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San Diego Adds Socratic Seminars to Teacher Repertoires

By Robert Rothman — June 21, 1989 4 min read

The San Diego school district has launched what is thought to be the most extensive effort yet undertaken to introduce Socratic-style seminars into the K-12 curriculum.

Under an arrangement concluded this month, the 117,000-student district has hired Dennis Gray, deputy director of the Council for Basic Education, to work part time training teachers districtwide in the instructional method.

In addition, Mr. Gray will work intensively with teachers in three elementary schools with primarily limited-English-proficient students. He will also prepare a cadre of instructors to train other teachers in the Socratic approach.

The project in the 150-school system could more than double the number of schools nationwide using the seminar method advocated by the philosopher and author Mortimer J. Adler, supporters of the approach say.

In a 1982 book, The Paideia Proposal, and later writings, Mr. Adler outlined a vision of schooling in which students of all ability levels would learn through an intellectual dialogue with their teachers. The approach emphasizes, for example, in-depth discussions of a text or work of art to discern its underlying ideas and values.

Thomas W. Payzant, San Diego’s superintendent of schools, said the method “has a very good chance of making a dramatic impact on the way in which learning and teaching occurs in public schools.”

“We haven’t done a real good job in many schools of sustaining the motivation of students,” he said last week. “At the same time, we’ve often shied away from original-source documents in many disciplines because we thought they were too difficult, and not entertaining enough for students.”

“The Socratic method proves both of those things wrong,” he said. ''You can get a cross-section of students of different ability levels to engage in a very serious conversation about important ideas.”

District officials said the project8was not intended to supplant the existing curriculum, but would provide teachers with an additional tool they could use to enhance instruction.

Teachers will be free to decide whether they want to include seminars as part of their instructional repertoire, according to Mr. Payzant. But he predicted that the program would prove so successful that teachers across the district would want to implement it.

San Diego teachers received a preview of the new approach this spring, when Mr. Gray joined the district as an “instructor in residence” in five schools.

Mr. Payzant, who is also president of the cbe, a national group that promotes liberal-arts education, said Mr. Gray’s program was “one of the best-received professional-growth activities for teachers I have seen.”

The project is the latest reform initiative undertaken by the California district. Under Mr. Payzant, the central administration has moved toward a service orientation, with district officials serving as “enablers” for school-restructuring efforts conceived at selected schools. (See Education Week, March 8, 1989.)

Since the publication of The Paideia Proposal, about 125 schools nael15ltionwide have implemented some form of seminar instruction along the lines described by Mr. Adler, according to the National Center for the Paideia Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The method has encountered some resistance from critics who feel it is too radical a departure from traditional teaching styles, Mr. Gray said. The approach, he said, has proved to be a “subversive force” that has raised student achievement.

“It turns out to be a powerful way of strengthening the basic skills of reading, listening, speaking, and writing,” Mr. Gray maintained.

“Once seminars are established,” he added, “the fundamental character of the school inevitably changes, and it becomes a more thoughtful institution.”

In addition, according to Mr. Gray, the program “alters the relationship between students and teachers.”

“They become co-learners,” he said, “instead of the voice of authority and passive vessels.”

The San Diego project could serve as a national model for implementing Socratic seminars in a large district, Mr. Gray said.

In the past, he said, teachers who wanted to adjust class schedules or obtain better materials in order to try such an intellectually challenging approach often ran up against “points of friction” in their school systems.

But district officials in San Diego have pledged to lead seminars themselves in order to better appreciate teachers’ practical problems in adopting the new techniques, Mr. Gray said. “I will be there to remind them to walk the way they talk,” he added.

Mr. Payzant, the superintendent, said the district’s existing effort to restructure schools affords teachers flexibility in how they conduct their classrooms.

“If they run into barriers to proposals that will result in making things better for students or enable them to teach more effectively,” he said, “we encourage them to go for a waiver of board policy.”

The new project’s intensive efforts in the elementary schools, Mr. Gray said, will test the seminars’ effectiveness in helping pupils in bilingual programs move into the mainstream. In addition, he said, the project will aim to demonstrate the intellectual abilities of children in the early grades.

“It’s an amazing thing to watch kindergarten children talk about ideas, when usually all they talk about is what rabbit does to whom,” he said. “Sophisticated ideas are the property of everybody.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1989 edition of Education Week as San Diego Adds Socratic Seminars to Teacher Repertoires


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