Social Education 59(1), 1995, pp. 8-10
National Council for the Social Studies
James Holden and Kelly Bunte
"All genuine learning is active, not passive. . . It is a process of discovery in which the student is the main agent, not the teacher."
-Mortimer Adler, The Paideia Proposal
1. The Paideia Seminar
By James Holden
Sit in on most high school classroom discussions in this country and you are likely to see a teacher doing most of the talking. There are exceptions. More and more teachers are using cooperative group strategies to promote discussion, and some enlightened teachers not only allow but encourage students to speak up in class. Yet even when students are encouraged to respond, in many classrooms one-word answers are the norm.
Goodlad (1984) found, in his observations of 1,000 classrooms, that teacher lecturing and explaining increased steadily from the primary to the senior high school years, and that teachers interacted much less with groups in the secondary years. In part because most beginning teachers come out of college having experienced primarily one model of teaching, the lecture, it is not surprising that so many class discussions are really one-at-a-time, one-on-one conversations between the teacher and one student. Mea culpa! For many years, I was just such a high school English teacher. In my current role as a teacher educator, I am determined to prepare new teachers who will not be like the teacher I once was but who will work hard to activate student voices.
To that end, I implemented a discussion format in my Social Foundations of Education course, which was modeled after the Paideia Seminar program described by Mortimer Adler and his associates. Although Adler (1984) identified three modes of teaching that should be used (the "didactic" or lecture, the "coaching," and the "seminar" modes), I focused primarily on the third mode (the "seminar") in establishing my program. The Paideia Seminar is a conversation conducted in an orderly manner by a leader who acts as moderator. It is a discussion that focuses on stories, poems, plays, or other products of human art; a Joint Search in which ideas in a text are clarified and in which something new and unexpected is discovered; and a discussion in which both teachers and students sit so that they can face one another as they talk.
The seminar leader, considered "the first among equals in a joint effort to reach a goal that is shared by alquot; (Adler 1984, 19), has the responsibility to prepare questions and to facilitate the discussion. In preparing for the seminar, the leader must read the text carefully, underlining key words, marking important sentences and paragraphs, and jotting down main points, observations, and questions. Then he/she should write out a few key questions extracted from his or her notes. These should include an "opening" question that initiates discussion on the text and that everyone around the table can answer in succession, perhaps a few "closed" (or "convergent") questions that require students to recall important information from the text, and some "open" (or "divergent") questions for which there are no right answers.
There should also be at least one "core" question that focuses on the central meaning or heart of the piece. According to Adler, the seminar leader has three main tasks: "to ask a series of questions that define the discussion and give it direction, to examine or query the answers by trying to draw out the reasons for them or the implications they have, and to engage the participants in two-way talk with one another when the views they have advanced appear to be in conflict" (1982, 23). It is imperative that the leader be a good listener as well as question-asker, for he/she must often rephrase student comments, make clarifications by writing key points on the blackboard, and make sure that questions and responses are heard or understood. To facilitate a close reading and discussion of the work, the leader should ask students to refer to the text to support their responses, citing the page and paragraph or line from a poem. Asking questions such as "Where can you find that in the text?" will keep participants on track.
With this background in mind, let me share how I first used the Paideia Seminar format in my classes at Gustavus Adolphus College during the 1991-92 school year. After leading two practice seminars in class, I assigned the students to five groups for the purpose of conducting seminars during five Wednesdays when I was off campus observing student teachers. Each of the five students in each group (there were twenty-five students in the class) would therefore lead one seminar discussion, giving each one an opportunity to "practice" teaching and giving the other four students an opportunity to uncover ideas without looking to a teacher for guidance. During these five weeks, the students not only learned how to plan and conduct seminars but they also learned how to read a text more closely and critically. A final benefit of this seminar format was that students were encouraged to take a more active role in their small groups in order to learn from one another (Holden 1993).
So before each of these five sessions, the leaders met to write their questions and to plan their discussion strategies. The students then convened on Wednesdays to discuss articles dealing with particular social issues in education. For example, one week they read excerpts from Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, and another week they read the report by the American Association of University Women on sexism in the schools (Holden 1993).
Results of a Likert-type evaluation of the first two classes encouraged me to continue the program a second year. For instance, 89 percent liked the seminar concept as a teaching tool, 91 percent felt that seminars gave students a better opportunity to participate in discussions, 83 percent said that their leaders did a good job of guiding the discussions, 89 percent said they felt good about their participation in the seminars, and 91 percent felt they had a chance to say what they wanted in the seminars (Holden 1993).
I am persuaded by my experience that the Paideia Seminar is an excellent format for generating ideas and for clarifying the themes in an article or book. In addition, it strikes me that seminars have the potential to improve students' reading skills, in part because the leaders have to do a close reading of the text in order to create good questions and also because the participants experience some peer pressure to take an active role in the discussions. Also, Paideia Seminars give students a chance to engage in "reflective and reasoned dialogue" (Rud 1987, 10) in a cooperative group setting. As Robert Brazil, the principal of Sullivan High School in Chicago, said, "If students get a chance to express themselves they become a lot more forthright, a lot more demanding of the teacher, a lot more demanding of what they read, a lot more critical of everything around them" (1988, 15). Finally, the student-led seminar has the potential to be what Stephen Covey (1989, 225) called a "learner-controlled" rather than a "system-controlled" instructional program.
