Learning at Home The Socratic Way – Special Guest Samantha Jansky (Episode 158)
I've been fascinated by the Socratic method of learning for a long time, and it's been a natural thing to raise our children including this form of questioning. However, that's not always the norm.
Sometimes parents fall down the hole of simply narrating life to their children, or not engaging in dialogue with them. Yes the insights from our youngest generation can be some of the most incredible, thought-provoking conversations, and, these are our future leaders and change-agents in the world.
Below is the full blog post curated from our video interview as well as the audio-only version as a podcast, so whether you are visual, audio, or prefer the full video interaction, we have you covered.
Every Child has a genuis within them - have you asked them questions to uncover - or discover - it?
This week I did an interview with Samantha Jansky. She is a Socratic Guide for Ascent Academy, an Acton branch. Samantha joined Acton Academy as a Socratic guide in 2012, just a few years after its inception. Leading the Elementary school for 4 years, she created systems that further empowered young heroes in a truly learner-driven environment. She then moved on to specializing in Learning Design Creation (curriculum) and wrote and published the entire Elementary School Learning Design used by the world-wide Acton network of over 100 schools.
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Acton Academy is a global community of learner-driven schools. They are run by parent entrepreneurs. All Acton academies are slightly different from each other; yet they are all set apart from other school models. They all carry these common principles. The Hero’s Journey – a philosophical underpinning for nearly all experiences in the community. The young learners are given the narrative that they are a hero on their journey. They believe every child has a genius within them – special gifts that make them unique. We believe every child deserves to find a calling that will change the world.
We Don't Teach; We Guide
They also implement Socratic Guiding – not teaching. They don’t teach anything, actually. There is no hierarchical structure – the adults don’t give the info. They offer resources and questions to empower learners, quests with a narrative and clear goal at the end, and the children choose what they’ll work on each day.
Acton stands apart for a key element here – it’s the only school I know of that shifts the focus to retraining the adult to get out of the way of learning, instead of placing the responsibility on them to impart the knowledge. The children are in charge – they set contracts that establish how they want to live in this community together. They hold each other accountable to the tasks and goals they set. The guide’s role is to offer challenges and make sure the tools/resources are available and be independent.
Oh, to be jobless
If we can hand off the responsibility of learning to the children, we empower them to continue with their learning regardless of our involvement. Establish a framework for success and accountability. It’s not just a free-for-all with unschooling; but helping children to set goals and challenges for themselves to move forward with their own learning.
If we can work ourselves out of a job, then we’re doing something right.
I first learned about Acton by reading The Courage to Grow by Laura & Jeff Sandefer, the founders of Acton Academy. This book is an incredible resource to look at this perspective shift.
If you aren't sure how to reset your role as a parent to be a guide vs. the narrator of life, this is an excellent book to get your mind thinking about the posibilities.
Motivate...but then move out of the way
Maybe children don’t need to be told the direction of the road as much as they need the tools to know how to pave their own way.
Children are capable of far more than we could ever imagine. When children have freedom within boundaries and a real motivation, not only can they do it on their own, but they can do extraordinary things. Incite a spark of curiosity in them. Help them see a challenge and set a goal, and then move out of the way. Allow for opportunities for success…and yes, that opens the door to opportunities to fail.
Fail...Early, Cheaply, Often
Fail early, cheaply, and often. Failure is hard, but it’s necessary. The role of the parent in the Acton model is one of the hardest – it’s hard to watch your children struggle, but oh so valuable. They have to feel the impact of the fall in order to know how to stand on their own.
If our children don’t experience the opportunity to struggle and fall down on their own, they are stuck in dependency to you to show them the way. We do our children a disservice by protecting them from the realities of life, growth, and struggle. It’s in the struggle that oftentimes our greatest work and insights develop.
Move from Narration to Socratic Guidance
Co-Founder of Acton Academy, Jeff Sandefer, said, “true masters of the Socratic craft know they are beginners, not experts.” And Socrates went even further with concept, saying, “the only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.”
Coming to a conversation with humility is so, so important.
