YMB #25 Socratic Discussion and Leading to Truth with Matt BiancoPin
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Over 2000 years ago Socrates used questioning techniques with his students to help lead them to truth. Today, homeschoolers are interested in using the same techniques for the same purpose — but they wonder how exactly to do it.

This week on the podcast Matt Bianco, Classical homeschooling dad and director of the Lost Tools of Writing for the Circe Institute joins us to explain what Socratic questioning is, why we would want to use it, and how to implement it in our Morning Time.

Pam: This is Your Morning Basket, where we help you bring truth, goodness and beauty to your homeschool day. Hi everyone and welcome to episode 32 of the Your Morning Basket podcast. I’m Pam Barnhill, your host, and I am so happy that you are joining me here today. Well, I must say one of my absolutely most favorite things about doing the podcast is getting to learn new things myself. I just love that I get to pick the topic and I get to pick the person and I get to have the discussion. So I was super excited to get to have Matt Bianco on. I’ve spoken to him a few times and I’ve heard him speak a few times and I’ve just always been really impressed with his style of teaching and what he has to say. So we had him on to talk about Socratic discussion today. This is something that I know that I have wondered about often – I’m not Socrates, so how in the world am I supposed to do this in my home with my kids? And so, I think Matt really went a long way toward answering some of those questions for me today. And putting me a little more at ease; this is a skill I can develop with a little bit of practice, and I hope it does the same for you. We’ll get on with the podcast right after this word from our sponsor.

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Matt Bianco is a homeschooling father of three and the director of the Lost Tools of Writing for the Circe Institute. He is also a mentor in the Circe Apprenticeship Program. Matt loves talking with kids about philosophy, great literature, and big ideas. And he joins us today to share about ways to incorporate Socratic discussion into Morning Time. Matt, welcome to the program.
Matt: Thank you.
Pam: We are so happy to have you and I want you to start out by telling us a little bit about, we say Socratic discussions, so who are we talking about, who was Socrates?
Matt: The tough part of that question is some people would say we don’t know. He was a character that lived 400 years before Christ and was apparently the mentor of Plato, who himself eventually mentored Aristotle and then Aristotle was the mentor, the teacher of Alexander the Great. Socrates himself never wrote anything. Plato never really wrote anything except for his dialogues and a handful of letters. And so the only thing we really know about Socrates is however he was represented in the dialogues that Plato wrote down. So, we basically have this image of Socrates that comes to us through Plato and that’s the Socrates we know. So whenever we refer to Socrates we’re typically referring to that person however accurate or inaccurate it may be to whoever the actual historical Socrates was. We don’t really know that part but it doesn’t really matter in the long run because he’s a philosopher – we just go by what we know through this representation, right? So he’s the philosopher that engaged people in conversation, question and answers, in order to try to discover the truth. And in the process he mentored Plato along the way.
Pam: And I was going to say that he obviously made a really huge impact on Plato because Plato goes on to write about Socrates and talk about this method of discussion that we’re going to be talking about tonight and record that.
Matt: Right. Because Plato writes these dialogues following this form that he had learned from Socrates and Plato’s not even the only one who wrote Socratic dialogues with Socrates as the main character. There were others; at least one other that did so as well. So he had enough of an impact that we do know historically that the city of Athens eventually had him put to death for irritating them.
Pam: Officially they put him to death for corrupting their youth but we don’t think that was what he was actually doing; he was really getting under their skin with other things.
Matt: Yes, yes, “officially” right. “Officially” because he was corrupting the youth and teaching about false gods, right?
Pam: Right. OK, so let’s get into this whole discussion technique. So, obviously we’re not looking to corrupt youth but it’s a really great discussion technique and we know that because Plato wrote about it and because it was used for centuries after Socrates as a method of education. So, talk to me a little bit about what is Socratic discussion and when we use the term today are we just talking about the kind of exchanges that Socrates had with others as represented in these dialogues or has it come to mean something a bit different.
