Truth at The Socrates Cafe

November 19, 2011 at 12:40 PM 2 comments

Starting the Density unit gets us down to accurate and precise measurements of mass and volume. Accuracy = Truth. Or does it? At the base of all science is the pursuit of objective, repeatable and predictive ‘truth’. But what IS truth? Why do we care? And what does science have to do with it?

“Socrates Cafe – a Fresh Taste of Philosophy” by Christopher Phillips inspired me to try something similar with my 8th graders.

Re-arranged the chairs around our coffee tables and put desks in an outer circle. Cold rain is spattering the windows and we are cozy together, hands wrapped around mugs of hot chocolate engaged in deep discussion. That’s the pretty picture and, surprisingly, it was pretty much that way for most of the day.

Socrates taught entirely through questioning peoples underlying beliefs and assumptions, and died rather than give that up – “An unexamined life is not worth living”. Of course, there’s much more to the Socratic Method than this. I’m lifting what makes sense to a middle school science class and trading the adversarial, intellectual one-upmanship of academia and law school for a more gentle and probing curiosity into what my students are thinking.

Each class came up with rather different ideas and emphasis. I was completely engaged and interested all day. It was like surfing: you do your best to balance on the waves that come and aim broadly for the shore. The unknown of what exactly will come up and where you end up is part of the fun.

What students had to say about truth and why we care:

  • Only two or three students said they had ever had a philosophical discussion before, and some started with “The ‘truth is good because if you lie you get into trouble”.
  • “Truth is the facts. Facts are true.” Circular statements that I pushed on. What makes a ‘fact’ different from other forms of knowledge? They alluded to objectivity and opinion and referenced the Strawberry Lab from the start of 7th grade. How high is this table? We could all agree on that. But do we care? I saved this for later in the discussion to draw it back to scientific knowledge.
  • What’s the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘belief’? Wow, if we could get clear on that as a society, imagine the peace that could break out.
  • What is the link between ‘truth’, ‘trust’ and ‘honesty’?And then how truth can lead to freedom (Like if you tell your  parents what you were really doing when you were late home, next time you ask to go to a sleep over, they’ll likely trust you more and let you.)
  • The issue of ‘trusting yourself’ and therefore knowing yourself was brought up as an important form of truth. Someone pointed out that when people don’t know how they feel about something, they can take it out on others subconsciously.
  • Truth between friends is a very important issue for all of us. But with truth that is respectful and kind.
  • There was much interest in white lies and ‘would you want to be told bad news about say, cancer? Parents getting a divorce? The time and date of your own death? Would you want a good friend to tell you if an outfit really did look bad on you? Yes, but nicely. The movie “Mean Girls” is threaded through with the fakeness of the Plastics clique vs. truth. They LOVE this movie because it shows their actual lives, not the sugared version they allow adults to see I think.

Break for hot chocolate. Re-convene to wrap it up in the last 15 minutes of class:

“What does science have to do with truth and why is scientific truth important?”

  • ‘Truths everyone can agree on.” But is scientific truth a democratic decision? “No. Remember Gallileo being under house arrest for his ideas?”
  • “Like the color of this table. We can all agree it’s red.” Yes, but is my ‘red’ the same as yours? Are our perceptions the same as the real world? What about optical illusions? “Okay, but we could all agree on how high it was by measuring it. “Good point. But do we care about that, really? What kinds of scientific measurements DO we care about? Ones that might be life and death?”
  • Health issues emerged first – Medical science can show if someone has cancer and several students said “I’d want to know if I had cancer so I could maybe find a cure, or at least do stuff I’ve always wanted to do in my last few months, like “The Bucket List”. I brought up “An Inconvenient Truth” and briefly stated that now, even climate skeptics like Richard Muller’s group at UC Berkeley accepted the vast data of measurements, shows that the world is warming. Is it good to know bad news like this? Even if there is not much we can do about it at this stage? “Yes, because we could adapt to it better if we know.”

