Elements of Acton: Socratic Discussions

Socratic Discussions: What They Are

Socratic dialogue stimulates critical thinking by facilitating inquiry and debate. In a Socratic discussion, a guide sets up scenarios and asks questions. The guide may launch and moderate a Socratic discussion, but the students lead it by asking most of the questions and answering each other.

How We Use Socratic Discussions at Acton

We believe that asking the right questions is as important as knowing the answers. Each day is launched with a Socratic discussion to highlight the focus of the day and build energy, bring up a community need, or just inspire and encourage students. Launches often begin with a story or video that sets the framework for the discussion. Or a guide might simply read a quote, such as this one by Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The students might then grapple with whether they believe what you do, what you say, or how you make someone feel has a more lasting impact.

In addition to the daily launches, core skills and project times begin with Socratic discussions to reflect on the purpose of the activity. Outside of discussions, guides employ the Socratic method with students throughout the day by not answering questions. The purpose of this is to build and reinforce independent learners who are able to answer their own questions by consulting the four “B”s: their Brain, a Board (information posted on a white board or bulletin board), Blinks (books or links), or a Buddy (another student).

More on Socratic Discussions

Here are some helpful resources on Socratic discussions:

Brewing Up a Socratic Summer
Acton Academy cofounder Laura Sandefer provides a “cheat sheet” for parents interested in having Socratic discussions at home. Sandefer writes, “The true purpose of a Socratic discussion is to come to new or deeper understandings of oneself, others and the world through an authentic wrestling with thoughts, information and ideas. And the real adventure is that you have no idea where you will end up.”

A Socratic Launch
In this video, Acton Academy cofounder Jeff Sandefer leads a Socratic discussion about entrepreneurship with the elementary students in Austin. Sandefer and the students begin with a review of the Socratic rules of engagement.

Elements of Acton: Real-World Projects

  • Mastery learning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Real-world projects
  • Socratic discussions
  • Identifying strengths and passions

Real-World Projects: What They Are

Real-world projects engage students in solving problems or in creating products as would be required in the real world. Whether it’s starting a garden or building a rocket, real-world projects allow students to be active learners in something of interest to them. Teachers act as guides and let students take the lead in asking and answering their own questions, collaborating, and critiquing their work. In addition to being fun for students, studies have shown that real-world projects increase students’ long-term retention, collaboration skills, and ability to problem solve.

How We Use Real-World Projects at Acton

At Acton, we believe that learning requires students to get out of the classroom and engage with the real world. Real-world projects, or quests, as we call them, can take from several weeks to a couple months to complete and can focus on any subject. For example, students might role-play a historical event and have to make decisions with real-world consequences. Students could be British colonists facing the choice of whether or not to declare independence from King George. The real-world consequences of being subject to a far-away and not democratically elected ruler, in the form of proclamations from King George, could include a ban on talking during work time or playing music during free time. In another project, students might be scientists in a robotics and electricity lab where they are challenged to figure out if water can be used to generate electricity. A math project could require solving math riddles or figuring out math magic tricks.

More on Real-World Projects

Here are some helpful resources on real-world projects:

Five Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning
This Edutopia video explains the five essential components of project-based learning (real-world connection, core to learning, structured collaboration, student driven, and multifaceted assessment) and illustrates each with footage of students in action.

Examples of Quests
Acton Academy Austin's blog Our Hero's Journey features many of the quests the middle schoolers there have done. For example, in The Speech Quest, students not only stepped into the shoes of a historical figure to deliver a world-changing speech, but also budgeted for and arranged travel to the city where the speech was made.

Elements of Acton: Mastery Learning

  • Mastery learning
  • Self-directed learning
  • Real-world projects
  • Socratic discussions
  • Identifying strengths and passions

David and I love the Acton Academy model because it brings together so many great educational frameworks and tools. Since it is challenging to summarize them all neatly, I thought I would use the blog to explore the different elements of Acton in more depth. 

Today I’ll talk about mastery learning: What it is, how we use it at Acton, and where you can find more information about it. 

Mastery Learning: What It Is

In the traditional educational model, a certain amount of class time is devoted to a particular topic or concept; when that time is over, the entire class moves on, despite widely varying degrees of mastery over the material. In contrast, with mastery learning, students proceed at varying rates toward the same level of mastery. The curriculum is not structured in terms of time, but in terms of target levels of comprehension and achievement.

A traditional learning model can keep some students from advancing when they’re ready while pushing other students to move ahead too soon. Imagine not being allowed to do algebra because other students haven’t yet gained a good grasp of basic math. Or, conversely, being expected to learn to read without an understanding of letters simply because the lesson plan says to move on.

How We Use Mastery Learning at Acton

At Acton, we use a mastery approach to core skills (reading, writing, math). All students work at their own pace, and advancement to the next level of material requires mastery of the preceding level. This approach allows students to take the time they need to understand the material they are working on. Some will advance more quickly, and others will need more time. In math, for example, some students might be working on addition and subtraction, while others are working on more advanced topics like multiplication or division. 

More on Mastery Learning

Here are a few resources on mastery learning that we like:

5 Myths about Mastery-Based Learning
Writing for The Knewton Blog, Christina Yu explains that mastery learning doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive to implement and it doesn’t mean that students aren’t challenged or that they are held to impossibly high standards.

Sal Khan on Digital and Physical Learning
In this Khan Academy video, Sal Khan says that in a traditional model of education, the time students have to learn something is fixed and how well students understand is the variable. In mastery learning, the variable becomes time and what is fixed is how well students understand. To skip to where Khan discusses mastery learning, go to 6:47.