Matt: That’s a good question because it has. So, for Socrates a Socratic dialogue was with another character typically scholars refer to that person as the interlocutor in general, they just refer to this other person as the interlocutor, but the interlocutor would be a specific person. In the Gorgias dialogue it would be Gorgias, in the Meno dialogue it was Meno. So he would have a one-on-one conversation with this person but it almost always, with a few exceptions, it almost always took place in somebody’s home or in a public setting where there were multiple other people witnessing the dialogue and sometimes those witnesses or the audience members would get really excited about what was being discussed. And often in a negative way; they would get angry that the interlocutor wasn’t standing his ground against Socrates. And so sometimes these guys would jump into the conversation and take it over and what you notice in those instances is that Socrates would typically stop talking to the original interlocutor and start talking to the new person who had interrupted them. And then it would become a one on one conversation with that person. And then he would carry on that conversation as long as he could until he finished it or whatever, sometimes until a new person interrupted and then he would eventually go back to the original character. So in The Republic for example he starts out with one guy whose name escapes me at the moment but it’s an elderly man, the guy who’s house they’re in, and then this fellow by the name of Thrasymachus jumps and interrupts, the old man leaves, excuses himself and leaves, Thrasymachus jumps in and takes over the conversation because he’s frustrated at the responses that Socrates has been getting and at the end of book 1 of The Republic Thrasymachus is done and then Glaucon steps up and says, “Well, wait a minute, we have more questions.” He carries on a one on one conversation with Glaucon and then Glaucon’s brother, Adeimantus, and Glaucon and Adeimantus are both actually brothers to Plato (so that’s kind of interesting footnote) but Adeimantus then interrupts Glaucon so then he has a one on one with Adeimantus and then he finishes with Adeimantus and goes back to Glaucon and he just continues like that through the whole Republic and a lot of the dialogues are like that.
Pam: Do you think that’s a literary technique on the part of Plato as opposed to an actual historical reckoning of what happened?
Matt: It could be a literary technique. To me it makes sense that it would also be the historical way it unfolded as far as people interrupting because, well, that’s what we do, right? We tend to interrupt each other so it makes sense to me that people would in fact interrupt. It may be that Plato was using that, kind of, known characteristic to be able to introduce these other points along the way. But I do think it’s important to Plato that Socrates always limited the conversation to that one person. In regard Socrates is showing great respect to that person by focusing his attention on that person for the duration of that aspect of the conversation but in another sense it helps Socrates to maintain the thread that is being, for him, woven through the whole conversation. Whereas if the conversation had three to seven people, all jumping in and out of it at once or pulling in and out at will that thread could get lost and Socrates does, what I would say, are amazing feats of memory being able to keep that thread even with focusing on one person at a time because of the interruptions, his ability to go down these rabbit trails and then come back to the main point without losing his train of thought it’s an incredible feat of memory to me.
Pam: So, originally Socratic discussion was Socrates having these conversations with basically one person. Now the person would change but for the most part he was carrying this on with one person. So how has this changed into what we’re using, portraying as Socratic discussion in more classical education circles and homeschooling circles today?
Matt: Typically what you find now in a Socratic conversation is a group of people discussing a point whether it’s a particular issue or question from literature or philosophy or Scripture, whatever it is, some idea is raised, a question is raised, and then there’s a conversation about it, usually in a group so people do it in a book club format – a bunch of moms or moms and dads will get together, discuss it. In a homeschool setting you might have a group with your kids around or a group of neighbor kids all coming together and doing it. In that situation what you typically find then is you find the conversation moving back and forth between the entire group of people, 4-7 people. Whereas Socrates would have limited it to one person at a time we tend to do it in more of a group setting and we still call that the Socratic conversation or Socratic teaching or Socratic mode or method or something and so the focus then is not so much on the number of people engaged but the emphasis is on the use of questions and that it’s focused on an investigation so pulling out that particular emphasis from the Socratic dialogue and then making that the emphasis of this way of teaching in a group setting.
Pam: That’s a great distinction and it really leads well into my next set of questions. So we’ve changed the way historically Socratic discussion was this one way: Socrates and one other person, and so now we’ve moved into these Socratic circles or groups in Socratic discussion so that’s definitely changed but let’s talk about the aim of a Socratic discussion. So why would we get a group of people together and try to do this? Are we trying to expose errors in our students’ thinking and guide them toward a specific truth the way that Socrates did in the dialogues or are we trying to do something else?
Matt: That’s a good question because for some people it would depend on how they’re interpreting Socrates himself and what he did that they would look at it in different ways. The way I look at it, it’s really the way I look at Socrates himself doing it is I think of it as we’re coming together and a question gets raised (some idea gets raised) and we are looking together we are trying to discover truth, we’re trying to discover what is the right way of understanding this. Or what is the right way to articulate our understanding of it even. What are the words that we even use to describe it and what often happens along the way is as we’re describing it the people in the group in the discussion disagree either on the answer itself or on how to articulate the answer and the conversation then becomes so it can feel like it has become about we’ve discovered error now we’re going to correct which in some cases that is what’s happening but often what you end up happening is two people or however many people in the group refining their understanding of it. So, for example, I practiced this a lot in my family and with just anybody who’s willing, I guess, and it’s interesting with my oldest son who’s off to college now, when he comes home and he’s on break we’ll have these conversations about anything, and we’ve had them about things as important as trying to answer the question what is virtue or what is justice to something as silly or menial as whether people should sunbathe. And what’s interesting is that when we begin the conversation we both feel we’re on polar opposite sides of the conversation and we’re in complete disagreement and when we finish we’re in agreement with each other but both of us feel like we won. So I’ll end the conversation thinking, Ha ha! He came around to my point of view. I won. But if you asked him, he would say the exact same thing. Dad came round to my point of view. I won. And what we both have realized just in pointing this out to each other and thinking through it is that along the way we’ve both been making these minor changes to our understanding to our articulations that have brought us both to this middle point where both of us have changed or tweaked our view or understanding of it or again just the way we’re articulating it and now we’re on common ground but we both still feel like we’re pretty close to where we were originally, too, at the same time. So I think what it turns out to be in the end is this journey that everybody involved goes on to get to the truth but along the way it feels like we’re fighting error, we’re correcting things, we’re winning wars, we’re winning these battles with each other mentally.
