It may seen unusual, but fourth graders are participating in Socratic discussions based on reasoning, and thoughtful conversations that are civil.

That’s the model for classroom discussion in Damian Beauchamp’s fourth-grade class at Bristol Elementary School.  They recently spent 20 minutes discussing a short passage, “Smooth seas do not make skilled sailors.”  They each attempted to explain what the passage meant in turns.

“Smooth seas do not prepare sailors for dangerous things,” said one student.

This type of class discussion is called a Socratic Seminar, and several Elkhart, Indiana elementary schools are attempting to bring it into the classroom.  In a Socratic seminar, open ended questions are asked by the leader based on a text.


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“Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others,” writes education expert Elfie Israel. “They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly.”

Beauchamp says that the process is most important in these discussions, and the subjects and questions are arbitrary.  During the Socratic seminars, he says that some of the shiest students become excited about participating.

“Sometimes I don’t realize how brilliant my students really are,” he said. “Students want to have their own ideas. I think we’re a species that wants to work, wants to come up with new ideas. We don’t always want to know the right answer and we want to learn from our mistakes.”

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