This is a process I learned from Carolyn Sweers, who used to teach at New Trier High School in Wilmette, Illinois. She called it The Silent Socratic Dialogue.

It begins by the teacher posing a question for the students to write on. In the case of my class on the Vietnam War, I asked them at the end of the class to address this question in their journal for the next class: “To what extent should moral considerations enter into the conduct of a war?” In the next class I paired them up, told them they could not talk at all during the exercise, and asked them to read their partner’s answer and, at the end, to write one genuine question that would help clarify the answer or drive the partner deeper into her answer. And it had to be a real question, not a statement followed by, “don’t you think?”

The partners then exchange papers and answer the question in writing, exchange papers and ask a question, exchange papers and answer the question….The last time I did this I kept it going for about forty minutes, after which we discussed the question. 

An interesting variation on this occurred with one student who missed the class. At the end of her journal I asked her a question. She responded by e-mail, and I replied by e-mail and asked her another question. She responded…. The process was so satisfying for both of us that I think I’m going to try it with an entire class next semester; perhaps each week engage five students in a Silent Socratic Dialogue with me over e-mail. 

–Bill Taylor, Faculty, History, Oakton Community College, IL

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