Pam: So this brings to mind a few other questions. Do you ever come out of one of these discussions feeling like you haven’t won?
Matt: Only when they refuse to agree with me!
Pam: OK, so we’re going back to Socrates and the rhetoric and corrupting the youth. Is there a right answer in these discussions that you’re having? You say you’re seeking truth.
Matt: There’s certain things that the truth factor is really quantifiable and easy, like, two plus two is four. That’s not up for dispute typically. I can say that I know two plus two equals four and feel pretty confident that I’m not going to be talked out of that view. Or I can say, “That wall is white” if it’s white then feel pretty confident about it, although, somebody might come along and say, “Actually it’s eggshell.” But I can feel pretty confident about my guesses, or about my perceptions int hat way. But when it comes down to something like what is justice, what is virtue, what is truth. It’s not that those things are unknowable. Like, I firmly believe that we can know and understand those things but it’s difficult to pin them down in a precise proclamation or a dictionary definition. So what happens there is I can see something that’s true and know it but I can’t always define truth in precise language. And so sometimes when we’re having these conversations about virtue or justice or whatever, it feels like we’re much farther off than we are. But it’s because to put it into a proposition is so difficult and as soon as you put something like justice into a proposition, somebody can name a hundred …
Pam: Exemptions.
Matt: Yeah. Exactly. And then it’s, OK, well are those merely exceptions or do they actually disprove the rule? And it allows for a lot of flexibility in the conversation, which none of that is to say that, you know, those things are unknowable or that they’re relative in any way. But that, well, to borrow the language of Paul, “We see through a glass, darkly.” So it’s a little bit tougher to wrap around; so sometimes the fight feels more violent than it is. I guess.
Pam: So I think what I hear you saying is that the aim of this Socratic discussion is in the journey and not necessarily in the destination.
Matt: Yes. So in one of my favorite books Norms of Nobility by David Hicks, one of my favorite books on education, he talks about this in he’s talking about the dialectic, and he talks about this idea that, like, I guess we’ll call them abstract truths for this conversation, I guess. That these ideas you feel like you could see them but it’s like they’re constantly receding away from you. Like if you’re driving across Kansas or whatever out West toward the Rockies, and you can see the mountains in the far, far distance. You can see them. You feel like I get it. I’ve got what’s there but you keep driving and driving and they don’t feel like they’re getting any closer. For a long time right and then all of a sudden boom they’re right there. It’s kind of like that where it’s like you’re trying to wrap your arms around it and it just you know wisps away like a ghost or something like the wind. But it’s there, like, you know it’s there. You feel it. You got it. You understand it but then it’s constantly pulling away and so you’re still driving, still driving, still driving. This sort of whole thing becomes about all of us are pursuing truth but all of us feel like going into the conversation we often feel like ‘Oh I know what the answer this question is.’ And yet it still turns out to be a journey for each of us. So this is why I interpret Socrates the way I do. Some people would say Socrates knew the answer to every question he asked and he was going into the conversation with the intent of correcting this person’s error. And I would agree it certainly feels like Socrates knows what he’s getting at or what he thinks but then so do I every time I do it and yet every time my answer changes by the end; so I don’t know.
Pam: So let’s kind of pull this down a little bit and make this practical for or sort of practical for just the general homeschool mom. So I’m thinking about this, what would be the I want to help my students, my children come to truth. I want to help them maybe wrestle with some of these questions. So what are some questions that we might wrestle with in our homeschool in this Socratic fashion? Could you give me a few examples, you’ve given me a couple but could you give me a few more maybe from literature or from science or from math?
