A paramount objective of education is to help children develop their ability to think for themselves and to learn to use this ability in responsible ways. Much of current schooling falls short of helping children achieve this ability to think. Frequently, by the time children reach third grade, the sense of wonder with which they entered kindergarten-wonder out of which authentic thinking and thus thinking for oneself develops-has begun to diminish. By sixth grade it has practically disappeared. Children's thinking focuses instead on what the teacher expects. A major contributing factor to this loss of wonder is the failure to properly nurture the true voices of children. Due to a variety of pressures, both internal and external, the typical classroom teacher does not appear to have time for children's genuine wondering and questioning, from which structured inquiries can grow.
This apparent lack of time is exacerbated by the fact that most teachers simply have never been exposed to this type of inquiry. If teachers are ever to do this successfully in their own classrooms, they need time and guidance in learning how to conduct such inquiries.
The art of 'gently Socratic enquiry' is an educational initiative fostered jointly by the Philosophy Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the State Department of Education. It has been inspired by the work of Dr. Lipman, who was deeply concerned about his students' inability to reason and make sound judgments. His concerns led to the development of a philosophically based curriculum and methodology. As Director of the Philosophy in Schools Project, I have been working with pre-school, elementary, middle and high school teachers and their students, assisting them in creating intellectually safe communities where philosophical inquiry can flourish.
What is gently Socratic inquiry?
The 'gentle' in gently Socratic inquiry involves highlighting both a connection and distinction from what Socrates and the Socratic method too often have come to represent. Socrates is often portrayed as the consummate lawyer, cleverly questioning and manipulating his adversary into an 'Aha! Got you!' position of contradiction. The Socratic method is construed as methodical questioning and cross-examining, peeling away layers of half-truths, exposing hidden assumptions. It becomes an almost algorithmic, step-bystep procedure.
The term 'gently Socratic' is meant to distance the nature of inquiry presented here from the method described above.
The first connection with Socrates in 'gently Socratic inquiry' is dialogue. A salient feature of dialogue is not questioning (let alone cross-examination) but listening. Dialogue's first interest is not to counter, debate, disagree, lead, or expose, but to genuinely and simply listen. This quality of listening requires setting aside one's own thoughts in order to be truly open to what the other is saying. This is especially important because the 'other' in this case will most often be a child, and gentleness must be foremost in one's mind if one hopes to be privileged with an authentic response from a child.
Many factors in contemporary teaching and teacher preparation work against the kind of listening essential for genuine Socratic inquiry. A central tendency is the idea that the teacher is the one who is 'in the know' and the student is the 'learner.' Too often the teacher focuses her listening on hearing an expected answer or on probing the student's understanding of a particular idea or concept. 'Has the student understood what I am trying to teach?' is a stance that precludes the kind of listening essential for the success of gently Socratic inquiry.
The focus on dialogue means that a particular relationship must develop among the members of the classroom community that is quite different from standard classroom practice. The teacher provides ample time for students to express and clarify what they mean, to understand, to respond to what others have said, and to delve further into what other students intended. The teacher becomes a co-inquirer in dialogue with the children, rather than their guide or sage.
To develop the classroom community and the needed skills, the teacher needs to deliberately set aside time for both. A minimum of two sessions per week is highly recommended. As the children internalize the skills and procedures that emerge from the inquiry sessions, these ultimately appear at other times of the school day and in other content areas. The children begin to ask qualitatively different sorts of questions; they persist in seeking to scratch beneath the surface of a text or lesson, or personal situation.
An intellectually safe place
Gently Socratic inquiry begins by developing a context within which dialogue and inquiry unfold. Certainly, classrooms must be physically safe places. For dialogue and inquiry to occur they must be emotionally and intellectually safe as well. In an intellectually safe place there are no putdowns and no comments intended to belittle, undermine, negate, devalue, or ridicule. Within this place, the group accepts virtually any question or comment, so long as it is respectful of the other members of the circle. What develops is a growing trust among the participants and with it the courage to present one's own thoughts, however tentative initially, on complex and difficult issues.
Anyone who knows how to pretend they understand something even though they don't, or who has been in a context where they had a question but were afraid to ask it, has felt the influence of a place that was not intellectually safe. Intellectual safety is the bedrock upon which inquiry grows.
An important detail relevant to intellectual safety is proper acknowledgment of the diversity of views that emerge in the course of various inquiries. This is not the same as saying there are 'no right or wrong answers' or 'any answer is okay.' Sometimes a student will fail to present reasons, or well-thought-out reasons, to support his answer. Over time, the group begins to understand that it needs to take these criteria into account in considering a proposed answer. Mere unsupported opinion does not suffice.
Equally important is this: the goal is not to persuade anyone to any particular answer, but rather for everyone to reach a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues involved and a greater ability to navigate among these complexities.
Creating a community of inquiry
The most favorable configuration for developing a community is for the class, including the teacher, to sit in a circle, on the floor if possible. Unlike the more traditional configuration with students in rows, the circle allows all members of the community to make eye contact, to see each other. In the ensuing dialogue, participants are better able to hear what others are saying and also to see how they are saying it; in other words, the facial expressions and mannerisms of those who are speaking. The circle also facilitates seeing the impact on each other of the interaction. What is the impact of acceptance or rejection? Of careful listening as opposed to indifference?
An early objective is to establish a protocol whereby students feel empowered to call on each other, no longer relying on the teacher alone to hold this responsibility. The teacher may initiate the group into this practice by selecting a simple question that she thinks will draw out the children, such as 'What is your favorite food or music?' or 'What do you like best about school?' Each child then gets a turn to respond to this, before the turns get passed on in a more random fashion. One caveat is that if a person has not asked to speak or does not wish to speak, she has the absolute right to pass. If the community seems bogged down in a topic and is not getting anywhere, the community votes to see if the majority would indeed like to move on. If a minority still has interest in the topic, they can pursue it at a later time.
Developing an understanding of inquiry
Perhaps most basic to successful inquiry is the clear and shared understanding that 'we aren't in a rush to get anywhere.' In other content areas there is pressure to cover the material, to get on with it. The dialogue and inquiry sessions have a different feel.
Co-inquiry: In gently Socratic inquiry, no one, especially not the teacher, knows either 'the' answer to the question (if the inquiry begins with a question) or where the inquiry will lead. Any effort to guide an inquiry to a predetermined answer or outcome corrupts the process from the start. The dialogue develops its own integrity, its own movement, going where 'it' wants or needs to go. At various points it may bog down and need an occasional nudge but in the main, the inquiry emerges from the context.
Gently Socratic inquiry is co-inquiry in the best sense. The teacher is not a privileged knower. In such inquiries, the children are not infrequently ahead of the thinking of the teacher, leading the inquiry down unexpected paths. Indeed, what the teacher knows can interfere with participation in the unfolding inquiry.
The source of the inquiry: Whenever possible, the inquiry arises out of the questions and interests of the children and moves in directions that the children indicate. Even very young children generate sophisticated lines of inquiry from deceptively simple beginnings. One kindergartner; in response to the question, 'What do you wonder about?' answered: 'The other night, while I was gazing at the stars, I wondered whether anything came before space.' In the discussion that ensued, the children's exploration ranged from dinosaurs to God. Other inquiries have explored such topics as 'Could there be a greatest number?' (3rd grade); 'What constitutes a right?' and 'What is the purpose of rights?' (5th grade); and 'What is more important - friends, fame, or fortune?' (6th grade) Once children realize that the topics can indeed come from them and be pursued along lines they are interested in, the quality of their thinking is truly astounding.
One strategy for finding a trigger to set the inquiry off, and then giving it shape is described below.
Step 1. Read - A paragraph or two, an episode, a chapter, or a whole story. In the primary grades, the teacher may do the reading, or she may write the story on chart paper for everyone to read together. Alternatively, students could look at paintings, especially those by the students themselves; watch a video; read a poem; listen to a piece of music; or select a topic from a 'wonder box' into which children have placed things they wonder about.
Step 2. Question - Ask the children for questions or comments they have about the story. Write them down on chart paper with the child's name next to their comment.
Step 3. Vote - As a class, the children vote for the question or comment they would like to inquire into first. Note the number of votes beside each question.
Step 4. Dialogue/Inquiry - Inquire into the question selected, using various processes of critical or reflective thinking (described later under 'good thinker's toolkit'). If the children lose energy for the question selected, the group can then vote to focus on the next question.
Step 5. Evaluate - Use the criteria suggested in this article, some subset thereof, or other criteria you select to reflect on the session.
Three types of progress in inquiry
One form of progress occurs when an inquiry reveals how complicated the question or topic really is. At the end of the session, things might well appear in a muddle, more mixed up than in the beginning. This muddle can be a form of progress when participants realize that the topic was much more complex than they thought at first.
Another form of progress is when connections begin to emerge among the various ideas that present themselves in the course of the inquiry. For example, an inquiry that began with the question, 'What does it mean to say, 'That wasn't fair'?' led a group of third graders to questions of whether it wasn't fair because someone was treated differently, and whether treating someone differently is ever consistent with being fair. The children thereby made a connection between 'fair' and 'how someone is treated.'
A third type of progress is when the shape of an answer begins to emerge. In the fairness inquiry above, 'how one is treated' might emerge as a criterion of fairness such that it might be proposed that 'If a person is treated differently in a particular sort of way, then that wouldn't be fair.'
Moreover, various participants in the same inquiry may individually experience different types of progress. For some, it may just be a muddle. For others, connections may begin to emerge, while still others may begin to have an answer in mind. Each form of progress has value and merit. A valuable exercise is to have students keep journals of inquiry sessions to promote an ongoing internal dialogue for each individual.
Certainly there will be days and times when it appears that students are not making progress in any of these ways. Yet there may be progress of a different, equally important kind. For example, in a given session, a particularly quiet student may feel moved to participate verbally for the first time.
In classrooms where inquiry has become an essential and ongoing activity, community members will change and develop their thought about a particular topic. 'Before I thought…, but now I realize that . . . .' becomes an increasingly common comment in a maturing inquiry community in the course of a school year.
Scratching beneath the surface: The good thinker's tool kit
Gently Socratic inquiry is more than a conversation or sharing of ideas within a group. It is characterized by an intellectual rigor that certain cognitive tools can facilitate. These tools comprise the 'Good Thinker's Tool Kit.'
Helping students and teacher s internalize good thinkers' tools of inquiry equips them with the ability to think for themselves in a responsible way. With sustained experience in dialogue, students become more adept at giving and asking for reasons, detecting assumptions, anticipating consequences, reflecting on inferences they draw, asking for clarification and seeking evidence and examples as well as counterexamples. They also learn to seek out alternatives and to form criteria for the judgments they make. The phrases below represent the good thinker's tools.
'What do you/we mean by ... ?' highlights the importance of being sensitive to possible multiplicity of meanings and ambiguity hence, a readiness to seek clarification when needed.
'Reasons' reflects that in inquiry one should expect that it is not enough to simply offer an opinion. Whenever possible, group members should support their opinions with reasons.
'Assumptions' represents the importance of making explicit, whenever appropriate, the assumptions that underlie the discussion during inquiry.
'Inferences; If . . . then…; Implications' highlights the central role of inferences we might make, of possible implications of what someone has said, and of hypothetical statements such as, 'If what Jody said is true, then 'real' can't be just things we can see or touch.'
'True?' indicates that a major concern in our inquiry is the question of whether or not what someone has stated is in fact true, and how we might go about finding out.
'Examples; Evidence' points out the importance of giving examples to illustrate or clarify what someone is saying and of providing evidence to support a claim.
'Counterexample' represents an important check on assertions or claims that possibly cast too wide a net. For example, 'always' or 'never' frequently occur in conversations, such as 'The boys always get to go first' or 'We never get to stay up late.' The search for counterexamples is a way of checking the truth of such a claim. For example, 'You get to stay up late if it's a holiday' is a counterexample.
Reflecting on the inquiry
Finally, it is important that the inquiry community reflect on how well it has done on any given day. We suggest the following criteria, which the teacher can present to the group prior to beginning the inquiry cycle and again at the end of each session. The criteria fall into two categories, those dealing with how we did as a community and those dealing with the inquiry itself
- How did we do as a community?
- Listening - Was I listening to others? Were others listening to me?
- Par ticipation - Did most people participate rather than just a few who dominated?
- Safety - Was it a safe environment?
- How was our inquiry?
- Focus - Did we maintain a focus?
- Depth - Did our discussions scratch beneath the surface, open up the topic, or otherwise make some progress?
- Understanding - Did I increase my understanding of the topic?
- Thinking - Did I challenge my own thinking or work hard at it?
- Interest - Was it interesting?
The role of the teacher
The teacher is absolutely pivotal to the success of gently Socratic inquiry. In the beginning it will be the teacher who introduces the ideas behind such inquiry. She will be responsible for establishing, monitoring, and maintaining the safety within the group. This will include calling on each other and seeing that members have ample opportunity to speak as well as permission to remain silent. With younger grades, for example, one problem that often appears initially is that boys only call on boys, girls call on girls, or close friends call on each other.
For most students and many teachers, 'inference' and 'assumption' are little more than vocabulary words. The teacher needs to spend time on developing deeper understanding of what these terms mean. Similarly, what makes a reason a good reason, how counterexamples function, and how one might go about finding out whether a given claim or statement is true may be areas where understanding is currently quite shallow.
The teacher begins to weave threads of conversation into dialogue, asking who agrees or disagrees or has other thoughts about the topic at hand, offering a counterexample, asking 'If what Tanya said is true, would it follow that ... ?' or making some other comment to nudge the dialogue along. This is especially delicate and challenging because a major objective is for the children to internalize and thus take over these skills and behaviors. They need as much opportunity as possible to try them out and providing these opportunities is the teacher's responsibility.
It is the teacher who br ings a given session to a close and sees to it that the group conducts an evaluation. How long are inquiry sessions? With kindergarten children they last from 10 minutes to more than an hour. Sessions with older children tend to be more predictable in terms of length, but also more subject to the time demands of the school day and curriculum.
Most importantly, it is the teacher, especially in the beginning, who sets the time for the group. 'Not being in a rush' depends on a teacher sufficiently comfortable with silence and 'wait time' beyond what is typical in most classrooms. It requires a teacher whose own sense of wonder is still very much alive and who is keenly interested in what the authentic thoughts of the children are on a given topic; one who is comfortable with uncertainty, not eager to push for closure, but willing to allow an inquiry to move where 'it' and the children seem to want to take it.
Philosophy for Children (P4C) is the creation of Dr. Matthew Lipman, whose concerns led to the development of a philosophically based curriculum and methodology. P4C is now an international educational initiative in countries throughout the world which seeks to develop children's ability to think for themselves. One such in Hawai is that of Dr. Thomas Jackson, the Director of the Philosophy in the Schools Project, a joint effort between the University Department of Philosophy and the State Department of Education. Dr. Jackson has been working with pre-school, elementary, middle, and high school teachers and their students. He assists in their creating intellectually safe communities where philosophical inquiry can flourish.