Sunday, August 24, 2014

In Celebration of the Socratic

Our family has been on the homeschooling trail for quite some time now. In fact my oldest is essentially finished with homeschooling and is happily exploring the excitement of dual enrollment. When I first began the journey I knew nothing about homeschooling save what was encompassed in the term, namely schooling at home. I merrily set up my pseudo-classroom, complete with American flag and blackboard. My tiny pupil, along with his toddler brother and baby sister, reported promptly to our home classroom directly following breakfast where we opened our morning (in kindergarten the essentials didn't take long) with the Pledge of Allegiance. That out of the way, we would proceed through the three Rs with diligence if not delight.

We survived this one year. It's not that my son wasn't learning, precisely. He was advancing just like he ought. It's rather that some element was missing. We weren't having fun! As we approached the end of his kindergarten year, I started investigating more about homeschooling and greedily gobbled up whatever tidbits I could find about educational theory, especially related to homeschooling. I ate up philosophy as championed by Charlotte Mason, a 19th century British educator who among other things, espoused short lessons, "living books,", narration and dictation, and regular time out of doors for nature study. I seized onto these ideals like a sinking ship and threw everything I had into the CM approach. By and large it worked marvelously well. My son enjoyed his new time out of doors, although he was too squirrelly to sit still and sketch the flowers or rocks or bugs we would find, and his shouts of delight at being out of doors would drive all wildlife far from our view.

Along our journeys my son did what all children do. He asked lots of questions. "Why is the sky blue, Mommy? How can the airplane stay up in the sky, Mommy? How does a skid steer work, Mommy?" All of these were par for the course of a 7 year old's interest. His questions, along with those of his younger siblings, drove us to the library for answers, and we would happily digest the content of dozens of books. So frequently did we frequent the library that the librarians would have books held in reserve for us as we trundled up with our book cart, just knowing that my children would love them.

In the early years the book cart was heavily weighted towards construction equipment and airplanes. While our more formal lessons encompassed the traditional subjects of math, reading, writing, history, and science, our less structured time was spent in "delight" pursuits. Eventually, we started to marry the "delight" into the "compulsory," and we ended up with a hotch-potch of educational pursuits. Under girding it all, though, was the question.

Admittedly, I didn't know that the exchange of questions and discussions was Socratic in nature until much later down the path. All I knew is the kids and I enjoyed our morning together sitting in the living room engaging in conversation. That's really all it was, but it opened up a rabbit-hole of opportunity to seek out answers to our "I wonder..."s. Really nothing was off limits. Matters of faith, technology, current events, literature, history - all of it was fair game for discussion and introspection. Eventually we got round to the great philosophers and we learned about Socrates. Imagine my excitement as I read about Socrates' philosphy with the kids, and we learned about Socratic teaching!

In a nutshell, Socratic teaching emphasizes the question rather than the answer. It empowers the student to think for himself, allowing him to wonder, imagine, and dream. It allows for exploration of ideas and information. It is personal and reflective as well as communal. It occurs fabulously well in dialogue, and works well across the age and experience continuum. It trusts the student. It goes beyond the multiple guess/fill in the workbook approach.

As the children have grown and matured, so has their questioning. My oldest has stretched his interests to encompass current events as well as literature and matters of faith. My middle guy has grown increasingly interested in scientific matters such as bio-genetic engineering and its ethical concerns as well as computer engineering. My youngest is exploring symmetry and architecture and enjoying all things Mark Twain. These pursuits have grown out of a natural, God-breathed interest, and I love that they experience enough margin in their lives to explore these concepts. Truthfully I not certain they could if they had taken a more traditional approach to education.

This year we are participating in a formal co-op for the first time. In it the parents partner up to share course instruction, and I am the high school British literature facilitator. I am so looking forward to the opportunity to facilitate discussion Socratic-style and hopefully spark some questions for my students as we enjoy great literature from Beowulf to Shelley to Shakespeare, sprinkling in a little Saki along the way. I'm looking forward to seeing how the kids react to Shelley's monster, a line from Byron, or some humor from Wilde. And hopefully along the way, they will find that literature is a gateway to something special, a communing with the author and a journey into his world. I can't wait!

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