Some thoughts on education…

In Education, Pedagogy, Philosophy on Sunday, 16 September 2012 at 11:26

there is a need for teaching to involve true socratic dialectic.  below is an article i found on how it can be done on today’s public schools.  following it is an article on paulo freire.  i believe his books should be required reading for those going into education (along with jonathan kozol’s books on education…all of them!).  i urge anyone in education who has not read kozol’s books to read at least one along with freire’s work.  i believe a better understanding of epistemology and pedagogy, in general, are crucial when trying to make a difference in the education of our nation’s children.


Making the Leap to Socratic Seminars

By Elizabeth Ely

Premium article access courtesy of TeacherMagazine.org.

Over the past few years, I’ve attended summer workshop after summer workshop that touted the merits of Socratic seminars. The discussions revolved around open-ended questions facilitated by not teachers, as I’d previously understood such seminars—but students. Perhaps it is appropriate that I often left these workshops with more questions than answers.

I just couldn’t picture how this would work in my 6th grade English/language arts classroom. How would I guide my students to discuss topics in a civil way and connect their ideas to their academic learning? How would I ensure each student was engaged? How would I assess students? What if no one had anything to say?

But this past year, I pushed aside my own desire for control and gave more agency to my students. It was risky, especially when facing high-stakes testing and a new evaluation system. But my students were more engaged in learning than ever. And I knew that I didn’t need to worry about the evaluation rubric if my students could sustain this kind of growth.

Listen, Discuss, Collaborate

Let’s face it—most middle school students don’t walk into our classrooms in August ready and able to participate in a Socratic seminar … or any type of academic discussion. But here’s how I got them ready.

From week one, I began to set expectations about three major skills: active listening, academic discussion, and collaborative teamwork. I also worked to create a climate in which it was safe for students to speak their minds—where it’s okay to take risks (and sometimes fail).

The first thing we talked about was active listening. Students need to understand that a discussion involves constant feedback and participation from all involved—and that even a listener’s body language can affect the tone and focus of the discussion. I solicited and recorded students’ ideas about what active listening is, creating a sort of “how-to” poster as they discussed.

During the first week, I built in lots of discussion activities in pairs, small groups, and whole-class arrangements. Students got to know one another, built a sense of community, and practiced their active-listening skills.

One of our first activities was “What’s My Lie?” Students wrote three statements about themselves—two true statements and one that was a lie. I did the same, then modeled the activity: I shared my statements with a student volunteer, who then guessed which statement was a lie and explained why. I confirmed or shared the correct answers.

Next, students mingled and performed the same activity, changing partners when prompted. I reminded students about active listening and encouraged them to thank their partners in the activity.

During the early weeks of the school year, our activities were very structured, gradually becoming less so. Students learned to initiate questions or engage in discourse without my dictating the order of responses.

Early on, I introduced strategies for responding to others in a civil way that sustains the discussion: “I agree, Bobby, but I would also add … ” or “I disagree, Sally, because the text says … ” or “That reminds me of the article/text/novel that … ”

As last year got going, I realized that my new role was to facilitate learning rather than deliver it. As I moved from table to table, I modeled active listening and academic discussion for my students while at the same time getting to know them and assessing their learning.

Next Step: Introducing Socratic Seminars

I now know you should never spring a Socratic seminar on students without introducing the concept. Period. For a seminar to be truly effective, I’ve found my students need to know what it is, why they’re doing it, what’s expected of them, and how they’ll be graded. They need time to prepare.

Two or three days before our first seminar, I took an entire period to introduce what Socratic seminars are like—and why we would be doing them.

Students need to understand the roles of the seminars in my classroom—and their importance. A seminar can be a discussion of articles or a novel students have read, or they can be the culminating point of an entire unit. Seminars can help students with pre-writing or serve as performance-based assessments.

It is also important for students to perceive seminar participation as an exciting privilege—a chance to be responsible for their own learning. I want them to see that I am interested in their insights. The more I stress the value of the activity, the more value students place on their personal performance.

I began the first introductory session by giving students background on who Socrates was and what “Socratic” means. I introduced Socrates as an ancient Greek philosopher and teacher who valued the power of asking questions, engaging in inquiry, and discussing rather than debating.

Then we talked about the seminar’s structure. I’ve found an inner-outer circle most effective with my 6th graders. I arrange student desks in two concentric circles. During the seminar, the inner circle discusses while the outer circle observes and assesses their inner partners. Halfway through the seminar, the groups switch roles.

I explained the seminar responsibilities of students: to be prepared with their handouts and texts, to take part in discussion when in the inner circle, and to evaluate the discussion when in the outer circle.

My favorite part was explaining my role as teacher, which is to open a Diet Coke and relax. They laughed, but by the end of the year, they realized how accurate this description had been.

