George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Making Socratic Seminars Work

Professional development on this discussion technique can be a key element to how effective it is in the classroom.

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Overview

The Benefits of Using the Critical-Thinking Model

Thinking critically is one thing, but being able to teach it can be quite another.

Using questioning techniques, content becomes more relevant for every child in the classroom and for the teacher as well. It pushes your practice. When you have students taking on the onus for their own learning, questioning and thinking and formulating their own arguments, then they're the ones who come up with new ways to learn the material. As a teacher, it's an incredibly enriching experience because you see your content going in directions that you may never have thought of.

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There's often the misconception that teaching critical thinking is more work. But if teachers have some  questioning tools, and are creating ways for students to formulate arguments in response to essential questions, that is really what can drive the content. So just infusing questioning into lessons and not changing entire lesson plans, not changing entire scope and sequences for the curriculum, that's where the magic happens.

How It's Done

Defining Critical Thinking in the Classroom  

It's an approach to teaching that allows students to make sense of the content. They analyze the content, they evaluate the content, and they're able to apply it to their daily lives. Teachers ask specific questions to get the students to do those things.

The first step is to develop the questions that are going to frame your assignments. Framing your units with essential questions helps students make sense of the knowledge they're learning. They can see that the learning in this classroom is going to help them answer this essential question at the end of the unit. Once you frame your questions or frame your prompts, then you can essentially take students through the steps listed above.

What are the right kinds of questions to ask?

In figuring out what questions to ask, it's really helpful to look at Bloom's Taxonomy. Bloom's begins with a knowledge-based question such as, "Who was the first president of the United States?" To answer that question simply requires knowledge.

That's just a first step. Next you want them to be able to evaluate. So I push teachers to look at the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy that involve the analysis and evaluation type of questions. That's when you're pushing kids' thinking. For instance, if you ask, "To what extent was George Washington successful as the first president of the United States?" that's a much higher-level question. It requires a student to evaluate, to create a set of criteria for what makes someone a great president, to possess knowledge about George Washington, and to evaluate his performance against that set of criteria.

I suggest that teachers really think about questions that hit four specific criteria. Questions should:

  • be open-ended, with no right or wrong answer, which prompts exploration in different directions
  • require synthesis of information, an understanding of how pieces fit together
  • be "alive in their disciplines," which means perpetually arguable, with themes that will recur throughout a student's lifetime and always be relevant
  • be age-appropriate

One of the hardest things for new teachers is that it requires them to step back and let the students do the work. For a teacher who's used to being the agent of knowledge, it can be hard for them to take a backseat to the learning that's happening in the classroom and also to trust that students can do it.

School Snapshot

KIPP King Collegiate High School

Grades 9-12 | San Lorenzo, CA
Enrollment
460 | Charter, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$9,872 School$8,096 District$8,452 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
69%
DEMOGRAPHICS:
40% Hispanic
30% Asian/Pacific Islander
19% Black
5% White
5% Other
20% English-language learners, 2% Individualized education programs