Saint Ignatius High School

Socratic Seminars

Over the years, Mr. Healey has gone to the Socratic dialogue as a way of both answering student questions and seeing how far he can push students in their ability to think on their feet. In this week’s Lesson From Loyola Hall, Healey reflects on his socratic seminars and what elements of this style of teaching and learning his students have found to be the most helpful.

During my undergraduate years I spent innumerable hours with the writings of Plato - either reading them for philosophy classes or translating them for Greek classes.  Within these writings are conversations that draw out the philosophical teachings of Socrates, Plato’s mentor, yet do so indirectly through a technique that has come to be known as Socratic (or sometimes Platonic) dialogue.

Over the years I have gone to the Socratic dialogue as a way of both answering student questions as well as seeing how far I can push students in their knowledge of the material and their ability to think on their feet.  As the years have progressed these classes look less like the witty and urbane interviews from the old Dick Cavett Show and more like an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.  I sometimes feel as if I should put on my sweater and sneakers before I sit down amidst my seniors to have what Bertie Wooster called “a chin wag”.

Considering that these conversations can sometimes be hijacked by a couple of students who have very firm opinions - usually at different ends of the spectrum - I thought it would be good to try a new strategy while still remaining under the Socratic umbrella.  The use of Socratic seminars - a more rigorous and systematic approach to the Socratic dialogue - has been used by several teachers on campus and with great success.  I learned a lot about what works in such a seminar by asking my seniors what elements of this style of teaching and learning they liked the most and found the most helpful.  

Suggestions came from students who spent time in the classrooms of Mr. Joe Betz ‘01, Mr. Drew Vininsky ‘97, Mr. Thomas Yarcusko ‘12, and our former colleague Mrs. Megan McCullough.  These had to do with how to set up the room, what role different students would play at different times in the class period, and other logistical and pedagogical issues germaine to a Socratic seminar.  Amidst all of these wonderful responses, by far the best came from - if I remember correctly - Owen Anderson ‘23 from my D Class.  Owen’s suggestion came out of the blue and seemed to be a stroke of pure inspiration: We should wear togas.

What better way to reproduce the excitement of a true Socratic dialogue than by dressing up for the occasion.  How could I turn down such a request? So, beyond even allowing such sartorial splendor, I offered a bit of extra credit as encouragement.  We even had a contest in each class for the best toga.

I had planned on being a part of the festivities, but I was foiled (seemingly) by the new schedule.  My C Class met as the last period the next day and they were the first class to be a part of the Socratic seminar.  I had forgotten that they had completed their prep work and thus I did not remember to bring in my toga/bedsheet.  Panicked, I ran down to the nurse’s office to see if she had a sheet handy.  

What Mrs. Noreen Woidke, R.N.,  offered me was something much, much better: that wonderful roll of deli paper that we all know from exam rooms at doctors’ offices.  As you can see from the attached photo it was a fantastic stand-in for a real sheet, and had I entered the contest for best toga it would have been unfair to the other guys."

In the back of my classroom, for many years now, hangs a copy of the famous “School of Athens” by Raphael.  With it is a copy of his “Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament”, and together they remind my classes of the important, even essential, relationship between philosophy and theology.  In the center of the group of philosophers depicted in “School of Athens” are Plato and his student Aristotle, both clad in, of course, togas.

Now, no one would ever confuse my seniors with those depicted in Raphael’s painting, but at the same time no one could convince me that the philosophical brilliance that poured forth that day in class was not directly related to a bunch of them deciding to “look the part.” 

A.M.D.G.


*If you wish to know which toga won, please shoot me an email at thealey@ignatius.edu with your choice of best toga and I will let you know if your way of  thinking is in line with the way a group of Ignatius seniors thinks.