Socratic Teachings: Paideia Courses at Leesville

In Mr. Broer’s classroom, a white board is covered in different ideas from his freshman class as they pick To Kill A Mockingbird apart to find deeper meanings within the text. (Photo courtesy of Ellie Bruno)

Inside the Murphy Building connected to the orchestra room, a large science room sits empty during second period as string music flows through the walls; middle schoolers trying their hardest not to let little hiccups interrupt the melodious sound coming from their instruments.

For Mr. Paul Dinkenor, this is the perfect place for him to teach both his AP Religions class and his two Paideia World History classes. The music is fitting for a teacher who has studied history his entire college career at Cambridge, and it adds to the old-school nature of his notes-based class with strange stories of his past in the UK told throughout the class period.

In contrast, on the second floor of the main building, Mr. Eric Broer sits in a packed classroom with staff writers for the school newspaper. As they type away furiously to complete any late assignments, he pokes fun at their work ethic and effortlessly spills passive aggressive comments. All this happens before having to deal with freshman who have little clue as to what they are doing in his Paideia English class.

The two teachers seem different in regards to their teaching styles, but they share a common thread — the Socratic method of teaching.

The core of a Paideia class is Socratic Seminars and collaboration, all branching from ideals of the Socratic method — a style of thoughtful debate that Socrates developed. Modern Paideia seminars and Socratic seminars share many similar traits; both aim to discuss answers to open-ended questions in regards to texts, events, or social issues in a thoughtful, meaningful way. Through these seminars, participants weigh in on questions, ask their own, and share their view on a subject, hoping to communicate to each other with educated answers.

The actual effect these seminars have on students can be easily seen by the teachers here at Leesville. Mr. Dinkenor, the Paideia World History teacher, can clearly see the difference in his freshman classes compared to the seniors he teaches. “Seminars involve skills such as annotation, taking notes in class during a seminar… it’s a lot of skill, talking for a purpose rather than just talking to talk” said Dink in an interview.

Not only do seminars teach students how to talk in a purposeful manner, but it teaches how to think collaboratively in groups — both large and small. In order to continue a conversation, students must be able take a previous comment and dispute it, add to it, or use it to form a new question. The questions asked shouldn’t have easy answers; the goal is to find the many different opinions and views on a subject and fighting for their relevance. This creates rifts in groups that students need to work through in order to complete their task successfully, eventually finding a common ground that was made possible by lengthy discussions.

“Paideia helped me learn to speak up for myself even when the majority of people may disagree” said Hannah Bruno, a former student at Leesville who went through the Paideia program. She also mentioned how “frustrating ‘seminars’ are in other classes because they are not at the same caliber.” Not only were the skills helpful in classes in high school, but, now a college student, Bruno said she learned how to “communicate through disagreements… which has enhanced my perspective of others and the world.”  

Both Dink and Broer have taken Soctratic methodology and integrated it into their lessons, not only in the form of seminars, but also in collaborative work with assignments. While Dink admits he is more old-fashioned — he tends to keep groups as small as possible and swears by detailed notes — Broer’s class involves as much group work as possible.

There is always discussion involving the texts the class is reading and is often scribbled onto the large whiteboard in his room. Arrows branch to different ideas with connections that usually wouldn’t be seen unless seen by the class as a whole. The ideology of getting your hands dirty is at the core of both subjects, just approached in different ways.

Through paideia classes students learn not only a deeper understanding of the material they are studying, but important discussion skills that are put to use later in life . In society now, the art of debate seems to have been lost, however with more and more students taking paideia courses during high school, they are becoming better prepared to face the world head-on. With plenty of practice in critical thinking, students are better prepared for conflicts that they may encounter, in turn aiding in their success in their future life.

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