Matt: Yeah, yeah, good. So to me one of the most important questions that we can ask in the dialogue doing Socratic teaching is to compare. So the two that are probably easiest to think about would be definition, like define the term whatever it is we’re discussing. And then the second thing would be to compare. So say for example, we wanted to figure out you know what is a hero. Then we just start naming characters that are immediate gut reaction. Our immediate feeling is ‘oh yeah, that guy is a hero.’ But I can’t define hero. I can’t put it into a proposition. And if I do, what I find is that I often end up giving a definition that excludes people that I would normally consider heroes. So, for example, I would say that Bilbo Baggins is a hero, but if I ask a group of high school students or junior high students, what is a hero, they’re probably going to name something or describe something that sounds a little bit more, like, Superman or Batman or something; somebody who is strong and powerful and always wins and always gets the bad guy and wins the prize something like that. But then Bilbo, of course, doesn’t describe that because he’s not big and strong and full of super powers, and well until he gets that ring but you know what I mean. And so the very definition then excludes a particular character that they would probably say is a hero. So often what you can do is to have them name like two or three or four people that they would say, “This guy’s a hero. This person’s a hero.” And then start comparing them. “Well, what do they all have in common? You know, what do they share? What do they do? What do they have? What are they?” And look for those similarities and differences and then from that draw out a definition for hero. Or with justice you can you can name a couple actions that they would consider, “Yeah, that’s just. To do that would be to do justice.” And then name two or three or four of those kinds of activity and compare them. And why are these all just? What do they all share in common? That common thread that we’re identifying as justice. The comparison to me is an incredible tool for Socratic teaching.
Pam: Do you have another example for me? Maybe something outside of literature. We could even go to history or…
Matt: Well, it would probably be too similar to the literature example but I remember actually have having a conversation with a group of students once where they were trying to define what is a leader and they did that. Somebody gave a kind of dictionary definition for leader. And then other students were, like, well, but so and so wouldn’t meet that definition. So then we just listed everybody that they could think of off the top of our heads as leaders and then put them in and then they just started talking kind of separating them as, like, these are the guys that are these are good guys who are leaders, these are bad guys who are leaders and then trying to make it a definition that way and trying to decide is there a definition for leader that includes both or a leader only for good people and then there’s a different word for bad people. But that’s very similar to the literature example except it just took characters from history. So like Prince Henry the navigator. Richard Nixon. Hitler was on the list the bad guy list obviously. But so there’s that kind of example but even if you were trying to get them to take a look at a mathematical concept, if you were trying to get them to divided fractions, then you can walk them through the process of dividing fractions multiple times. So you put on the board one half divided by three quarters and then solve it. And then right next to it two thirds divided by one third and then solve it. And then three halves divided by one fourth and then solve it. And then have them look at those three examples and compare. What did we do the same both times? What did we do first? What did we do next? What did we do after that? What did we not do every time? And then through that comparison they can discover the truth. In this case the truth is the truth of how to solve, how to divide fractions would be the truth, they were seeking but they do that they see those three examples and compare them and then they discover the truth in that process instead of me just saying, Step one, Step two, Step three, Step four; so me telling them the truth I have them do the comparison and they discover it.
Pam: Okay. That’s awesome. Okay. So we’ve talked a little bit about comparing. Is there. I don’t know, I’m trying get my verbiage correct. I don’t know if that’s a technique or a kind of question. Is there another kind that you might use other than comparing in Socratic discussion? What’s something else you could do to help students arrive at the truth?
Matt: Yeah. I guess the first one that would pop into my head is to have them look at circumstances. If you’re talking about events typically like in literature or history, or even like Bible stories or whatever, have them look at events. I guess an easy example would be the Bible says in the ten commandments thou shall not kill which we understand to mean thou shall not murder. And so you have people killing in war, you have people killing to punish murderers, and then you have people murdering people that they shouldn’t be killing and the difference between killing and murder is the circumstance. You know what’s going on here? What’s different about these two situations that makes one killing and one murder? So often when you are trying to find the truth and you’re looking at a particular situation or you’re comparing two separate situations, often it’s the differences that might show ‘oh this is why I’m on the wrong. This is why I’m not drawing the right conclusion about the right truth about in this question, is because I ignored a particular set of circumstances. So, you know, in this situation the guy was a murderer when he got when he was put to death but in this other situation he was the good king when he was put to death; so one is killing and one is murder kind of thing. So circumstances can help and the other thing with circumstances is that it helps you to see what’s going on at that time but also what’s going on around it. So this particular situation is happening here in Italy but what’s going on in France at that time? What’s going on in England at that time? And sometimes bringing in those details can help us to understand why a particular thing might be happening or why a particular character or people are feeling the way they are, because they’re feeling what’s going on elsewhere as well.
Pam: So comparing and looking at circumstances would be two kinds of Socratic methods we could use in talking … because this is me, this is one of the things that I struggle with most is how to learn how to begin these Socratic discussions. And so let’s get into some of the nitty gritty of that. What ages are the best for Socratic discussions? You know, our listeners, they have families, they have young kids, they are older kids, it’s kind of a wide age range, can it work with a range of ages like we might find in Morning Time?
