Socratic Seminar: Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew B. Crawford

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SWBAT propel conversations by posing and responding to questions and comments from peers by participating in a Socratic seminar.

Big Idea

Socratic seminars are wonderful for learning what students know and how engaged they are in a book or topic.


Socratic Seminar

75 minutes

Students have been reading the book Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew B. Crawford for two weeks as preparation for the beginning of this thematic unit on education.  I chose this book as an anchor text for the unit in part because it isn’t just about education; it certainly challenges the values of modern schooling, as well as the meritocracy they present, but it also relates to finding personal agency and happiness in employment, synthesizing education with employment and economics, among other fields.  Thus, students are seeing how many central ideas are developed over the course of a text, and also seeing a model for integrating multiple sources for making their own unique statement as they enter a conversation, since Crawford draws heavily from other writers and philosophers.  Additionally, this is a challenging read; outside of chapters which are more of a narrative of his experience fixing motorcycles, the bulk of the text is very academic, with complex sentence structures and lots of elevated vocabulary.

Students were required to write reading “logs” for each chapter, (Reading logs for ShopClass as Soulcraft.docx), which include writing a summary, writing reflections/responses connecting the ideas to their own experiences and knowledge, and identifying important or interesting quotes, perhaps because of content, but also because they have questions; these will serve as notes for the Socratic seminar discussion of the book.

Sometimes called a “fishbowl,” this format offers students a different speaking and listening challenge than other collaborative group work because, for one, they have an audience, and two, they have to take a bit more of a risk in speaking.   Thus, one of the goals is learning how to conduct themselves and participate in this kind of discourse.  In my experience, the students are able to participate in discourse that probe into a text more effectively when they come to the discussions prepared, having been assigned tasks to gather evidence and explore ideas prior to the discussion (thus, the logs). 

A big reason I’m choosing to use this approach with the book is that I’ve never had students read an entire book before addressing it in class like this, and I’ve never had students read this particular book—a challenging, philosophical nonfiction piece; I want to get an authentic formative assessment of what they understood from it.  The lack of structure in the Socratic seminar format, the absence of me (I will sit in on each circle as another way to model and teach how to engage in this type of discussion, only participating to steer the conversation back to a more academic discourse if it gets away too much or throw a probing question into the mix if the group is struggling), and the fact that the stronger students tend to rise to the top in these, will allow me to get a clear idea about their experience and how they connected to the book.  Additionally, the format lends itself to broader discussions than small group work, or even a full class discussion (because the Socratic seminar takes away some of the “is this right” feeling present with teacher-led question/answer discussions).

The basic format is that I have seven desks in a circle and the rest around the outside (I have 13 students in the class, so I split them in half).  For this particular class I will let them self-select who goes first, but in other classes I may make that decision to have more distributed peer leadership.   They are all familiar with the process, so I will simply outline my expectations—that everyone participates in some fashion, that issues brought up start with a specific reference to the text, and that any reference to the text includes a page number for reference.  I also instruct the outside members to take notes regarding things they found surprising, things they wanted to know more about, questions they want to ask the participants, and other comments they would like to add. 

A little less than half way to the end of class, I will stop, have each outside member say one thing they wrote down, then switch groups so the outside continues the discussion (if the discussion was based on a smaller segment of text, or if there was a specific purpose, I may give each group more specific topics to focus on so all members of the class can participate and so the conversation doesn’t become repetitive).

Next steps:  The whole of the book will probably not be covered in one class, so we will pick up some of the topics tomorrow, and I will guide the class specifically to the implications of the text regarding education.   To help this along, I will have students continue their free-write of the other day in response to the question “to what extent do our schools serve the goals of a true education,” adding how the concepts of their Socratic discussion fit into their response.