So, so interesting for me. Scary to attempt. Great to have my student teacher Krissy, and my colleague Greta in class for some of the periods to act as resident experts and to add a little to the discussion.

If you are interested in running something similar, here are some things that helped:

  • Listen more talk less.
  • Change the furniture around so it feels different to usual. Refreshing and fun.
  • Figure out the management of any drinks so it’s not a total distraction – we had a set break time. I had china cups with pre-measured powder and a stirrer set up, two hot water dispensers to move them through quickly. Stopped the discussion 3 minutes before the bell for them to wash up cups and hand the clean cups to me on their way out of class.
  • I tried the ‘goldfish bowl’ for the first couple of classes and switched inner and outer circles at the break time. Decided to lose it later because so many students wanted input. Both methods can work though.
  • I relaxed and put my feet up so I would be more likely to listen deeply, and go with what they were saying, rather than try to manipulate the direction too much. This is REALLY different from the standard class discussion. Think surfing if that’s the sport you love. Some sport where you have to respond to changing conditions.
  • Don’t try to read up the whole of western thought in an evening then try to weave it in to the discussion. It’s not about how smart I am. Just as well, really.
  • Keep up to 3 ideas in mind. More than that and it’s overwhelming and gets in the way of listening. Maybe only one. Bring it back to those ideas gently, if a line of talk goes too far off topic.
  • I had them jot down a few ideas on their sheets before starting the discussion, so everyone would have something to say: 4. Truth Science Accuracy Precision.
  • Let there be a little silence while students think about a question dropped into the mix.
  • Look for facial expressions and postures showing who’s really thinking about it. Call on them but use ‘I can come back to you if you’d like time to think.’ Being gentle while being probing upped the level of engagement.
  • I had a fall back if it turned into a chocolate-throwing, eye-rolling disaster. Did not need to use it, even close, even with 6th period. Miracle.
  • Be aware of calling on girls as much as boys. In some classes, the boys were more agressive in answering questions. Compliment students on their thinking as they leave, especially girls (who mostly get complimented on cuteness).
  • Talk less, listen more. Oh, I already said that. Seriously. Don’t hijack it. Tempting. No.

Questions that helped the discussion go included:

  • “Can you explain “_____”? Can you give an example from life, or from a movie?”
  • “How does ________ relate to _________? How does ___________ relate to truth?” ex. “How does accuracy relate to truth? Is it exactly the same?”
  • “So if that’s true, what is an example of when it’s the opposite?” (Defining something by what it’s not.)
  • “If ____________, what else could that lead to? Could it mean ________?”
  • “When is your idea a good thing? Could it be a bad thing?”
  • And when stuck, I just went back to one of the three questions on their sheet “So what is truth? What does science have to do with truth? And why is scientific truth important?”

Entry filed under: Class Management, Critical Thinking, Curiosity, Inquiry and critical thinking, Physics Topics. Tags: , , , , , , .

Tap Dancing, Teaching and Learning What Do They Know about Density (or not)?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Krissy  |  November 20, 2011 at 5:15 PM

    I was very excited to be able to participate in this activity. I was really impressed by how much the students had to share about the idea of truth and truth in science. I think that it is important for teachers to implement these kinds of activities where the students do most of the sharing because I feel that we sometimes forget that our students have opinions about things other than their outfits or their favorite sports teams, especially middle-school kids. Socrates’ Cafe is an excellent way to remind both yourself AND the kids that they are capable of having really in-depth and amazing conversations about serious topics. It’s not as hard as they imagine and it is often really fun. I would definitely recommend this activity for use in all subjects, but like Sue said, make sure you figure out the management before hand and have a back up plan ready. Mostly, just have fun with it. 😀


  • […] Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living” (For Writers)Socrates Spoke: Riding High on Life (VIDEO)Truth at The Socrates Cafe // 0) { //0==expires on browser close var cdate = new Date(); […]



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