Matt: I think so. I think there are a couple of things that you can do to help make it work or to see it work. In one regard if you’re doing if you’re reading the story aloud during Morning Time and then if you’re also practicing narration or something like that, then you can have some of the kids narrate what was read back. So often, like, even with high school age kids because I’m meeting in a co op when I’m teaching. And so the kids read the story at home, we didn’t read it, we’re not reading it during our meeting time and so then they come in and I just ask them to summarize what they read. And I’ll have a couple of different students do that. Or I’ll ask is there anything you would add any important details that you think might have been was left out or that would be important to the conversation. So there’s a kind of well after the fact but a narration going on there. I think in Morning Time you could do a similar thing where you have some of the children narrate back and then off that narration you can build. You can take the Socratic conversation. In some cases you can have. And with the story the easiest Socratic conversation is to ask whether the character should have done what he did. And then you know you get into an ethical study but you’re teaching the students or your children how to pass judgment. And they’re passing they’re learning how to judge a situation that they’re not necessarily personally invested in but if I ask my son to tell me whether he should play the XBox until two in the morning, he’s going to have a dog in the fight, right? He has a certain outcome that he wants to achieve in convincing me to believe to think a certain way about it. But if I ask him to tell me whether Brutus should have killed Julius Caesar than he’s not necessarily invested in that in the same way, so he’s willing to investigate it more honestly. So one of the things you can do is if you do your reading aloud during Morning Time or if you do a narration or not (if you practice that or not) and then just identify that question that behavior to ask about. But you know with little kids think of Deb Harris gave her talk at one of the Circe Regional conferences in Chicago a few years ago and she talked about reading fairy tales to her students and she’s got kindergartners like five year old and she would stop in the middle of the fairy tale and say, “Well what do you think the king would do next?” And it better be a situation where the character was about to decide whether to tell the truth or not. And so she would say, “Do you think he is going to lie or is he going to tell the truth?” And the kids would say and she would have all of them or several of them do it. So in a sense even those little kids, five years old are starting. And when they answer that question they are starting to judge that situation. They’re looking at the circumstances and saying, “Well you know he’s probably going to lie because of this.” She tells the story actually in one case where the character was asked three times in a row the same question. It was about an axe whether this axe is his or not. And there was three different axes. And the first axe was made of pure gold and the next one was made of pure silver and the next one was studded with gems. And so before the first one she said, “What do you think he’s going to say?” And some of the kids said he’s going to lie, he’s going to tell the truth. And then he tells the truth. And then after the second axe she asks again and so now more of the kids thought he would going to tell the truth again because he didn’t last time. And then with the third axe she asked him again and this time more of the kids thought he was going lie than the both of the first two times. And so she asked them why and they said because you can’t be, I don’t know if these are their exact words, how she tells the story, because you can’t be tempted that many times and not give in. And these are five years old; right?
Pam: Five years old. Yeah.
Matt: So the five year olds were doing that kind of Socratic conversation and thinking through the actions and the behaviors of the students. They’re probably not going to dig all the way down to what is truth in that story. But they’re going to be thinking about those particular embodiments of it you know of this all of this telling the truth no matter what. And then their responses, their reactions to it from the other characters. But then the older kids might be able to dig a little further about why or what truth is there. The little kids are still participating with their questions that they were asked or with their opportunity to narrate but also just in the listening.
Pam: Yeah. Very much so and actually we got a couple of moms in here on the show with families with a very wide age range who talk about you know being amazed at what the little kids are garnering as they’re listening in on the conversations or they get opportunities for the bigger kids to step up and to mentor and lead the younger kids too. So I think having them there for these conversation is probably about a good thing. But I think they’ll sometimes surprise you with what they come out, with these little guys.
Matt: Yeah. I’m pretty sure that when I listened to Deb Harris’s talk when she told that story about the little kids I’m pretty sure I got a little knot in my throat at that moment when she’s talking about the little kids saying you can’t be tempted that many times — just to think about how insightful they were in that moment. Whatever language they use to describe it, how insightful they were in that moment. And I’m thinking these are five year old kids you know. This is incredible. Human beings are just amazing.
Pam: Very much so and I love the way the example you gave about your son and the Xbox and how we’re leading them to think through a situation and to put forth an argument for a situation and to come to make a judgment that you know I love the way you said that because this is great. It takes me 30 minutes in and I’m finally like ‘Ah, I’m getting really good understanding now.’ Sometimes it takes me awhile. But I love the fact that you said he has no dog in that fight and so he’s free to learn how to make these arguments and to make a judgment and present evidence for a case and look at both sides because he’s doing it. He’s practicing on something that he’s not as vested in. So I thought that was a great example.
