Parent Resources Socratic Method


Acton Academy Mesilla Valley


Laura Sandefer

June 28, 2013

Even better…. how does a concoction of world-class lectures with some spicy Socratic discussions on the side sound?

With all of our talk about being Socratic, it may surprise you that one of our favorite summer family experiences is listening to excellent lectures together delivered by experts from around the globe. The world is literally at our fingertips. It seems wasteful not to savor what is available when our schedule slows down and the days get longer. Some of our favorites are from The Great Courses. Right now we are enjoying the “Turning Points in History” series.

There are so many resources to explore. Here are just a few:

At the opposite end of the educational spectrum is the Socratic discussion – near and dear to our hearts at Acton Academy as one of the great experiences for learning.

Several parents have asked for a “cheat sheet” to lead Socratic discussions at home. My five bullet points have turned into a bit of a lengthy notebook for you. I hope the information below helps you to embark merrily on your way:

What is the purpose of a Socratic discussion?

It might be easier to grasp what it is NOT. The purpose is not to come up with a right answer or to learn facts. These are not debates with a winner and loser; and they are not meant to deliver factual information. (I do love a good debate and I really like to win but I tuck that part of me away – or try very hard to – when the time comes to be Socratic.)

The true purpose of a Socratic discussion is to come to new or deeper understandings of oneself, others and the world through an authentic wrestling with thoughts, information and ideas. And the real adventure is that you have no idea where you will end up.

What does it take to have a good Socratic discussion?

  • It takes letting go of preconceived agendas.
  • It takes learning to listen more than you speak.
  • It takes saying good-bye to your ego.
  • It takes all participants following understood rules of engagement.

Our middle school Eagles wrote this list of rules for parents to follow:

  • Listen carefully so you can respond to what was just said.
  • Have a firm opinion but keep an open mind.
  • Make a choice, no waffling or “weasel words.”
  • Don’t raise your hand while other people are talking.
  • Don’t fidget.
  • Do make eye contact. (We sit so we can see all faces.)
  • Refer back to what others have said; build on other people’s points but don’t repeat.
  • Be concise.

When is the best time to have a Socratic discussion?

  • When you are courageous enough to change your mind;
  • When you want to understand others better;
  • When you have time to listen;
  • When you feel curious;
  • When you want to learn something new;
  • When you feel loving and open;
  • When you want to experience living fully in the moment.

A good Socratic discussion should have a focused time limit: 15 – 30 minutes. The tension of a time constraint helps harness energy.

What must I do?

1. Prepare a “launch” that sets up a dramatic choice to be made.

You may set up the choice or dilemma by reading an article, story, quote; or watching a short video. A launch that works well is telling a personal story from your childhood about a dilemma you faced. Our children love to learn stories from our pasts. Be vulnerable. Be open to your emotions. Don’t reveal what you chose to do until after the discussion.

2. Once the dilemma or problem is set up, pose the choices available:

Should you do X or Y?

The idea here is to create the opportunity for concrete responses. Avoid asking open-ended questions like, “What do you think about….” or “Why do you think….” Open-ended questions push people deeper into their own thoughts rather than keeping them keenly listening and in the moment. This takes practice but the results are immediate and rewarding.

Another trick to force concrete responses is to ask for participants to rate something on a scale of 1-5; or rank a short list of things in order of importance. Taking a vote is a great tactic, too.

3. Manage the discussion process by listening and focusing on energy flow. Allow silences to happen. Wait patiently. Force participants to make a choice. No waffling. Dig deeper: Why?…why?…why?
 Other “digging” questions: “What evidence or experience do you have for that?” “Can you give me an example?” “Can you say that another way to clarify what you mean?”

4. When it’s clear energy is waning, it’s time heat things up by tossing in another question that narrows the choices or raises the stakes. It’s best to have 3-4 questions prepared before you start to keep the discussion moving. The best example to show you how to raise the stakes during a discussion is from our own classroom. Please read the note attached below.

5. Give a 5 minute wrap-up warning and then create a concluding experience – take a final vote; or ask who changed their minds and why; or simply ask each person to share a final thought or something new learned. Finish with sharing gratitude to all participants.

And there you have it. You are prepared to brew up your own Socratic discussion. Now, just toast up a few s’mores and you are set.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: In addition to leading a Socratic discussion, you can practice simply being Socratic in your general communication with your children. Instead of always answering their questions (which builds dependency on you,) try answering with another question. “What do you think is the best thing to do?” “Where do you think you can find the answer to that question?” “I trust you to figure that out.” “Oh, I can’t wait to see what you decide to do.” “You have all you need to answer that question yourself. What ideas do you have?” You will soon see your children being empowered to solve their own problems and take care of their own needs. Warning: This is hard for people like me who like to be needed, be in control and take care of people…okay, even spoil them. It’s hardest because at first they may want you to do things for them and fix their issues. They may beg and cry. Over time, I have now learned that being Socratic with my family is practicing love in a way that honors them more deeply. It takes more mental energy, time and patience but it ultimately sets them free to be who they are meant to be. This is true love. And it doesn’t mean I don’t get my fix “spoiling” them with affection, quality time together and mindful listening every day.

ADDITIONAL READING (oh please do read these!)

  • Acton Academy’s Own Best Example of Asking Great Questions:

Socratic Questioning to Turn up the Heat.docx

  • Jeff’s note for students and guides to use when helping each other in math. (Yes, math can be taught Socratically):

Thoughts on Teaching Math Socratically 6.13.docx

Happy summer!

