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Socratic teaching for kindergarteners? Can you even do that?

~ by Celeste Gregor ~

Since I began teaching the Sr. Raphael School Liberal Arts Level 1 course three years ago, this may be the most common question I hear from parents interested in the course. Many families are attracted by the description of classical, literature-based, and Socratic teaching as described on our website. But for most, the idea of applying these teaching techniques at the very beginning of a young child’s educational experience is foreign. They can imagine how it might work with a student in high school – but having a Socratic discussion with a five-year-old?

It is important that we understand exactly what is meant by the “Socratic Method”. Wikipedia defines it as “a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions.” Some are most familiar with the “argumentative” part of the definition. I spoke with one mother for whom the term caused stressful flashbacks to law school and being driven to tears by the pressure and stress of being singled out by the professor. I prefer to focus on the second part of the definition – asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions.

I can’t help but notice the lack of critical thinking skills in many children. And, I’ve been given opportunities to cultivate this approach when parenting my two step daughters over the years. Instead of telling them what to do to complete a task, chore or assignment, I have learned to ask, “What do you think you should do?” Resisting the urge to itemize a how-to-list and instead asking the girls to think through how they should approach their projects has fostered this Socratic Method. It’s been an effective teaching tool when training them to do everything from wash the dishes to completing an academic assignment.  

These are the areas where parents can practice the Socratic Method: not only in an academic setting, but simply trying to teach independent thought. Children’s brains are often so hard-wired to only answer a question if they are 100% sure of an answer, and to only attempt a task if they are 100% sure of exactly how to proceed, that they often find it challenging to function without those certainties.

Of course, there are many circumstances in a person’s life that could contribute to giving them a fear of error – but I cannot help but notice how this is reinforced in school. It can feel humiliating to give the wrong answer when called upon in class. A child is often deemed “smart” when he or she take tests well and gets good grades. The modern, large scale schooling system has struggles to teach and measure the more nebulous qualities of a good student (and I would argue, functioning adults as well) such as the ability to question, think for oneself, and form one’s own conclusions.

With my stepdaughters, we have fostered a Socratic environment in the home. Five years later, when I ask “what do you think?”, they pause and consider, and a conversation ensues. While we may have begun with trying to think through simple tasks, they are now able to answer questions which require them to form an opinion or weigh and measure information.

It is very much the same when implementing a Socratic teaching method with a kindergarten-aged child (or younger!). Very young children have, I hope, not yet developed a fear of failure. All we have to do to prepare them to be excellent Socratic students is to encourage that lack of fear. We focus so much on imparting information to very young children – they learn to memorize shapes and numbers and the alphabet long before most of these things hold any real meaning to them, and we are constantly correcting them when they are wrong. Instead, we should focus our efforts on encouraging curiosity, encouraging them to hold their own opinions and ideas, to ask questions and think through solutions rather than feeding them information.

Like most children her age, my two-year-old often asks me questions – “What is this?” is a favorite. Even at this age, I implement the Socratic method. I don’t always feed her the answer right away. I might reply with my own question – “Hmm, what do you see?”. We can talk about the color, texture, smell, and possible uses. We can share ideas back and forth before I eventually lead her to the actual answer. With an interaction like this, the conversation and process is as valuable as the answer, if not more so. Throughout our interactions she has had an opportunity to examine the object with an open mind and consider many ideas and possibilities. Most importantly, she has had experienced the opportunity to share her ideas, have them be taken seriously, and without the fear of judgement of whether or not she was correct.

We do the very same thing in the St. Raphael School Liberal Arts Level 1. The most valuable portions of the class are the opportunities students have to share their own ideas and pose questions. With these very young students, it can be a challenging for a teacher to help them walk their way to the right answers. But, it’s so rewarding!  One of my favorite moments was when I asked the students what animals wool can come from. Among the first suggestions were bears and skunks! I still chuckle as I imagine the poor “skunk-wool farmers” trying to harvest the wool! But to accept this suggestion in a supportive way, appreciating the creativity and independent thought behind it is what lays the foundation for thinking through questions without fear in future levels. If we focus on nurturing the individual and ensuring our littlest children are comfortable with discussion and the sharing of ideas, we are giving them the skills they need to excel – not just as students but as lifelong learners and thinkers. This, I believe, should be the intent and goal of true education.

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