Cajon High School’s Socratic Seminar Shows The Power of Philosophy For Children

Cajon High School’s Socratic Seminar Shows The Power of Philosophy For Children May 30, 2015


There are many heartening stories about schools and teachers thinking outside the box in an effort to improve the educational experience for their students. And it seems that more and more educators are looking to philosophy specifically for inspiration. The Atlantic published a piece the other day about Cajon High School in San Bernadino, California.

Cajon High School has a program called AVID — short for Advancement Via Individual Determination — which includes what they call a “Socratic Seminar.” As one 2009 Cajon graduate put it:

I thought I had it all planned out, but things do fall apart or obstacles do get in the way, but I was taught to get back up and try again. Avid taught and helped me a lot. Thanks to Mr. Peters and Mr. Kelley, I got the help/guidance to college. All the Socratic seminars taught me to not be afraid to ask questions or speak up in a room of 200 people.

The syllabus for the seminar states

Socrates, a Classical Greek philosopher, was convinced that the surest way to attain reliable knowledge was through the practice of disciplined conversation. He called this method dialectic, meaning the art or practice of examining opinions or ideas logically, often by the method of question and answer, so as to determine their validity.

The handout goes on to state that students in the seminar attempt to gain a deeper understanding of a specific text — which could be a novel, a poem, a piece of art or music — using the dialectic method. Additionally, students are encouraged to listen carefully to their peers and refrain from interrupting, all with a view to enhancing socialization and preparing students to be respectful participants in our shared democracy.

Here’s the text of a video showing the AVID Socratic Seminar in action, including the captions describing it. Some student questions are in quotes:

The previous day, students have read and marked two articles on social media. Students also prepared higher-order questions for the seminar. On the day of the seminar, desks are arranged to accommodate a group discussion. Everyone brings their articles and questions to the table. The teacher selected a student to begin the seminar. Sentence frames are posted to help raise the level of academic talk. “Why are teens so attached to social media?” The article is referenced to help answer the question. As the discussion gets underway, other students ask questions. Students encourage each other to speak. The teacher asks a question to move the discussion forward. “Do you think your parents should look through your stuff on Facebook?” “What if someone is bullying you online? Should you show your parents?” After the seminar is over, students reflect on how it went.

This is just beautiful. The students are practicing critical thinking with an underlying philosophical rigor, learning respectful dialogue in a pluralistic society, and experiencing an increased level of engagement because the topic — social media — is something personally meaningful to them. They’re discovering what they think and feel about important issues like cyberbullying, personal autonomy, and time management.

I don’t know if the AVID Socratic Seminar was created with the Philosophy for Children (p4c) pedagogy in mind — I sent an email to the teacher mentioned in the article from The Atlantic — but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Here’s what Grace Robinson, a p4c practitioner, told me about how she does p4c:

Working together under the supervision of a facilitator , a group encounters a stimulus (a philosophical puzzle, story, a thought experiment etc.). They then formulate a question in response to the stimulus and explore the question in the ensuing discussion. The session ends with a meta reflection on the whole process.

And Chad Miller, Hawaii’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, told me that p4c can help with the Common Core State Standards and accompanying assessments, because if the state tests are truly aligned to the standards, then his students should do well anyway, because inquiry dialogue of p4c can be applied to any subject:

The spirit of the Common Core is that it wants people to think for themselves. And the way that I’m teaching, using Philosophy for Children — that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at in my classroom. I’ve never taught to the test. My focus remains on creating an intellectually safe community of inquiry that provides opportunities for students to develop their abilities, and confidence in how to think responsibly for themselves.

It’s difficult to imagine what more we could ask from public education in America.


Image via Wikipedia Commons

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