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Hero’s Journey Parent Resources



Laura Sandefer

June 5, 2013

Comparing the academic programs at public schools with the learning that occurs at Acton Academy is like comparing apples to oranges – or even apples to ostriches. Let’s start right at the beginning: our mission at Acton compared to the objectives of most public schools.

Horace Mann, the father of public education in America, when asked about its goals replied: “Education is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Since 1827, many public school administrators have sought to churn out “productive citizens,” as if their goal is to manufacture standardized employees to serve industry and government.

Jeff and I both received excellent public school educations. While there are examples of excellent public today, these are the exception and not the rule.

In contrast, our mission at Acton is to equip and inspire independent learners, so they can discover personal callings that will change the world for the better. This mission is what drives our purpose-centered and individualized curriculum.

With the divergent goals in the spotlight, let’s ask the question again: What will my child miss by not attending an excellent public school?

Your child will miss:

  1.  Moving in lockstep with all the other children his or her own age, in particular moving uniformly through math, grammar, spelling, science and civics, regardless of ability and interest.

  2. Memorizing lists of information (multiplication tables, state capitals, periodic tables) for the sake of regurgitation on a standardized test.

  3. Being forced to read a long list of books, in a way that can curb curiosity and kill a passion for reading;

  4. Having worksheets and other homework assigned that takes away from family time;

  5. Seeing knowledge as information that must be categorized into subjects or silos.

Here are few examples:

Perfect grammar versus a love of writing: At Acton, we care most about our children learning to love to write and finding their creative voices. Yes, grammar and spelling matter, but once a student learns to think deeply and choose vivid words and write sentences that sing, grammar and spelling are relatively easy to master. The reverse is not always true.

A lack of early emphasis on grammar and spelling can be a lightning rod for some parents. It is shocking to pick up a letter written by one of our children and see glaring mistakes in spelling or grammar. We all want the rules to be mastered and followed. We all want proper spelling and punctuation. But being a parent at Acton means learning to appreciate our children before we try to perfect them – to listen to their beautiful ideas and voices and celebrate that they love to write. Mastery of grammar and spelling will follow soon enough.

Memorizing versus understanding: Memorization is another major difference between Acton students and their peers at the public schools. Memorizing multiplication tables is just fine, but as a requisite, it just doesn’t necessarily lead to a love of mathematics.

Yes, we all memorized multiplication tables, and it is often helpful to have that information in your head. (A confession – we have multiplication flashcards at home too!) But at Acton, we care more about the “why” behind the calculation – and the hero who discovered a new mathematical insight – than memorization alone. Our Montessori manipulables at Acton are excellent tools for students to see and feel why math works before ever putting pencil to paper.

It is the same with the state capitals and U.S. presidents. Wonderful to memorize! Some students will choose to do so. Others don’t have a passion for it because they know in the 21st century they have the information at their fingertips – so they’d rather master critical thinking or a useful skill instead.

Required reading lists versus a love of reading: The danger of required reading lists is that they can kill the love of reading. My stepdaughter can speak eloquently to that point. At Acton, we guide our students in their choices and let them experience what it feels like to lose yourself in a beloved book. So far, our community has a love for reading like no other school I have ever seen. (Parent note: One trick I have for satisfying my love of the classics is through nightly read alouds: from “Animal Farm” to “Anne of Green Gables” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we have cried and laughed through many books together as a family.)

Homework versus Quests: The only thing I’ll say about homework is this – school isn’t life. We want our students to live full lives spending time with family and friends and pursuing their own passions. They are in school eight hours each day. That is enough. Some of our students do choose to do their math and writing at home; and most do lots of evening reading. The choice to do so is empowering. The requirement is deflating.

Siloed subjects versus integrated learning: A final difference is that of categorical “Subjects.” Our curriculum will not have a “biology class” or an “English class.” This may be hard for parents to accept. It is comforting to see a textbook highlighted or a high score on a multiple choice test. But how often in life do you get to focus on just one topic and ignore the broader world? When you write your family budget or plan a trip or market a product or choreograph a ballet, aren’t you integrating knowledge at breakneck speed?

At Acton, our projects combine several “subjects” into an exciting quest or journey, with a clear and pressing problem to be solved. We will cycle through physics, engineering, economics, entrepreneurship, biology, earth science, chemistry, geography, government, history, art and more – many times throughout our elementary, middle school and high school years. We just won’t do it in a standardized order, according to a state educational agency.

We believe “learning to do” multiple times, at different ages, encourages deeper learning than one pass through a textbook. We also believe that learning must matter to our students on their hero’s journey, so they have a passion to master a skill or idea. As our students get older, they will go deeper into the particular areas in which they are passionate. Some may go deep into chemistry or physics; some into art history or economics. Our independent learners are equipped to make these choices, in a way that best suits their individual gifts.

In conclusion, please know that we are constantly reading through curricula documents from schools all over the world – public and private – searching for gaps and new approaches. We love stealing great ideas – and often we find them in public schools, like diamonds in the rough. We are grateful our hands are not tied by regulation and that we can create cutting edge challenges based on the best practices from schools and the real world.

Please bring your ideas to us. Pass along websites, links, projects and challenges. We want to be curators and co-creators with parents, so together we can savor every new discovery. We want to feed our students the very best, nourishing experiences so they can fly.

I promise to keep you informed as we create new curriculum – the why, how and what of it all. Up next: a detailed look at “learning science.”

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