Be curious. Whenever you’re engaging with your child, come to the conversation first with true curiosity. Have a conversation free from bias and an agenda, and first, seek to understand.
If you focus first on understanding how they process, that opens the door for a lot of trust to be shared – and from that trust, you can open the door to deep and valuable conversation.
Yes, drop the ego
Letting go of the ego is huge. Remember this is a child developing and growing in their own journey. It’s not about you. Maybe it’s not that you didn’t teach something right, or that you lost their interest; it could be all about their own insights and their journey. Don’t take it personally – this is their path.
Socratic Method Tips:
Never ask a question you know the answer to. Children will see straight through it – and it can show a lack of respect for them. Then it becomes less about the question and more of a game about what they think you want them to say, or finding that “right” answer.
Powerful Questioning guides a conversation to growth and critical thinking;
not a right answer
Genuine questions you don’t have the “right” answer to can be so, so valuable. Ask questions with A or B options – avoid open-ended questions. Instead of, “how was your day?” Ask, “what did you enjoy most today – setting smart goals, participating in a Socratic discussion, or playing in the field with your friends?” Or, “who helped you today?”
Socratic Question Examples:
Here are some examples of Socratic questions, and yes, these children grappling with these questions are ages 6-11. These are over-arching life questions that they set up times for discussion on and reflect on these concepts and questions throughout the year.
- Is truth discovered or created?
- Does power corrupt?
- What does it mean to be human?
- What’s more important – listening or speaking?
- In an argument, who’s responsibility is it to better understand what happened – the person telling the story, or the person listening? Is it my responsibility to interpret what you’re saying, or your responsibility to convey it in a certain way?
- In history – what does it take to be a hero? During the Civil Rights movement, what does it take to be an activist – is it more perseverance or courage?
- In learning stories about heros, they are asked questions about what they observe during the lesson, as well as questions that put them in the shoes of the hero. (Imagine you are in x scenario – would you do y or z?)
Note that these questions are hard to answer – it’s hard to take a stance, as they are subjective. There is no right or wrong, yet they are asked to pick a side and discuss it.
Setting the Rules of Engagement
The learners at the Acton Academy schools start out their school year laying out the groundrules and guidelines they all believe in and will abide by for the year. They set the rules, the consequences, and are the first in responsibility to abide by them. When it comes to having Socratic dialogue, they start with establishing Rules of Engagement:
- Be on time and prepared.
- Be concise.
- Do not repeat points already made.
- Provide evidence and reasoning.
- Link to previous comments. (Use “I agree” or “I disagree.”)
- Listen with an open mind and consider new evidence.
- Focus and do not distract.
Yes, these are great ones to apply in your home - what conversations could you open up once you have these paremeters in place?
The best scenario in a Socratic model is when they are fully debating, people are taking hard stands to start the discussion, and then slowly, as the dialogue happens, they switch sides and change their minds.
So what does success look like with the socratic model?
Well, first off, there is never a right answer. If you’re asking a question that has a right answer, it’s not a Socratic question.
The best discussion happens when someone then says, “I’ve changed my mind,” and it’s based on something someone else says - that’s pretty incredible. When the energy is high, and great questions are building on each other in the discussion, and everyone walks away still curious, it just sets the rudder for the day to continue with growth, collaboration, and an understanding that different perspectives bring new insights.
Having a discussion and recognizing that viewpoints can change, that what works for one may not work for another, and that we are always learning new insights are pretty valuable for learning how to interact in this world. Not having the answers in life all the time is key in building those critical thinking skills.
And, let’s not discount the power of empathy – sit in these stories. Feel and imagine what it’s like to be in the shoes of others. Critical thinking skills, empathy and curiosity are things I want to foster in my own home, and the Socratic method of questioning is an incredible reinforcer.
The Acton Philosophy of Learning
Clear thinking leads to good decisions. Good decisions lead to the right habits. The right habits become your character, and your character becomes your destiny. It all starts with creating an environment where they can be clear thinkers.
Think about heroes in history – maybe someone in ancient times who may have had a hostile place nearby – do you invest in military or agriculture?
