Monday, June 06, 2005

The Examined Life: Cultivating Self-Reflection and the Return of Socratic Thinking

"The unexamined life is not fit to be lived by a human being." - Socrates

Self-reflective thinking is making a comeback in school curricula and the homeschooling movement, and it also seems to succeed on standardized tests of achievement and problem solving assessments. The scientific paper below shows the different pattern of brain activation seen with self-reflective thought - the difference between determining the truthfulness of a fact, and making a qualitative decision about oneself ("I'm a good friend"). The areas that appear to be important for self-awareness are in the frontal areas, the posterior cingulate, and a bit of the temporal lobes. The researchers tried to distinguish self-reflective statements from autobiographical ones by avoiding questions that would require vivid personal recollections, and by checking scans more quickly (2 sec) than most autobiographical studies require (4-20 sec). These areas that become activated are similar in location to areas implicated in 'theory of mind' (predicting the thoughts of others).

Examining one's own thinking is a foundation for Socratic thinking, a technique which emphasizes direction questioning of students so that they examine the opinions they have made and the assumptions on which they are founded.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Socratic instruction - from public, private, and homeschool sectors. Generally this approach requires a small class size and good teachers, but otherwise many different types of students seem to benefit from this approach. Our highest scoring public middle and high school in Washington is the International Community School in Bellevue (admittedly this is an affluent area). It is a 'choice' school and lottery chosen, not hand-picked or gifted only. They apparently employ an "Essential Questions" and "Habits of Mind" approach, integrated but fairly classical pattern of studies, and have an impressive statistics on the WASL, a test more geared toward problem solving than fact mastery. From 2004: 100% 10 graders passed Reading, compared to 60% for the state average. Math Scores were 88%. Another local classical Christian school (Bear Creek) which was started as a homeschool extension center in 1998 and teaches Latin, Rhetoric, etc. also posted fairly dramatic educational statistics which included middle 50% Junior year SAT's as 600-690 on verbal, 600=690 on math. Retro, it seems, may be a good way to go for some students.

Additional links below include Understanding By Design, which discusses more the "Essential Questions" approach to curricula.

fMRI self-reflection
On Reflective Thinking
Student Reflection
Principles of Socratic Questioning
Questioning Techniques
Essential Questions
Additional Strategies: Dilemmas, Essential Questions
Understanding by Design

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