16 May 2008

Socrates Cafe by Christopher Phillips

Long have I desired to have mind-altering conversations in my classes; however, I have been rather wishy-washy about fostering such conversations lately, relying heavily on the students and getting (illogically) upset when the students don't come through. I have not been a good facilitator.

But I am changing, looking for new ways to facilitate discussions. During that search I read Donald Finkel's Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, which may seem counterintuitive to my goals but in actuality was just what I needed: a way to foster critical discussions without an authority (i.e. me, the professor) directing the discussions. The difference between Finkel's vision and my ill-fated earlier choices is simple - Finkel requires the professor to be a participant in the discussion, not the lead, but still a participant. I quickly became excited and started developing a schedule for my summer English course which incorporated both Finkel's conceptual workshops and his open-ended seminars where students lead and engage in the class discussion. And I can't wait to get started.

Now I have even more tricks (not the right word but working for now) to use in these open-ended seminars through Phillips' memoir(?) Socrates' Cafe. Phillips changed his life and began living as he desired, 'bringing philosophy back to the people' by organizing Socratic discussion groups who informally meet and converse on a particular question by questioning the question, the assumptions, concepts, points of view, logic, etc. He works with schools of all levels, prisons, retirement communities, random groups in coffee houses and libraries, and so on. The questions discussed in any individual meeting is the result of member suggestions and democratic voting. Obviously, Phillips can not be in all places at all times and he is very open to anyone and everyone starting a Socrates Cafe in their own community. If you are interested in learning more, read the book or visit http://www.philosophers.org.

As Phillips writes, we must "make both our schools and our universities ever-evolving laboratories of creative and critical cross-disciplinary learning that seek to promote imaginative vision and rational thinking." While his focus is on the community at large and not necessarily within the educational system, he does point out in the book that our educational system is losing those characteristics which associate it most with a Socratic viewpoint. Students are not discovering knowledge; they are memorizing facts. Questioning does not lead to more questioning; it leads to answers (and when it doesn't lead to answers, it leads to frustration rather than a sardonic grin and mental shrug).

My hope is that by employing methods from Finkel and Phillips, I will be helping my students learn how to think, or rather develop their thinking skills - I'm not positive there is such a thing as "learning to think" as I may or may not believe that thinking is innate. Jury's still out on this issue. But the point is still valid. I want my students to learn how to utilize MLA to avoid plagiarism, how to write grammatical sentences, in essence how to communicate effectively and the such not; but more importantly, I want them to have some thing to communicate and the ability to think about that thing on a deep level. Helping them discover their own ability to explore an issue through discussion and questioning is my way of doing this.

I'll see how it goes starting in 6 days.

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  1. 6 days? are we on the same schedule??

  2. Perhaps you forgot about the oh-so-wonderful trip to Starved Rock for the Leadership conference, which was by the way tons and tons of fun (no sarcasm there, it was really fun).


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