Really powerful conversations also come from interviewing a hero. If you can start seeing yourself as a hero with an important story as well, you can have some great conversations with your children sharing your own experiences. Think about this concept with story-telling. Is there a moment in your life where you had to make a big decision? Where you failed or struggled with something and overcame? Can you share a story with your children and get them right to that decision-making point of A or B, and then ask them what they would do?
Share your Own Stories
I love this idea - instead of simply telling the FULL story of what happened in our own lives, use our own examples as a launchpad to imagine a different scenario. What would your child do in that situation?
We tend to hold on stories - it gives us the logic and the visualization around it to attach it in our minds. We find those things we can empathize with and hold on to, and the stories can reinforce a concept that will really stick in their minds.
Parenting isn't one-and-done - it's a constant for the rest of your life. And, just like your children are always growing, so can you. The insights we can glean from our children, uninhibited by our insecurities, our resentments, our history...it can open up whole new ways of thinking.
Theorize, philosophize, try something new. Try and fail, cheaply and fast when you are young. The older we get, the more we see the complexities and variations in life. What works for one may not work for another. There is a lot of gray out there. Start by laying that foundation of fluidity with your children, so they understand that the goal of life is not a right or wrong answer as much as it is about the critical thinking skills to navigate your journey through it. This is the power of processing through a Socratic discussion.
Parents, Move out of the Way
As parents, we can be quick to rush in, coming up with a solution to a problem vs. discussing it with the whole family. Are you including your child not just in what the problem is, but in finding a solution to it? Have you talked to your kids about who they really want to be, how they really want bedtime to look like, or what really is a fun thing to do as a family?
Sometimes we just assume this pressure to problem-solve, and we trample over any other voice in our house. And then we are frustrated and angry that our children revolt and protest.
When you recognize where your children are in the process - what they believe in, what they want, and what they understand, you are way more likely to have them work together with you. When you allow them to be invested in that creation process, they are way more likely to adhere to it.
Advice To parents
Dive in. Ask questions. Ask them what they were curious about that day or what they might have learned. It's not so much about asking the "right" question as much as it's opening the door that you are curious about them, you want to understand them, and learn how to connect. Opening that door of curiosity creates a firm bridge of mutual trust and respect.
Beyond just starting out with questions, take an environmental assessment. Does your environment empower your child? Are there opportunities for them to fail/struggle? Are there opportunities for them to do something on their own that you've previously been doing for them? How involved are they in the day-to-day things you do to run a household?
Don't stress too much about the questions you need to ask; let your curiosity drive it. If you are naturally curious about your child's perspective, the questions will come as you seek to understand it more.
Some additional resources for you
- Learn More About the Socratic Method on the Acton Platform
- Real Talk with Two Homeschooling Mamas (Episode 156)
- What To Do About School In 2020 (Episode 155)
- Why Are Snakes In Our House (Episode 154)
- What is Functional Education? (Video)
- My Child Will Never Read
- Learn more about DISC Personality Styles
- Life Long Learners Come In All Personality Styles
- How can I be both teacher and student? Reach for the sun yourself! (Episode 74)
- Homeschool Rebuttals (Episode 61)
- History in a Distillery and other opportunities for learning (Episode 47)
- What is your internal motivation? (Episode 44)
- Your Credibility as Lead Explorer, Not A Teacher (Episode 42)
- What Type Of Thinker Are You? (Episode 43)
- Embrace The Struggle (Episode 41)
- Are You A Different Drummer? (Episode 39)
- Deschooling and the Myths of Education (Episode 40)
Your Weekly Challenge:
Open up that conversation with your child. Ask them a question out of pure curiosity. Share a story of growth in your own life, but don't share the ending. Ask them what they would do!
There are many school options out there. Look for what works for your family.
And even if that ideal scenario isn't there, what inspiration can you glean from those educational models you are drawn to?
Don't say or tell as much as ASK. When you ask, what more can you learn about your children?
Don't underestimate the insights your children can bring, and get to know the way their mind works, how they process, and what they are interested in. As we grow more curious about one another we get to know how the uniqueness in each of us strengthens all of us.
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