Flipping Socrates

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”

SocratesThe term ‘flip teaching’ or the ‘flipped classroom’, has been around since the early 1990s, but it was in 2004, when Salman Khan began to record videos of maths lessons for his younger cousin, to allow her to replay those parts of the lessons she found difficult and skip the parts she had already mastered, that the idea really took off. When other friends and relatives started asking for the same help, Khan decided it would be easier to set up his own YouTube channel and post the tutorials online. The reaction was immediate and overwhelming.  Within a couple of years the online videos were receiving millions of views, and Khan gave up his job to establish the Khan Academy. The rest, as they say is history. The arrival of the internet had allowed for easy production and distribution of video lectures, and the attractions for students and institutions alike were not difficult to fathom. In traditional settings, such as are still found in many colleges and universities, it meant that the old model, where students would listen to a lecture in class and follow it up through further reading or problem-solving, could be ‘flipped’, with students watching the lesson in their own time (as often as necessary and with the ability to stop or pause), freeing up class time for group activities, or for teachers to work with individual students, monitor their progress and answer student questions. It was starting to look like the ‘brave new world’ – or as some would have it, the dystopian vision – of some of the science fiction stories of the mid – 1900s was beginning to come true.

So far, so good for the notion of flipped learning, but would the principles apply equally well in a school environment? There are many teachers who have blogged about the merits and demerits of making the shift from ‘sage on the stage’ towards ‘guide on the side’, as the two extremes of teacher-pupil interaction have often been characterised. You can read one or two of them here, but one of the best and most practical pieces I have read on the subject is this one by Mike Gunn over at Failing to Learn Better, where he talks about the challenges and rewards of changing the nature of the relationship with your students, so that the first responsibility for learning rests with the learner and not the teacher. One of the interesting consequences of this kind of approach is that homework, often seen as unnecessary or irrelevant, becomes highly significant as an integral part of learning.

The ‘flipped’ label might be from recent history, but some of the principles of the flipped classroom most certainly are not. Almost two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates believed that there was a better way of teaching students than through direct instruction, and that the greatest danger to both the individual and society was the suspension of critical thought. His theory was based on the notion that students could improve their reasoning skills and move towards more rational thought, based on logic, through a constant examination and questioning of their beliefs. This ‘Socratic questioning’ method, as it came to be known, involves recognising that all new understanding is linked to prior understanding, that thought itself is a continuous thread woven through our lives, and that the ability to ask the right questions is just as important as the ability to answer them.

“Critical thinking must be viewed as a process, just as we approach writing. We teach our students that no piece of writing is ever ‘finished’, that there is always something that could be improved or expanded upon that would make our writing more complete, more substantial, more effective. Our thinking is no different. At the end of the day, our writing, our thinking and our lives are merely ‘rough drafts’, works in progress to which a new day will bring new experiences and new improvements; we must simply open ourselves to the possibilities. We help our students practice the writing process almost daily, but rarely do we devote as much time or attention to teaching the process of critical thinking.”

Matt Copeland, Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical Thinking in Middle and High School

A modern manifestation of Socratic questioning in the classroom can be seen in the pedagogy of Socratic Circles or Socratic Seminars. Not to be confused with ‘literature circles‘, this methodology involves students engaging with a text appropriate to their stage of development, in their own time, in preparation for class (the ‘flipped’ element of the process). The text is usually short, is not necessarily in printed form (see Curriculum for Excellence definition of ‘text’), and should be read critically by the student. In other words, they should ask questions of the text, summarise their understanding of it, and take a note of those aspects of the text they don’t fully understand. In class, two concentric circles of students are formed. The inner circle discusses the text for a time determined by the teacher, and the object of the exercise is to develop everyone’s understanding of the text Copelandthrough exploration and analysis. The role of the outer circle is to listen carefully and provide feedback at the end of the allotted time; those in the outer circle are not allowed to speak during the discussion phase. After feedback, the circles change position and the new inner circle continues the discussion for the allotted time, and so on. Every participant is expected to make at least one contribution to the discussion. The Socratic Circle is NOT a debate, and there are no winners and losers, though proponents would argue that everyone is a winner. The objective is to improve the understanding of everyone in the group. For any teacher who feels that they are carrying too much of the burden of learning on their students’ behalf, adding Socratic Circles to their classroom practice may well provide the first steps in the transfer of responsibility for learning to where it truly belongs – in the hands of the learners themselves.

