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

2 thoughts on “Flipping Socrates

  1. This post reminded me of my honors history class my first semester of college. I bought the required texts- one novel and three nonfiction books, and wondered at the lack of required textbook. The class consisted of ten honors students and a really great professor, who challenged us to read critically, compare and contrast texts, and take turns leading class discussions. The leap I had to make from being force-fed facts and dates to this critical reflection of history was difficult, even for a good student such as myself. I think that the flipped high school classroom is a great idea for any subject matter because it more closely reflects the model used in many college classrooms, in which students are required to prepare before class and contribute to the learning there. Flipping classrooms requires students to be more than passive recipients of knowledge. If we want to encourage students to read critically and to be active consumers of information, the model of feeding them information to be regurgitated is definitely not effective. If students are not ready to be completely independent taking in new information, the model can be modified to provide some material prior to class, with the teacher initially modeling how to effectively use the readings or videos.

    • Hi Susan,
      Thank you for your contribution. Much longer ago, but I too remember how difficult it was to make that transition from school to university. I’m not sure the ‘flipped model’ works as a total solution at high school level, but I think it could be a very powerful mechanism when used well and at the appropriate times.

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