Monday, December 16, 2013

Socratic Seminars: A Better Final Exam

So what do you give for a final exam when you've gotten rid of tests and quizzes completely? When your goal in class is to get out of kids' way and let them shine? When the best part of your day is when students get a chance to show how smart they are?

What about a Socratic seminar? Give students a week to prep - all in class - and get ready.  Then kids get two hours to bat around big ideas? Yes please!

A little context: we are finishing up the World War II and the Holocaust unit in my class. In English the kids are reading Lord of the Flies (LOTF). This unit houses the last of the epic Humanities experiences that my kids will have: we do a mock trial of William Golding for libel for the beliefs that he expresses in LOTF that humans are born innately evil and this innate evil is the cause of violence and evil in our society.

This trial is a spectacular thing. Kids play all the roles: witnesses, attorneys, the judge - you name it they do it. The jury is made up of former students who come watch the trial for a day and provide the verdict and choices for the 'best of' awards for the participants.

At the heart of the trial is the following false dichotomy that arises out of the question why does violence and evil occur in our world? Are violence and evil innate in all of us or are these behaviors learned from our surroundings? To boil it down further, are violence and evil a result of nature or nurture?

Well, after the trial, we jump into prep for the Socratic seminar. Taking the thinking the students have done in the trial - why violence and evil occur - we take the Socratic a step further: what can we do to prevent or minimize acts of violence and evil in society? We look at what we can learn from the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. We take a deep dive into Philip Zimbardo's ideas of all humans being situationally capable of committing horrifying acts of violence and evil.

Next, we look at the rates of crime within different countries. These rates are then compared across other statistics in these more violent and evil - and less violent and evil - countries. Gun ownership. Rates of happiness. Wealth distribution. Basically, what characteristics of countries lead to more violence and evil? What characteristics lead to less violence and evil?

Finally, we jump into prison systems. After looking at rates of recidivism, the kids take a look at the different mindsets and practices of prisons in the US, Sweden, and Japan. Then, they get a chance to see and prepare responses to the questions that are the backbone of the Socratic. Student-generated questions are obviously welcomed in the Socratic but there are questions that are central to the discussion that I generate and give kids time to prep responses and evidence to.

So what's going to go down next week? I have no idea. Some class will talk for two straight hours and it will be glorious because I'll ask the first question then say nothing for two hours. When I did this Socratic two years ago (I teach a two year curricular loop and keep the same students for two years), one class riffed on ideas for 90 straight minutes and I didn't have to say anything. Which was absolute teacher heaven!

Regardless of how the Socratic goes down - and it'll go well in all classes I think - it's a great final exam. Definitely way more in line with my classroom philosophy than a test!

Interested? Want to see the prep documents we used? The backbone questions of the Socratic? They're all linked in this shared folder here. The folder has subfolders that are divided generally by the day things occurred in my class. In each subfolder there is a brief description of what the general outline looked like each day.

Please use the heck out of this stuff: it's a great way to end the semester, and a spectacular way to watch kids think and say wildly intelligent things!