The Socratic Seminar: Critical Thinking in the LAD Classroom
On a recent Wednesday morning, students in Mike Wilson’s Language Acquisition and Development (LAD) classroom were engaged in a lively dialogue about the complex themes in Elie Weisel’s wrenching autobiography, “Night.” Referring to annotations they’d made, students presented their opinions, shared insights, reacted to and built upon each other’s viewpoints. Wednesday mornings in LAD aren’t for raising hands to answer questions from the teacher — Wednesdays are for active engagement in the Socratic Seminar.
“The socratic seminar is a very egalitarian way to make the content and analysis of material more accessible,” says Mr. Wilson. “For some students — for example, students for whom English is a second language — writing can be the hardest thing to do. So, rather than worrying about punctuation and grammar and the very structured process that writing calls for, my students can really explore the things they’re learning about through discussion.”
As with any group of people, there are some students in the class who tend to speak a lot, and others who are more prone to listen. So, students are not only assessed on their contributions, but also on how actively they bring others into the conversation, thereby making it inclusive for everybody.
The seminars are guided by structured questions which Mr. Wilson presents each week in relation to the chapters they’re reading. Questions can range from analysis of content, to symbolism, to moral and ethical implications of decisions made for personal survival. The result is that students crack open complex ideas and are able to examine not just what they think about a text, but how they think about it. And, by engaging their fellow students in intellectual discourse about the challenging themes in “Night,” students are able to open their minds to different perspectives.
Reflecting on Wednesday’s class, Mr. Wilson says, “Sometimes I think of this exchange of ideas as an affirmation of humanity. It’s honestly my favorite class to teach and I really hope the students walk away feeling engaged and self-illuminated.”