Matt: Thank you. And you know it’s really a process that as you become more experienced with it, you and your family your children that you can really begin to trust it that their ability to think well; so my daughter (she’s 16 now) but three or four years ago, my oldest had graduated from high school and we were going to take a family trip to New York City and she didn’t want to go because the girls from church were doing their own weekend thing that same weekend. And so she wanted go with them instead of with us and so I had asked her and she had done practiced this several times. I mean for a couple years at that point and so I just told her. I said, well, why don’t you work through this and write it up into an essay and then explain to me which side, which decision is the right decision; go to New York City with us or you know go to Cradle Lodge with your friends. And then explain to me and whatever you decide that’s what we’ll do. And she trusted me because one time I made a deal with her, if she could convince me to get a cat through an essay that I would and she got the cat so she knew I would follow through on my promise. So she did it or she was planning to do it and then a couple weeks later as we were approaching the trip I asked her when are you going to write essay and give it to me? And she said, “I’m not” and I thought that she was saying “no, I’m not going to do it I’m just going to not go.” And I was like “No. Yes you are,” and she’s like “No, dad. I don’t need to because as I was working on it, I realized that I needed to go to New York with you guys.” And so she drew that conclusion on her own and even at that point it was kind of unsupervised even like she went through the whole process in her own mind and then came to that conclusion and then we had a great family trip to New York City.
Pam: And you didn’t have to take a pouting teenager along.
Matt: Exactly, right. Right. I didn’t have to take a pouting teenager along. She went with us happily and willingly and she was still sad I think about missing the weekend with her friends from church but she wasn’t bitter about it in way or frustrated or angry with anybody about it, so it was beautiful.
Pam: Okay, so you’re selling us on this. So let’s talk about how we can do this in our Morning Time. So should we be discussing everything we read in Morning Time? How do we decide what to dig into? What makes a good practice in reasoning for our students? How do I decide what topics to pursue?
Matt: So if you’re starting it new like you’ve never done it before with the kids. It will be weird for them; right? It will be strange. I had students that I did this with for every subject, I mean, we were meeting and we doing this for every subject except for Latin. Whenever we did Latin, we would just stop and we would translate. And I realized like these poor kids were reducing this study of Latin to this like decoding process. But they didn’t care about what the text was that they were translating, they just cared about getting it into English and didn’t even care what the English said. So I decided instead of spending a full hour translating the Latin that we would spend 40 minutes and then the last 15 20 minutes we would discuss the content of what had been translated. So if we were translating a poem we would discuss what is this poem about? What does it mean? Why is he writing this? Who is he writing to? Whatever. And we just kind of try to do a Socratic conversation about the poem and for the first six weeks the kids just stared at me like I was crazy and these were kids that were doing Socratic conversation with ever other subject but was so unaccustomed to it with Latin that they just didn’t know. And it was about the sixth week or so when they actually started having you know input, “Oh yeah, so this is about blah blah blah.” And over time I started realizing that their translations were getting better. Because it was important now to get it right because it was going to affect the conversation. So anyhow, so if it’s new, it’ll be hard don’t let that discourage you. Like I just had to deal with that for six weeks of just being stared at like I was crazy because in their mind I was crazy; you don’t do this with Latin. You’re mixing it all up Mr. Bianco. So if that happens in your Morning Time, that’s okay. Just push through. Don’t afraid of the silence. So the easiest thing would be to just ask. The narration is a good way – just ask them to summarize what was read or discussed or just said or to ask about a particular action. So anytime a character does something that makes a choice to do or not do something that almost always becomes a question you can ask. So Bilbo, if we use the Hobbit for example again, Bilbo goes on the adventure. Should Bilbo have gone on the adventure? Bilbo goes and tries to go burgle the trolls. Should Bilbo have tried to burgle trolls? Bilbo finds a ring and keeps it. Should Bilbo have kept the ring? Any action that somebody takes you could ask that question and the question will always lead to some insight. Of course you know we feel better about some insights than others. So but do our students so do our children so the particular insight that you might want them to chase down might not be the insight that they end up chasing down, may not be the question they want to ask, because you want them to be participatory. Often I just let them ask but of these actions, of all these things that this guy just did which of these is you know the most interesting to you or the craziest to you or whatever. And then they pick and then we ask about it that way but they’re more involved they participate more because it’s something they’re thinking about. And there’s still some truth they’re going to discover or that there’s a potential to be discovered. So it’s okay that way.
Pam: And I think it’s important to bring up at this point that you don’t have to have an answer to the question that you’re asking.
Matt: That’s a good point.
Pam: So you may not even sometimes (obviously 90 percent of the time, 99 percent of the time there’s not going to be a cut and dry answer), like you said it’s the journey of getting to this truth and you don’t have to be afraid of the fact that you haven’t figured out in your mind yet should Bilbo have taken the ring or burgled the trolls or anything like that. That you can be part of the process of coming to whatever it is your answers going to be. And then also they may go off in a different direction and come up with something that you totally never expected them to come up with.
Matt: Right. Exactly. I did a lesson on Henry the fifth one time. I wanted to talk about courtship because there’s a scene with Henry courting the princess from France and I thought oh teenagers want to talk about courtship. Yeah, well low and behold teenagers do not want to talk about courtship with Mr. Bianco especially because Mr. Bianco uses the word courtship. Okay fine they didn’t want to talk about it with me. But the question that they brought up was about secession. Succession was the one where somebody replaces you after you die and you’re king; right?
