Make time for… Getting Socratic


“I cannot teach anyone anything; I can only make them think.” ~ Socrates

Watch out! I’m ’bout to get all Socratic up in this classroom!

One of my goals for this school year is to improve and expand my use of questions.

I mean this in the broadest possible context. I want to ask more and better questions.


  • …that get students thinking, discussing, even arguing
  • …to help them move forward
  • …to deepen their thinking
  • …to assess understanding
  • …rather than lecturing, when dealing with students’ behavior choices
  • …with colleagues to help move discussions forward or improve the functioning of our PLC
  • …with myself, to improve my reflection on my teaching practice

So, now that I’ve stated this goal, I need to attack it!

I’m going to come up with some key questions that I can use and practice. I’ll keep a cheat sheet handy in class.

More importantly, though, is a mindset of questioning. I have been and will continue to push myself to go to the question first when reaching for an arrow in my proverbial teaching quiver.

Make time for… curiosity

This posts is the second in a series about making time in your classroom, even when you don’t feel like you have any!
Here is the first: Make time for… relationships

I wonder what would happen if I put my head in here...What’ll happen if I put my head in here?

Sure it may have killed a mythical cat.

But is that old saw really any reason to extract revenge on curiosity one student at a time?

Yet that is what happens in classroom after classroom, day after day.


Sometimes it’s the teacher’s need to have all the answers and not be stumped by a student.

Sometimes it’s a obsessive desire to have a plan and tightly choreograph the course of each class period, each day, each week.

Often it’s pressure to “cover” content.

This pressure can be self-imposed or externally mandated. Either way, it damages learning.

The thing is, curiosity takes guts. It takes courage for a student to step forward and ask a question that they really want answered.

When we ask questions, we lay bare our understanding or lack thereof. When students ask genuine questions, they take a risk. They risk exposing their interest in a topic that their peers might not find interesting. The great paradox is that a great question from a peer might be all it takes to engage a bored student.

This is when we must make a choice: honor curiosity, or silence it – possibly forever. It doesn’t take long for a student to realize that their curiosity is not welcome in a given classroom.

There are many ways to honor student curiosity. Projects and inquiry activities that spring from student questions epitomize a curiosity-based curriculum.

There are smaller ways too: I like to gather student question in a place we call the “Wonder Wall” (as in I wonder…). I ask students to find an answer and report back to the class. No matter what, I make a point to let my students know how important their questions are to our learning.

How do you honor student curiosity in your classroom?

Cat picture used under c.c. license from the photostream of beverlyislike

Big questions

cliche used? check!

cliche used? check!

Too often we treat our students with kid gloves.  We give them weak, watered down, sterile, sanitized, aseptic curriculum.  Curriculum that reminds you of grandmother’s powder room in which you were afraid to dirty the towels, so you dried you hands on your pants instead.

We don’t let students wrestle with the really big questions of life.  Instead, we try to give them “thinking skills” and teach them how to answer their own questions.  That is, as long as the questions are the “safe” ones.

I’ve been guilty of this at times myself.  This year I’m trying to force myself in the opposite direction.  It ain’t easy, for me or for the kids.

When it comes to evolution, students ask questions that many adults have yet to answer for themselves.  In many science classes, evolution is treated in a rigidly scientific manner.  This approach, while loyal to the content, allows students to compartmentalize.  They tell themselves that their teacher can only teach them what’s in “the standards” or “the book.”  The teacher uses this as an excuse to keep the carnage to a minimum.  Nobody wants the mess on their shoes.

Most science teachers take one of 3 approaches to controversial topics:

Option A - Ignore it; don’t cover it; avoid the controversy altogether.

Option B - Address it directly and scientifically.  Leave no room for debate, disagreement, or discomfort.  Heaven forbid you get a call from an angry parent (for what it’s worth, if you teach a topic they don’t like, they’ll call anyway…)

Option C - Preach the gospel of science, baby!  Convert your students to the church of Darwin & Dawkins.  Tell them what to believe and think and why.

Each of these approaches is wrong.

ostriches really do this???

ostriches really do this???

Option A is wrong because it sets students up for a life lived in denial and ignorance.

Option B is wrong because it ignores the nature of science.  Science is messy and constantly debated.  There is plenty of gray area in science.

Option C is wrong because it can offend people and drive them away from science forever.  People hold grudges against former teachers for the rest of their lives.

So what should we do?

mmm... truthiness

mmm... truthiness

I believe that we must allow students to wrestle with the really big questions of their world.  The very same questions that adults argue about endlessly.  The questions that have made CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News major players in the media market.  The same questions that have made The Daily Show and The Colbert Report so successful for their incisive spoofing of these “news” networks.

Does this mean we let them debate creationism vs. evolution in class.  Well, no.  However, I’m letting them examine such topics on their blogs as part of their current project.  Students have generated their own questions and are now diving in.  In about a week, the results of their research will be published on their blogs for all of the world to see.

At least it won’t be boring…

Self-lacing kid gloves from Wikimedia Commons
Ostrich picture from the flickr stream of Spartacus007
Stephen Colbert picture from the flickr stream of Mindsay Mohan