Further Reading:

What is a Flipped Classroom?

The Biggest Hurdle to Flipping Your Class


A Novel Approach To Reading


Contains more than recipes. Art, geography, history, photography, folklore and classical culture are all covered.

Since acquiring an eReader last year, my reading habits seem to be developing into a new pattern, whereby I tend to download and read novels from the screen, but continue to buy non-fiction titles, graphic novels and – an increasing obsession – cookery books, in paper format. I suppose the most obvious reason is the tactile quality of many of these latter texts – I’m thinking of titles like Shaun Tan’s The Arrivals or Chris Ware’s Building Stories which is literally a book in three dimensions – but there is often, too, something about the physical weight or heft of a book in your hand which, in the case of many cookery books for example, suggests bounty or treasure – you feel as if you are getting something for your money. These are the texts for which the word ‘book’ now seems a bit inadequate, for often they are indeed artefacts or works of art.

However, sticking with novels for the moment, once you have become a fiction addict you are always on the lookout for that next fix, and I recently enjoyed a great novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. As it happens I was on Twitter when I spotted this tweet from Jamie Byng of Canongate, who published the book, and was intrigued enough to favourite it for later reference. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon confirmed that it was  ‘my kind of book’, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and was reading it within minutes. How the magic of technology has improved and enhanced our reading habits in recent years, particularly that facility to read a sample before we decide whether we want to read the whole text or not.

None of that would have happened though, I guess, if I wasn’t already a reader. How I  became a regular reader is a long story – much longer than any novel – which started way back in primary school, when the Friday afternoon ‘treat’ of silent reading wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but suited me just fine, thank you very much. The generous class library, which comprised most of Enid Blyton’s prodigious output, Just William in every imaginable situation, a smattering of Jennings and Derbyshire and W.E. John’s handlebar-moustached hero Captain Biggles, held a seductive enough range of material with which to escape the classroom for a couple of otherwise dreary hours. For a boy growing up in a semi-rural working-class West of Scotland community, the main attraction of the stories was the excitement of exploring other worlds, a virtual travel agency if you like, which is exactly what reading does.

Just William

Just William

It is through reading, and especially through fiction, that we are able to journey, for a while, alongside people who are not like us.

You can perhaps understand then why my heart sinks every time I hear teachers discussing which novel (often  singular) they will be ‘teaching’ students this year. I don’t blame them (I was that teacher once), but the exam-driven system which has brought them to this state of affairs. I too spent many hours in the classroom – this time as a teacher – pulling apart some  great novels to look at how you might squeeze them into the straitjacket of a particular essay question. It was a system designed for a minority of students who would study literature at university, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine an education system where young people read an increasing number of books year on year, and keep on doing so long after they leave school, rather than, in many cases, abandoning the practice as soon as they are no longer ‘made to read’. Imagine if the culmination of your efforts as a teacher, and the measure of your success was not exam results but the number of lifelong readers you had helped to create. Imagine, if in their final year, the task you set the class was not to write a ‘critical essay’, which in all likelihood most of them will never have to do again, but to complete a group investigation something like the one below. Imagine the opportunities that would present, the reading that could be done, the fun you could have together, and the gift you could pass on to future generations.

Final Year Reading Task

What is the origin of the novel as a storytelling form, and why does it remain popular today?

What novels would you say every young person should read?

What features would you say are common to all the novels you (as a group) have read?

What distinguishes a successful novel from an unsuccessful novel, and is ‘successful’ the same as good?

Why should we read novels written in previous centuries?

Further Reading:

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Study: Reading Novels Makes Us Better Thinkers

Related Posts:

Sticking to the Plot

Lighting a Spark for Reading

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

The Power of Fiction and the Storytelling Animal

Reading by Numbers