Communicating effectively in your home school is not limited to classical discourse like formal speeches or written compositions. Narration is a communication skill that is used in casual conversation more than the other two combined! Think about the countless times during a day that you ask your home school child questions…
- How did you sleep last night?
- What did you dream about?
- What are your plans for study today?
- What was the book about?
- What would you like for dinner?
- How did you spend your free time this afternoon?
- What do you want to be when you grow up?
- What did you learn from your reading?
Home school Moms and Dads are great at asking questions! But the risk with asking open-ended questions is that you’ll get vague responses like “okay” (how did you sleep) “I can’t remember” (what was the book about), and “I don’t know” (what did you learn today). What you want to do as a classical homeschooing parent is draw out your child’s understanding so that he or she is giving you more than one-word grunts. You know that words have the power to change the world, and you want to raise world-changers who are eloquent and persuasive! Train them in giving concise, direct answers so that when they find themselves out in the community and someone asks a question, they are prepared.
So how do you coax your reluctant child to give thoughtful responses to your questions? Socratic dialogue is one method that we use in our home school to great effect. In this post, I’ll show you how I do it using a real-life example from my home school daughter’s high school biology course.
Remember that Courtroom Drama?
Unless you are a practicing attorney, you probably haven’t had a lot of experience in using Socratic dialogue. In fact, attorneys (and some homeschoolers) are the only living Westerners who still use this classical tool. Attorneys receive training in Socratic method in law school where they learn to ask leading questions of a witness.
If you have ever been to a legal deposition or watched a courtroom drama, you know that a good prosecutor asks leading questions. In preparation for the trial, the attorney “deposes” the witness. In a deposition, the attorney asks the witness pertinent questions under oath, and a court transcript is created which both the defending and prosecuting teams receive. In deposing the witness, the attorney is trying to arrive at the facts of the case. These facts are the basis for the trial, and a skillful attorney will use these facts in asking leading questions of the witness so that the witness gives him the answers that he wants. Facts are the starting point for your Socratic dialogue preparation, too.
What are the FACTS?
Just like the attorney, you need to know the facts before you can ask useful leading questions. Unless you are already an expert on the subject matter, you need to read the home school material along with your child. Now I am not saying that you have to read every single word that the child reads; if you have more than one child, the task of keeping up with all of the weekly reading assignments plus all of your other family responsibilities would be overwhelming! Be selective. You might choose one subtopic from your teenage daughter’s high school science reading, one chapter from your preteen son’s history reading, and one picture story book to read with your youngest child. (By the way, the Socratic method works well with both fiction or nonfiction.)
In this example, I listened to a Teaching Company Biology lecture with Meredith on DNA called “The Double Helix.” We put on the 30 minute DVD, and we both took “branch” notes (see image to the left – thank you, home school titan Andrew Pudewa) as the lecture progressed. We paused the DVD if there were any concepts we didn’t understand. After we watched the entire lesson and outlined the concepts, we both wrote a brief abstract or summary of the notes in paragraph form. This step ensured that we organized our thoughts and clarified any obscurities in the sticks and branches. We follow this same procedure for each lecture.
After Meredith writes her summary, she either reads it to me or lets me read it. Often there is no need for further clarification because I can see from her oral or written narration that she understands the concepts. She has effectively communicated her understanding. However, perhaps there is a concept that I think is particularly important or one that she hasn’t quite captured in her notes. That concept would serve as the subject of my leading questions. (See the blue arrows and the highlighted areas of my notes.)
This gets a little technical, but bear with me. For this example, let’s say that I want to make sure that Meredith understands how nitrogenous bases (A, T, C, G) pair up as they attach to the sugars on the two DNA strands. The sugars on DNA strand #1 have nitrogenous bases (NB) which attach to the NB on DNA strand #2. Imagine that the DNA strands are the side rails on a staircase, and the NB connections are the stair treads. (See the highlighted area in my stick and branch drawing.) Now the tricky thing is NBs are either pyrimidines or purines which means that one is larger than the other one. So the larger NB on DNA strand #1 must attach to the smaller NB on DNA strand #2 (C + G), then the smaller NB on DNA strand #1 must attach to the larger NB on DNA strand #2 (A + T), and so forth all the way down the double helix or the imaginary stair tread would be lopsided, and the double helix would not be a double helix!
Plan the Leading Questions
Now that I know where I want to end up, I can plan the questions. The easiest way to tackle this task is to break the entire concept up into short answer questions like this:
- What are the 2 nucleic acids on each DNA strand? (sugars and phosphates)
- What are the 2 types of nitrogenous bases? (purines and pyrimidines)
- How are the purines different from the pyrimidines? (size – purines are smaller)
- What are the 2 purines? (adenine: A and guanine: G)
- What are the 2 pyrimidines? (cytosine: C and thymine: T)
- Which of the 2 nucleic acids, sugar or phosphate, attaches to the nitrogenous base? (sugar)
- Can a sugar attach to any of the 4 nitrogenous bases? (yes)
- If a sugar has a purine nitrogenous base, what must the connecting nitrogenous base be? (pyrimidine)
- What would happen if a purine attached to a purine on the DNA strand? (the “stair tread” of the double helix would be lopsided, so that it didn’t look like a double helix anymore)
If you have carefully structured your line of questions, your home school child should end up right where you expected and chances are good that she will understand the steps of the concept better now that she has had to think through them logically. Additionally, as the child answers the questions, you can detect any misunderstandings and discuss them right away. Yes, it would be much easier to just tell them the answers, but then she wouldn’t own her understanding, would she? Socratic Ddalogue is an effective communication tool because the child learns to break the concept or idea up into components, organize the thoughts, and relate them to the parent. The conversation usually expands beyond the initial questions as a full-fledged discussion emerges, and your rising home school scholar practices the art of classical rhetoric through narration and Socratic dialogue.