This year, this introductory lesson will be followed by a class session in which we watch and analyze a video clip of a Socratic seminar in action.

Deciding What Matters: Student-Generated Rubrics

I took another risk this past year as I committed to a student-centered classroom: I decided students should play a role in designing a rubric for seminar participation.

I had initiated this process at the start of the year, when I first asked students to identify the characteristics of an active listener. Continued reflection on the “how” of our classroom activities led students to become much more aware of my expectations—and their own.

The day after I introduced the basic concept of Socratic seminars, I asked students to consider how the seminars should be evaluated.

I distributed a template with categories (participation, quality of discussion, and behavior/attitude) and scoring columns (exemplary, proficient, and emerging). I left the contents of the rubric blank, and asked student groups to generate indicators for each of the possible scores for the categories.

I recorded student contributions and solicited revisions along the way, encouraging as much specificity as possible. And I found that, given the opportunity, my students set high expectations for themselves—in part because they were so excited and honored to be able to take part in the seminars.

The rubric-building activity helps students become even more aware of what’s expected on seminar day. Just to make sure we were all on the same page, I posted the rubric to my class wiki, requiring students to review it for homework and “sign” their names on the wiki page.

Many teachers have practiced this kind of student-centered instruction. But it was revolutionary for me, a teacher who once felt more comfortable with a tightly scripted plan for each lesson.

Here’s what my principal said after observing a Socratic seminar in my 6th grade ELA classroom: “The only thing that could have made it more impressive was if you had just turned around and left the room.”

On that day, in that moment, I became obsolete and loved it. It was then that I knew I truly had a student-centered classroom—my students were motivated and engaged enough to learn from one another without me.

Elizabeth Ely is a 6th grade ELA and world history teacher at Walker Middle Magnet for International Studies in Tampa, Fla. She is a member of CTQ’s Teacher Leaders Network and plans to continue taking risks this year in the classroom.


food for thought…

Reference: Smith, M. K. (1997, 2002) ‘Paulo Freire and informal education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/thinkers/et-freir.htm. Last update: May 29, 2012]


paulo freire

Perhaps the most influential thinker about education in the late twentieth century, Paulo Freire has been particularly popular with informal educators with his emphasis on dialogue and his concern for the oppressed.

Paulo Freire (1921 – 1997), the Brazilian educationalist, has left a significant mark on thinking about progressive practice. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed is currently one of the most quoted educational texts (especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia). Freire was able to draw upon, and weave together, a number of strands of thinking about educational practice and liberation. Sometimes some rather excessive claims are made for his work e.g. ‘the most significant educational thinker of the twentieth century’. He wasn’t – John Dewey would probably take that honour – but Freire certainly made a number of important theoretical innovations that have had a considerable impact on the development of educational practice – and on informal education and popular education in particular. In this piece we assess these – and briefly examine some of the critiques that can be made of his work.


Five aspects of Paulo Freire’s work have a particular significance for our purposes here. First, his emphasis on dialogue has struck a very strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education. Given that informal education is a dialogical (or conversational) rather than a curricula form this is hardly surprising. However, Paulo Freire was able to take the discussion on several steps with his insistence that dialogue involves respect. It should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. Too much education, Paulo Freire argues, involves ‘banking’ – the educator making ‘deposits’ in the educatee.

Second, Paulo Freire was concerned with praxis – action that is informed (and linked to certain values). Dialogue wasn’t just about deepening understanding – but was part of making a difference in the world. Dialogue in itself is a co-operative activity involving respect. The process is important and can be seen as enhancing community and building social capital and to leading us to act in ways that make for justice and human flourishing. Informal and popular educators have had a long-standing orientation to action – so the emphasis on change in the world was welcome. But there was a sting in the tail. Paulo Freire argued for informed action and as such provided a useful counter-balance to those who want to diminish theory.

Third, Freire’s attention to naming the world has been of great significance to those educators who have traditionally worked with those who do not have a voice, and who are oppressed. The idea of building a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ or a ‘pedagogy of hope’ and how this may be carried forward has formed a significant impetus to work. An important element of this was his concern with conscientization – developing consciousness, but consciousness that is understood to have the power to transform reality’ (Taylor 1993: 52).

Fourth, Paulo Freire’s insistence on situating educational activity in the lived experience of participants has opened up a series of possibilities for the way informal educators can approach practice. His concern to look for words that have the possibility of generating new ways of naming and acting in the world when working with people around literacies is a good example of this.

Fifth, a number of informal educators have connected with Paulo Freire’s use of metaphors drawn from Christian sources. An example of this is the way in which the divide between teachers and learners can be transcended. In part this is to occur as learners develop their consciousness, but mainly it comes through the ‘class suicide’ or ‘Easter experience’ of the teacher.

