and freedom?

 

Turning the Reins Over to the Learners

Guides at IGNITE do not control the launch and landing discussion agenda for long. Our ultimate goal is to turn this leadership over to the learners.

I remember the first time my boys came home from the Acton Academy they attend to tell me that one of their fellow students led the launch discussion that day. They were so excited that this important task was entrusted to them, and they couldn’t wait for the day that it was their turn. To them it symbolizes trust, and a recognition that this was their journey. They were just as capable of asking good questions and their questions were just as important as any adults in the room would be.

 

How to use Socratic Discussions at Home

Socratic discussions work well in an environment where there are many diverse voices included, but there are many elements you can use at home too. Using some of these tips will get your child engaged, helping you turn the learning journey over to them.

Laura Sandefer, founder of Acton Academy wrote a phenomenal blog series on becoming Socratic at home. In this series she provides a few steps that parents can take. (All blog posts are linked below)

Step one: Get clear on your “why?” 

Step two: Set the contract

Step three: Create an attractive game and invite players

Step four: Learn to be kind and tough

Step five: Unpush your own buttons

 

If you’d like to learn more about how we integrate Socratic discussions and other learning elements at IGNITE: An Acton Academy please reach out. We’re always happy to support families as they determine the educational options that work best for them.

If you’re considering IGNITE for your family, reach out to us at info@ignitelearning.ca and we’ll send you a complimentary copy of “Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down” by Laura Sandefer.

 

 

You may also like…

Strengths Based Learning

Strengths Based Learning

When I first started using the term strengths-based learning to describe what I was searching for in a school for my...

Keep in Touch

Sign up here to have our newly posted articles, resources, and tools delivered straight to your inbox.