03/26/2012 05:20 pm ET Updated May 26, 2012

Paideia Method, Socratic Learning Techniques, Aims To Close New Haven School Achievement Gap

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

Should the rich fix failing schools by donating more money? Should moms keep better tabs on their kids? Eighth-graders debated those solutions to the achievement gap—as part of a student-led seminar aimed at closing that very same gap.

The discussion took place in a Socratic seminar, a hallmark of the Ross/Woodward Classical Studies Interdistrict Magnet School, which serves 530 kids in grades pre-K to 8 at 185 Barnes Ave.

The seminar was one factor that propelled the school to become one of 65 schools nationwide named as 2012 magnet schools of distinction by the Magnet Schools of America. The award is based on "commitment to high academic standards, curriculum innovation, successful desegregation/diversity efforts, specialized teaching staffs, and parent and community involvement."

Since the school became a magnet five years ago with a focus on classical studies, it has fully integrated the Paideia Method, by which students use Socratic techniques to learn through discussion. A Socratic seminar is a student-led discussion based around a text, where students develop critical thinking skills by sharing observations and responding to others' opinions. It's a main cornerstone of Paideia, which calls for the teachers' expertise to constitute only 10 percent of learning, the remainder coming from students themselves.

One day last week, the method brought 8th-graders into two circles in Michele Bonanno's social studies classroom. Bonanno, who has taught at the school for five years, picked one students to lead each discussion. The facilitators got to pick a group of kids who they thought would get into a healthy discussion.

The topic for the day was school reform. Students had spent past days studying reformers of the 1800. Then they learned about local and statewide school reform efforts.

Bonanno handed out a letter from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to state legislative leaders outlining six principles for what he has called the Year of Education Reform.

Brendan Watts led 11 kids in a discussion based on the text, with help from two teachers.

Poor and minority students are less prepared for success than their peers in most other states, he told his classmates. Connecticut is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, and has the worst achievement gap between urban and suburban kids.

Students were asked this question: How does that make you feel about being a student in an urban school?

Brendan started by answering the question himself: "disappointed."

To keep the conversation moving, Ashley Stockton, the school's magnet resource teacher, asked him to probe deeper: "Disappointed—in yourself? In the government? In the school district?"

"Disappointed in everything," Brendan replied.

From there, the conversation rolled along.

Diamante Maldonado offered a solution for high-earners who live in Fairfield County.

"If they're that wealthy, they should use their money to close the achievement gap!"

Cristian Garcia challenged her thinking: "So, you're saying getting wealthy is wrong?"

"No, I'm saying how they use [their money]," Diamante clarified. Rich people may be spending their money in a way they think is helpful, but "if we're stagnant in progress," whatever they're doing "isn't working."

Noting that one of the wealthiest states has the worst education system, Cristian posited the following theory: "The less education you get, the more wealthy you are."

Kayla Cruz jumped into the conversation to defend urban education, and her school.

"Not everybody's failing," she said. She suggested the school send home monthly progress reports for failing kids so that parents can be more engaged and help their kids. The reports should be sent home on paper, she said—because some mothers, like hers, don't have access to a computer.

While the second group had stayed relatively quiet, Brendan's circle was still discussing their ideas for school reform when the class came to an end.

"This was a fantastic and outstanding conversation today," Bonanno announced, "but unfortunately we have to go because the period is over."

Stockton agreed: Paideia aims for kids to look each other in the eye, listen to each other's opinions and observations, and respond in a way that broadens their understanding of a text. When four kids jump into the conversation, she said, that's a great sign.

Bonanno said she uses the Socratic seminar about every three weeks. Brendan and the other kids in his circle, who mostly hail from New Haven and have been at the school for several years, are used to the drill by now.

Every month, the whole school breaks into Socratic seminars on a common theme, Stockton said, like Hispanic heritage or unity. Every kid and every teacher, even those that teach art or gym, take part. Schools virtually shut down for two weeks for standardized tests, she pointed out.

"Why not make the learning as sacred as the testing?" Stockton asked.

Stockton has led the curricular expansion over the past five years, with help from Bonanno. The Paideia method goes beyond the occasional seminar, they said; it's a philosophy of learning that involves less teacher-dominated discussion and more student dialogue. The model, which focuses on critical thinking, calls for the teachers' expertise to be 10 percent of learning.

One other factor contributing to the award was a successful desegregation effort. As the school grew from 427 to 570 kids in four years, the number of Caucasian students has grown from 10 to 22 percent. That brings them more in balance with Latino and black students, who now make up 38 and 36 percent of students in the school, according to numbers Stockton provided.

Bonanno said over the past five years, she's noticed a strong sense of culture take root at the school. Students know to look each other in the eye. They listen, and aren't afraid to speak their minds.

"It's incredible to see what our kids have become," she said.

She planned to take Tuesday's lesson to the next step by having students do a project comparing today's reformers to those of the 1800s. That's in keeping with the school's motto—"learning about yesterday to build a new tomorrow."

Kiet Ho said he enjoys the school's Socratic style, where other students help you understand the topic, and "they hear you out," too.

Diamante agreed it's good to have other students challenge your opinions.

Fired up from the school reform conversation, she said she wanted to take the discussion to the next level.

"It's nice to let it out and vent," she said, "but it would be better if it went somewhere."