The educator for liberation has to die as the unilateral educator of the educatees, in order to be born again as the educator-educatee of the educatees-educators. An educator is a person who has to live in the deep significance of Easter. Quoted by Paul Taylor (1993: 53)


Inevitably, there are various points of criticism. First, many are put off by Paulo Freire’s language and his appeal to mystical concerns. The former was a concern of Freire himself in later life – and his work after Pedagogy of the Oppressed was usually written within a more conversational or accessible framework.

Second, Paulo Freire tends to argue in an either/or way. We are either with the oppressed or against them. This may be an interesting starting point for teaching, but taken too literally it can make for rather simplistic (political) analysis.

Third, there is an tendency in Freire to overturn everyday situations so that they become pedagogical. Paulo Freire’s approach was largely constructed around structured educational situations. While his initial point of reference might be non-formal, the educational encounters he explores remain formal (Torres 1993: 127)  In other words, his approach is still curriculum-based and entail transforming settings into a particular type of pedagogical space. This can rather work against the notion of dialogue (in that curriculum implies a predefined set of concerns and activities). Educators need to look for ‘teachable moments’ – but when we concentrate on this we can easily overlook simple power of being in conversation with others.

Fourth, what is claimed as liberatory practice may, on close inspection, be rather closer to banking than we would wish. In other words, the practice of Freirian education can involve smuggling in all sorts of ideas and values under the guise of problem-posing. Taylor’s analysis of Freire’s literacy programme shows that:

.. the rhetoric which announced the importance of dialogue, engagement, and equality, and denounced silence, massification and oppression, did not match in practice the subliminal messages and modes of a Banking System of education. Albeit benign, Freire’s approach differs only in degree, but not in kind, from the system which he so eloquently criticizes. (Taylor 1993: 148)

Educators have to teach. They have to transform transfers of information into a ‘real act of knowing’ (op cit: 43).

Fifth, there are problems regarding Freire’s model of literacy. While it may be taken as a challenge to the political projects of northern states, his analysis remains rooted in assumptions about cognitive development and the relation of literacy to rationality that are suspect (Street 1983: 14). His work has not ‘entirely shrugged off the assumptions of the “autonomous model”‘ (ibid.: 14).

Last, there are questions concerning the originality of Freire’s contribution. As Taylor has put it – to say that as many commentators do that Freire’s thinking is ‘eclectic’, is ‘to underestimate the degree to which he borrowed directly from other sources’ (Taylor 1993: 34). Taylor (1993: 34-51) brings out a number of these influences and ‘absorbtions’ – perhaps most interestingly the extent to which the structure of Pedagogy of the Oppressed parallels Kosik’s Dialectic of the Concrete (published in Spanish in the mid 1960s). Here we would simply invite you to compare Freire’s interests with those of Martin Buber. His concern with conversation, encounter, being and ethical education have strong echoes in Freirian thought.

Further reading and references

Key texts:

Paulo Freire’s central work remains:

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin. Important exploration of dialogue and the possibilities for liberatory practice. Freire provides a rationale for a pedagogy of the oppressed; introduces the highly influential notion of banking education; highlights the contrasts between education forms that treat people as objects rather than subjects; and explores education as cultural action. See, also:

Freire, P. (1995) Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum. This book began as a new preface to his classic work, but grew into a book. It’s importance lies in Freire’s reflection on the text and how it was received, and on the development of policy and practice subsequently. Written in a direct and engaging way.

Biographical material: There are two useful English language starting points:

Freire, P. (1996) Letters to Cristina. Reflections on my life and work, London: Routledge. Retrospective on Freire’s work and life. in the form of letters to his niece. He looks back at his childhood experiences, to his youth, and his life as an educator and policymaker.

Gadotti, M. (1994) Reading Paulo Freire. His life and work, New York: SUNY Press. Clear presentation of Freire’s thinking set in historical context written by a close collaborator.

For my money the best critical exploration of his work is:

Taylor, P. (1993) The Texts of Paulo Freire, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Other references

Kosik, K. (1988) La dialectique du concret, Paris: Plon.

Street, B. V. (1984) Literacy in Theory and Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Torres, C. A. (1993) ‘From the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to “A Luta Continua”: the political pedagogy of Paulo Freire’ in P. McLaren and P. Leonard (eds.) Freire: A critical encounter, London: Routledge.


Lesley Bentley – Paulo Freire. Brief biography plus lots of useful links.

Catedra Paulo Freire (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Sao Paulo) – click for English version.

Blanca Facundo’s critique of Freire’s ideas, and reactions to Facundo’s critique – interesting collection of pieces.

Paulo Freire Institute – a wide range of material available about current work in the Freirian tradition. Click for the English version.

Daniel Schugurensky on Freireconsists of a collection of reviews of his books and links to other pages.

Q&A: The Freirian Approach to Adult Literacy Education,  David Spener’s review for ERIC.


Thanks for your comments!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: