habit of thought

I’ve read Plato’s Apology with 6th and 8th graders, and used Peter Worley’s The If Machine to run “discussion days”,  but never devoted extended classroom time to developing intellectual integrity through Socratic practice. This process is what education entrepreneur Michael Strong calls The Habit of Thought.

Unlike common literature “socratic circles”, Socratic practice is a long-term project of developing students’ ability to trust their own judgement – learning to interpret together in a community of inquiry and continually make judgments about the meaning of difficult texts. In other words, students are placed in the “zone of proximal development” repeatedly, sometimes four or five days a week, for an entire year. Navigating the process of inquiry is the goal, rather than content transmission.

The structure of a Socratic discussion class is basically to start with a question and pursue it, guiding the students with counterexamples, but never offering an authoritative interpretation. The development of independent judgment often means that students flounder at the beginning, remain silent, or wait to see if they need to participate or just write the final essay. But over time, the habit of thought emerges, leading to a life-long practice of reflection, consideration of others, and appreciating the nuances of rational dialogue.

Now, after four months of devoting my Gr 10 literature class it’s time to see whether it is working.

My first thought is that I’ve never had so many good discussions with students in my career. These discussions were particularly meaningful in the Caucasus, where Armenians, Georgians, and Azeris tribal affiliations and stereotypes regularly collide. While constructing our definitions of justice reading Plato’s Republic book 1, we discussed:  what is the role of peer influence on seeking for the truth? Is justice culturally defined or universal? does money make you happy? does a life of pleasure make you happy? How do we define our enemies and friends? What is human excellence? Is wielding power more effective than knowing the truth? What should we do when we don’t know the answer?

In our final debriefing session, I asked them to reflect on their experience as a whole this semester, and I was happy to hear that students feel both very challenged, and engaged. They loved the freedom of discussion, and they understood very well that the quality of the discussion depended on their responsibility in preparing for it, and being engaged in class.

I have two gr 10 classes – one of 15 students, including 5 Georgian students new to western education, and another class of 10. They are a mix of international students who are generally responsible, who have been exposed to very rich world environments, but are mostly on the graduation treadmill. The problem in my school is student apathy – the business model of QSI is to guarantee “mastery” for every student. This creates an incentive for teachers to pass students on after minimal tutoring, and for students to find the minimum requirements to reach mastery. If we were honest about mastery, both students and teachers would be working much harder. I’ve found that teachers set the “mastery” bar quite low, usually around the recall of facts rather than conceptual thinking.

I feel that after many of these discussions, some students are beginning to take ownership, and the tide is slowly turning toward a culture of inquiry. My goal was to start to transform student culture from “how can I get an A?” questions to “I really want to know whether X is true”. It’s definitely started to happen, but I have yet to reach a tipping point – conversations have continued outside the classroom, and students have been approaching me independently to bounce some interpretations and ideas of texts. It’s a risk that is starting to pay off, but it involved many minor failures along the way.

After re-reading Michael Strong’s excellent Socratic practice manual, The Habit of Thought (his essay on intellectual integrity is especially powerful), I was reminded of the following points:

  1. If students aren’t doing the work of deciphering the text, it’s not Socratic seminar.

While students have made lots of progress, this point is the most painful to contemplate – I feel that I hindered students’ development of intellectual integrity by interjecting too much. Often these were times when I felt pressure to “move along”, or to pursue a particular interpretation of the text. I did allow my students to fail often, however by November, I realized that if I was not guiding the discussion, the class would disintegrate. I needed to give them more autonomy in making judgments, and in leading discussion.

Sometimes the reason for my interjections was that students were unprepared to discuss, hadn’t read the text, or defined key terms. This expectation needs to be very well defined, especially with younger and less independent the students. Students would still enjoy the conversations, but without preparing, they weren’t developing intellectual integrity.

2. The best discussions unfold naturally, and while tied to the text, should lead to an articulation of universal concepts by individuals through their own experiences. 

The greatest struggle I had in converting my classroom was choosing which texts to use, and how to cover the curriculum. In Michael Strong’s book The Habit of Thought, he notes the tendency of some Socratic programs to emphasize a canon of books. Many people think St. John’s College – the origin of the Socratic Seminar method, is purely about “great books”, but Strong notes that it is the process of reading books together, with the teacher being a learner or “tutor”, that defines the program.

With that in mind, I decided to choose texts based around the history of a specific idea, namely – “what is justice?” I rearranged my units so that I could teach Drama first. Here is a progression of our year so far:

Antigone – Sophocles   (Drama unit)

Republic book 1 – Plato  (Rhetoric unit)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – anonymous monk?  (Hero’s Journey unit)

The Merchant of Venice – Shakespeare  (Shakespeare unit)

In between units, I had one or two days of lecture to explain how the ideas of the text were transmitted historically to the next period.

