Transforming the Classroom


“Socratic dialogue” is a term that is usually associated with a pedagogy in which a teacher  asks his/her students deeply probing questions  about  the material being considered in a classroom.   The teacher  does not provide answers  for  students; he/she answers students’ questions with more questions, encouraging the   learners to delve deeply into the material  and  search for the answers themselves. This pedagogy can be used in any discipline with and with any age group. It stems from the work of Socrates, who believed that knowledge that “wisdom begins in wonder” and that “education is the  kindling of a flame, not the lighting of a vessel.”  While this pedagogy is not a teacher directed approach per se, it  remains a teacher-facilitated approach to learning.

I have used the Socratic method in my classroom for the past 30 years, and I have become convinced that  we can need to create learning environments  which deepen student voice  and encourage young people to be more active participants in their own learning. We must align classroom practice with recent  research in brain  science that indicates that students learn best if they are actively engaged with the material- i.e., “the one that does the  work, does the learning.“ As Justin Tarte has observed,  “The most engaged classrooms aren’t where teachers are asking good questions, they are the classrooms where the kids are asking good questions.”

As we work to transform schools,  we must begin to shift classroom practice  from methodologies that are  teacher-directed to  practices that are teacher-facilitated to   instructional  approaches where students drive the conversations in the classroom and  ask the essential questions.  The “Harkness approach“ is the term given to an approach in which students work as a learning community wrestle with materials,  exercise their voices and collaborate to make meaning curriculum materials- whether that  be a  primary source text,   a science experiment or a math problem.    The role of the teacher is redefined to be that of a curriculum planner and in the classroom, a co-learner. The role of the student is equally redefined to be an active participant in class discussions and to engage with  peers to create meaning  from materials. This approach promotes equity and values  the contribution of all voices  in the classroom; it is grounded in the belief that “ none of us  is as smart as all of us.”

This pedagogy moves  classroom instruction one step further towards  student centered learning on Barbara Bray’s Continuum of Engagement:


Similarly, the Harkness approach also  encourages student voice and shifts the  focus of the classroom to more Learner Driven Instruction as outlined in Bray’s Continuum of Voice:


Socratic dialogue, specifically the Harkness approach,  places students at the center of the educational process; it fundamentally shifts the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship and places ownership and initiative for learning on the student. “It reduces the impact of misconception, aids students in organizing knowledge, cultivates higher order thinking skills, and helps students to direct and monitor their own learning” (Lam, 2011).

School transformation must begin in the classroom, on a daily basis. We must undo what previous schooling has done to inhibit curiosity and the creative thinking of students. “If we want to engage students in thinking through our content we must stimulate their thinking with questions that lead them to further questions. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called “artificial cogitation” (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration)” (Paul, Martin, Adamson, 1989).  Shifting classroom practice is the way to begin.

Most importantly, this pedagogy promotes critical thinking  skills, active  listening and the ability to advocate for one’s own perspective while  appreciating the interests of  others. It encourages community and collaboration. It provides students with a model for civil discourse,  which is  noticeably absent in our world today. When our candidates for public office model shaming, blaming  and the inability to listen to one other, the  work in our classrooms is more important than ever if our democracy is to thrive- and survive.