I’ve often said that leading Socratic discussions is my second most favorite activity (apparently some people enjoy exercising more than I do).
I’ve had teenagers say, after spending a year in my Socratic classes rather than a regular English class, say “I’d rather clean all the toilets of Denver with my tongue than go back to a regular English class.”
The solution to education is so simple: Make it cool and fun instead of disgusting, humiliating, and boring. I walk into a classroom, get kids talking about ideas, most of them love it immediately (“this is better than school”), others get used to it gradually, and by means of connecting the conversation to sophisticated texts (Plato, Shakespeare, Buber, Toni Morrison, New Scientist, Flash Fiction, Sappho, John Lennon, Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, Manga, whatever), I get them to LOVE talking about ideas and reading and discussing real stuff.
Gradually they learn to read (which almost none of them do) real stuff (which they really don’t do) and they learn to think and talk and then write. (How I teach essay writing: We talk about ideas all the time, assign papers, point out that when Amy argues with George that love is not blind, and then George argues that it is, and then Amy says why blah blah blah, and George replies, blah blah blah, they have just sketched a three paragraph essay: Thesis, Supporting paragraph one is blah, supporting paragraph two is blah 2, supporting paragraph three is blah 3, say what you’ve said and you’re done).
This is super, super simple and super super fun. The school I created in NM that was ranked 36th best public school in the U.S. was, in a sense, #1 – all of the more highly ranked schools were either magnet schools (gather the smartest kids in all of Houston rather than all the regular kids of Angel Fire, NM, and sure the percentage of AP test takers is higher) or super elite rich districts that are magnets for super-parents and their kids. All we did is talk in class most of the time – second in fun only to sex and exercise (who are these people who love working out so much?)
Leading these conversations is in a sense super simple – and yet also easy to do wrong. My standard for behavior is “Does a teacher talk to students the way that he or she would talk to a friend at a cocktail party?” If yes, then the teacher can be trained. If instead she or he talks at students, or down to students, then the prospective “teacher” is hopeless. Think about the way that most teachers talk to students: If someone did that to you at a cocktail party, you would be squirming to get away as soon as possible from such an insufferable boor!
This is why I hate to hire credentialed teachers – they have been trained professionally to talk at other human beings in humiliating ways. The professionalism of a lesson plan is the professionalism of a humiliating boor. What if someone walked up to you to give you a “lesson” at a party? @%#)%(U@%#(%U##% @#$%#%#hole! But we expect kids to sit there and put up with that all day all year for years in a row. Back in the 50s they would put up with that (sort of, but “Rebel without a Cause”) and in Asia they put up with that (sort of, but teen rebellion is happening in Japan). But American kids? Forget it. Game over. They would rather clean toilets with their tongues (not sure why he said Denver, certainly not because they were cleaner bowls on average).
Sometimes teachers who have suffered through education courses and who have been taught that everyone has a different learning style would criticize my courses and schools for all the conversation: “This is not an appropriate learning style for everyone.” I then take these pedantic pedagogues to the cafeteria at lunchtime, and guess what? ALL the kids are talking a hundred miles an hour. Human beings TALK. We are talking animals, big time. Conversation is one of the greatest of human pleasures. It beats the hell out of being talked at for six hours per day about irrelevant garbage.