While I am convinced of the value of this program for college students, I believe it has potential for high school students as well, so I sought out a high school teacher who might be willing to try the seminar format. This teacher was Kelly Bunte, a second-year social studies teacher at Minnetonka, Minnesota, High School. She kindly consented to share her experience with the Paideia Seminar format, so what follows is a description of how she used the program in her classes.
2. The Paideia Seminar in a High School Setting
By Kelly Bunte
In an effort to move its curriculum in a multicultural and non-gender-biased direction, the Minnetonka High School social studies department has established a "Minority History" course for fourth-quarter sophomore American history. This course abandons textbooks and teacher guides, and relies on a variety of articles, essays, narratives, and films as the basis for the curriculum. Although the focus of the class is historical as well as sociological, much of the curriculum is dictated by the issues that students feel affect their lives. A discussion format seemed absolutely necessary.
Frustrated by the fact that, during my "class discussions," all too often only a handful of student voices were heard, I welcomed the invitation to try the Paideia Seminar. My class was studying the Native American experience in the United States, so after exploring traditional Native American values, the condition of Native Americans before the conquest of the Americas, and their struggle to hold on to both their physical and cultural territory post-conquest, it was time to confront contemporary Native American issues.
I introduced the seminar concept to my students, providing them with the rationale behind the pedagogy, and asking them to brainstorm the pros and cons of such a technique. After sharing the concerns and opportunities this format might bring, the class agreed to try the seminar.
Anticipating students' anxiety about being unprepared to lead a discussion, I adapted a set of guidelines for both seminar leaders and participants (see Tables 1-3). Prior to conducting the seminar, we had a "practice day." For homework, every student was given an article, and was asked to prepare as if he/she were going to be the leader of a seminar the following day. The students shared the questions and key concepts they had prepared, as well as any sources of frustration, in order to compare questions and get ideas from others. Once the students felt they were ready to accept the leadership role, I organized them into groups, chose a leader for each group, and assigned five articles for the seminar (see titles marked with an asterisk in the References section). The Paideia Seminar would begin the next day.
The fourth period bell rang, and sophomore students, armed with their assigned articles, headed to their seminar groups. With a little coaxing from me, chatter about the recent dance faded, and the leaders asked their opening questions. At first, as I made my rounds from group to group, self-conscious glances my way halted authentic discussion and solicited forced responses and sterile comments. Soon, however, students forgot that I was there, and dialogue flowed. Silently, I celebrated as "Kendra," who rarely says a word, defended the author's viewpoint passionately; and I smiled as the classroom "jock" listened attentively while the classroom "nerd" described one of his own personal experiences that made him empathize with the feelings of Native Americans. The majority of the students were speaking, encouraging, listening, and responding to each other; the students were validating one another.
At the end of the hour, each group handed in a journal, the leader's questions, its articles, and an evaluation sheet. Although comments identified imperfections that would probably be eliminated with further practice, the majority of the feedback was positive. Examples follow:
I'm too shy to talk in front of the whole class. I didn't feel as scared speaking my ideas in the small groups.
I liked the seminar because someone my age was asking the questions. They were more on our level.
I didn't feel stupid asking a question if I didn't understand something. Usually someone else in my group did.
I had to do my homework because I knew I would have to talk.
I couldn't doze off during class.
After I experimented with the Paideia Seminar format, I shared my experience with my colleagues. One teacher has decided to use the Paideia Seminar as the format for her senior political science Capstone class. In addition, while teaching summer school, I used the seminar as a model for teaching oral communication skills. I plan to continue to use it to stimulate student interest and discussion of articles, films, historical documents, and literature used in my classroom.
Articles marked with an asterisk were assigned to the high school seminar.
Adler, Mortimer J. The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984.Adler, Mortimer J. The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1982.Brazil, Robert D. The Engineering of the Paideia Proposal: The First Year, 1984-85. Champaign, IL: School Design Group, 1988.Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.*Giago, Tim. "I Hope the Redskins Lose." Newsweek (January 27, 1992): 8.Goodlad, John. A Place Called School. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.Holden, James. "Tis a 'Communication' Devoutly to Be Wished: The Paideia Seminar in Teacher Education Classes." Mankato Statement (Spring 1993): 19-26.*Hotakainen, Rob. "State Won't Force End to Indian Nicknames." Minneapolis Star Tribune (May 12, 1992): 1A, 5A.*MacPhie, Richard P. "This 'Real Live Indian' Offended By Chop." Minneapolis Star Tribune (October 25, 1991): 19A.Rud, Anthony G. "Teaching for Learning." Speech to the American Philosophical Association. Eastern Division Meeting, New York, 1987.*Walsh, James. "Schools Not Closing Their Books on Nicknames With Indian Image." Minneapolis Star Tribune (February 21, 1992): 3B.*Walsh, James. "St. Paul Schools Vote 'Indians' Nicknames Out." Minneapolis Star Tribune (February 19, 1992): 1A, 8A.James Holden is assistant professor of education at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota. Kelly Bunte is a social studies teacher at Minnetonka High School, Minnetonka, Minnesota.