The drawback to this historical method was the temptation on my part to actively teach elements of the text that were “most important”, rather than let students discover and interpret for themselves. This is certainly the case with Plato, with its multiple levels of interpretation, and student’s strong desire to interpret justice from the viewpoint of democracy. I wanted to choose texts that were difficult for gr 10, but no impossible given collaborative inquiry.

Another worry that I had was how to cover whole books, when the Socratic method often calls for discussion of a single paragraph for an entire hour. I still am not sure how to do this – for example, many teachers read Act 1 of Merchant of Venice closely, and then discuss various speeches, assuming students have read the rest of the play. As a teacher, you may choose, again, the “most important” scenes to analyze because they relate to the theme or an interpretation of meaning.

For example, I really got excited when I discovered all kinds of allusions to Plato’s Republic in Merchant of Venice, especially the idea that Portia may represent the True the Good and the Beautiful – a theme that I can tie to Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn later on in the course. Should I chime in here, or be content with discussions of anti-semitism? Should I phrase it as a question, or is this too geared toward “correct” recitation answers?

Another way to be more proactive as a teacher and thus less effective as a Socratic practitioner is to ask questions about the relation to other texts, which is a way for the teacher to lead students to a conclusion they wouldn’t otherwise make. This is something I really wanted to do because of the historical nature of the course, and it isn’t fully Socratic. I found that the more I did this, the less involved students were in their own interpretations. Many students did make connections to other texts and I hope this continues.

3. The teacher as “tutor” or co-learner models intellectual integrity by asking questions that follow logically from the previous responses. 

Michael Strong suggests starting with basic rules – 1 person speaking at a time, contribute positively by listening or moving the discussion forward, or leave the classroom. At the beginning of the year, I didn’t have the guts to kick people out (and I had a couple hot headed Georgians who were eager to prove themselves in verbal battle).

I decided to allow discussions to flounder at times – often students would talk about the importance of hearing each other and taking turns, but then devolve into talking with their friends. At the beginning, if I sat and watched the ensuing maelstrom, and students interpreted my silence as a signal that maybe they should get back on task – they hadn’t yet directed their worry about lack of intellectual dialogue to their peers. I could have asked more meta-cognitive questions about how students should regulate their discussions.

Students were extremely eager to share at the beginning of the year – our discussions on Antigone were very passionate, especially among Georgians and Armenians for whom family loyalty is paramount. One problem is that there were too many questions at once, or the question would change based on what others wanted to talk about. Or certain students dominated the discussion. Later in a November post-discussion reflection, students talked about their wish to stick to one topic, and not let it wander. As a teacher, I think I opened too many questions at once, and enjoyed having all students participate instead of focus on a narrower question and risk silence.

While I used stock seminar phrases:   “Ok, Ibrahim thinks justice is equal opportunity, do you think he’s right?”, I think this switching from topic to topic happened because we jumped into pure conceptual discussions too quickly, and did not bring them back to the text often enough. For example, for Antigone, I used the classic “raise your hand if you believe X” to generate interest in the play before finding the theme in the text, and then asking the question. While it generated lots of interest, it didn’t teach students to use their own judgement in relation to a text.

One of the best tips in The Habit of Thought is to conduct after-discussion evaluations – while evaluating the discussion, students are forced to own up to their own contributions, and it is an opportunity for the teacher to ask them what they can do better next time. I believe this was critical in improving the quality of our discussions.

4. Students who do well in regular academic settings often underperform in Socratic seminar because they worry about not knowing the “correct” answers.

I’ve found this to be very true – students who otherwise should be scoring top marks were content to sit back in case any of their vulnerabilities should be exposed. This lack of humility prevented them in some cases from participating at all in discussion, even though they were struggling with their definition of the concepts. For example, one student wrote a fully detailed logical summary of Republic book 1, but failed to engage in discussion, and thus could not achieve high levels in the application of concepts in their reflection essay.

Meanwhile, I had one or two disruptive students who were determined to gain attention at all costs, who did not recognize their own inconsistencies, and who refused to read a text closely. I had to pull them aside and have a separate conference with them about their influence on class discussions.


So on the whole, I’m very happy that I survived my first semester with a fully Socratic seminar classroom, and that students are beginning to thrive independently, and develop intellectual integrity.

Re-reading Michael Strong’s The Habit of Thought was very useful in reflecting on my experience. I was re-inspired by his vision of education – despite all set backs and failures, Socratic practice is about pointing students toward the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. I am so privileged to be part of this process, and I’m excited to continue, and convert my 8th grade class to seminar as well. I marvel that more teachers don’t take advantage of this phenomenal method of student development.