Pam: Yeah. That’s the one.
Matt: I keep getting succession and secession mixed up. Which is succession. They wanted to talk about succession because at the end of the play Henry dies and he has an heir but the heir is too young and nobody has been trained to succeed him. And so England falls into all kinds of chaos because of it. All of the gains he made as king were lost because of the Advisors that ruled the country until his son grew up didn’t know what they were doing and they ruined the country and the students caught that and they wanted to talk about that. And apply it to all kinds of things like is the president of the United States responsible to mold a successor? Are our parents responsible to mold their children as kinds of successors? Is a CEO responsible to mold a successor? They were applying this to all kinds of things that it would have never occurred to me. And in the end the conversation that they brought to the table was far more important than the one I was going to bring to the table but especially to them because it was participatory for them — I guess I’ll use the word relevant but I like participation better there, but anyways — it was more relevant to them because it was their question. I wasn’t trying to answer a question that they hadn’t asked because it was the question they had asked. So they had room for it in their hearts and their minds and their soul, I guess.
Pam: Okay. So let’s talk a little bit about before we close. Sometimes, well Socrates, sometimes between him and the other characters the relationship was a little bit adversarial. He wanted to expose these errors in their thinking. So as homeschool moms or dads and we’re chatting with our students. We’re having these discussions. We are wrestling with some of these ideas. We’re starting at two different places. How can we do this and make sure that we don’t end up in some kind of adversarial conversation with our kids?
Matt: Well, that’s good, especially because some of the adversarial nature of it starts coming on its own; so we don’t need to exacerbate it, right? (in trying to have these conversations). One thing is to listen. So hey maybe this is where narration comes up again, instead of just narrating what we read maybe we have to narrate what was said — to make sure we’re really hearing what the other person is saying. Probably most of the time when there’s a kind of adversarial feel to the dialogue it’s when the interlocutor isn’t really listening to what Socrates is saying. In fact he’ll say something like “Have you heard, did you hear what I just said? Because you know you’re asking me to do something that I just told you I don’t believe in,” kind of thing and so there’s not the listening aspect of it. So probably the main thing that we can do as parents is to stop seeing this as an opportunity to impose my will or my view on them but to listen to what they’re thinking. And then other thing would be it’s okay if they don’t believe the right thing. Now that’s hard because I’m saying your kid might be a heretic or you know completely unethical and I’m saying it’s okay. But it is because you know first your kids nine or 10 or 12 or 14. They’re not out running a country or you know running a company or running along the neighborhood on their own. They’re still there under your protection and living with you and so they’re being allowed to explore these things on their own or under your safety, your protection and the thing is they’re only going it come to the right conclusions one of two ways; either by learning these skills you know to judge and practicing them until they learn to make right good judgments. Or by simply by parroting what you say back to you. You know the first option is more preferable because then it’s theirs. It’s really theirs. They own it. They’re not just copying you. So let them practice the tools knowing that their judgments are going to be bad for a while. I mean, look I’m 40 years old and I make bad judgments still; so I’m still learning to do this. Kids are almost certainly going to draw the wrong conclusions but know that this is not the last conversation you’ll ever have on the topic either. I’ll give an example, one time I was talking to my daughter about marriage and she’s 16 and I think at this point she had just turned 16 or maybe he was about to turn 16 and she’s telling me about her views on marriage and I was sitting there and I was listening and then asked her some questions because I disagreed with her views on marriage. So I asked her some questions and apparently she thought that I was trying to argue with her and trying to convince her that she was wrong and she goes, “Dad, I’m 16, my views on marriage are going to change between now and the time I get married. It’s okay. She’s like I know I’m probably wrong.” I was like okay. So it’s like she had figured out, I guess, that she’s only 16 and she doesn’t know what she’s talking about but it’s all she’s got and so she’s going to live with it for now but knowing that the opportunity for change will come. So I think we just we need to be willing to do that and trust that if this becomes a habit of how we approach life, how we approach the big questions of life then these questions, these conversations will repeat over and over and over again until even after they’re out of house. Like I said my college son when he’s home on break or even sometimes he’ll call in the middle of the week, “Dad, we need to talk about virtue because I just read a book on virtue and this guy said it’s blah blah blah we need it discuss it.” It sort of becomes a habit you have those repeated opportunities. And if we’re constantly trying to make them spout off the right answer all the time, then they never actually get to investigate for themselves. And I think that would create that adversarial situation in the home than these crazy guys Socrates was arguing with.
Pam: Well, I think it goes back to what you were talking about before with by practicing this often they’re learning to wrestle with these ideas while they’re still under your protection and so it’s great practice, it’s a skill that has to be … so often we think about is somebody a good thinker and we kind of align that with intelligence or something but really it’s a skill that needs to be practiced over and over again and by practicing that skill just like by practicing our handwriting we become a good thinker like we develop beautiful penmanship.
Matt: Yes. Exactly. Yeah because judgment is a skill. Thinking is a skill. It’s something that has to be practiced and trained. You can’t expect a kid to do it perfectly the first time out, the first time you have a conversation especially on something like what is justice? What is virtue? What is truth? What is God? I don’t know — those are hard questions and so it want them to have the right answers but we’ve got to let them wrestle with it. And just as a side note, like as a kind of a scientific study to kind of back up what I’m saying or what we’re saying. Nancy Pearcey talks about it in her book Saving Leonardo, she talks about a study that was done with college students looking at the college students who entered college as Christians and left there as well both whether they left as Christians or they left as atheists, and in this particular study the conclusion was that the students who grew up in homes where they were allowed to wrestle with questions of faith were the students who went off to college and kept the faith and the students who were never allowed to discuss questions of faith because they always just had to have the right answer, those kids grew up and went off to college and were more likely to leave the faith so there’s at least one study out there that kind of backs up the you know let them practice judging and thinking.
Pam: Right. And it wasn’t necessarily that these kids lost their faith because they had never heard anything else or it had all been squished down but maybe because they’d never been given the opportunity to do that mental exercise and to come to that you know build that skill of right thinking.
Matt: Right. Right.
Pam: Well, Matt, thank you so very much for coming on here today and helping us get a little bit of understanding about what, to me, has always been kind of a daunting topic. I really do appreciate you doing that. Is there somewhere I can go if I want to learn more about helping my kids make good judgments?
Matt: Well, you know, most of tools that I just described as far as the questions, definitions, comparisons, circumstances — a lot of those are tools that Circe uses in The Lost Tools of Writing. So I just pulled those right from The Lost Tools of Writing and used them in my Socratic conversations. The Lost Tools of Writing I think would be a good place. But there’s also a book called Socratic Circles, I can’t remember the guy’s name. I think his name is Matt something. And he wrote a book called Socratic Circles and he describes how to do it in a classroom with 12 or 15 kids how to do it with literature there and he talks about the how to do it as far as like kinds of questions or things to put out there but also how to organize the students so it’s a little more orderly when you’re having a group participate all at once instead of one on one. So there’s probably some good tips there. I have not read that book in probably six or seven years but it seems like a book that I thought was helpful at the time.
Pam: Okay. We will link to Lost Tools in the Show Notes and we we’ll also look up that book and link to that Socratic Circles book as well so people can go — if we’ve piqued their interest a little bit they can go and find more information. So thanks very much, Matt.
Matt: Thank you. It was a lot of fun. I appreciate it.
Pam: And there you have it. Now if you would like links to any of the books or resources that Matt and I spoke about today, you can find those on the Show Notes for this episode of the podcast. That is at PamBarnhill.com/YMB32. We’ll have everything that you need right over there including a link to the Maestro Classics website where you can use the coupon code Pam to get 17 percent off your order. Now I’ll be back again in a couple of weeks with another great Morning Time interview. Until then, keep seeking Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in your homeschool day.

Links and Resources from Today’s Show

The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the LettersPinThe Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the LettersPlato: Republic Books 1-5PinPlato: Republic Books 1-5Henry V (Henry the Fifth)PinHenry V (Henry the Fifth)Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and MeaningPinSaving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and MeaningSocratic CirclesPinSocratic Circles


Key Ideas about Socratic Discussion

  • Socratic dialogues were originally one-on-one conversations with Socrates or another great philosopher and an interlocutor. Now Socratic discussion typically happens in a group setting and is focused on the use of questions to investigate an idea.
  • Socratic discussion is an opportunity for those involved to seek the truth and come to know it better. It is important to accept the ideas that our children come to when having a discussion. They may want to discuss something other than what we had planned, but if we allow them to take from the text what catches their attention, they are more likely to internalize the discussion and grow from it.
  • It is also okay if our children arrive at, what we would consider, the wrong conclusions at the end of a discussion. If Socratic dialogue is a hallmark of our family or homeschool culture, our children will have more opportunities to approach topics again down the road. They may come to a different conclusion at that time. We should allow our children the time to play with ideas and critically think about them while we are there to guide them.

Find What you Want to Hear

  • 3:13 meet Matt Bianco
  • 3:37 Who is Socrates?
  • 6:06 defining Socratic discussion
  • 12:24 the goal of Socratic discussions
  • 20:57 the use of comparison in Socratic discussion
  • 26:21 studying circumstances in Socratic discussion
  • 28:50 Socratic discussion with multiple ages
  • 38:05 choosing good topics for a discussion
  • 44:56 keeping the discussion from becoming adversarial

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