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A Literary Approach to Teaching the Bible: Part 3

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” - Henry David Thoreau

Socratic teaching methods are a cornerstone of classical education, for good reason. Plato’s Socratic dialogues are foundational for presenting the big ideas behind “great conversation,” like, truth, justice, and rhetoric. But Socratic pedagogy is not merely classical; it is deeply Christan, as Jesus engaged with listeners through questions, riddles, and parables often more than direct lecture. We believe it is the pedagogy best-suited to the Bible classroom.

Socratic Conversations in Bible

The Bible classroom should be the key place where students have the space to read slowly, engage deeply and ask genuine questions. By structuring our Bible classes as seminar courses rather than lecture courses, we create the structure for this wonder and engagement. The core of daily practice is the coached process of reading the text and applying a growing set of interpretive skills, but the formal discussion — perhaps weekly — is a high point of learning. As students sit in a circle with their annotated Bible in front of them, we visibly see the Scriptures as the center of our classroom.

Socratic conversations create the structure to hold students accountable for independent analysis, and they allow students to hear compelling personal applications in the voice of other students, rather than through the teacher. These seminar discussions are assessed, but they are also a coached process since we expect both reading skills and discussion skills to grow over time. There is a strong connection between the quality of students’ work in the text and the quality of their Socratic conversations.

A rich conversation begins, first, with close reading. To have a thoughtful discussion about any text, work of art, or film, it is necessary to pay close attention and keep record of the details. This places the burden on students to read carefully, apply literary skills, and annotate well. Reading with an eye for contours such as character development, plot movement and conflict naturally leads to asking deeper questions, perhaps about the intention of the author, or the significance of a detail that caused them to wonder.

Secondly, Socratic conversations are rooted in good interpretive questions. An interpretive question is not just any question. It must meet three criteria: it must stem from genuine wonder, root itself in a specific detail in the text, and lead to deeper understanding of the text. If these criteria are met, then after reading a text with a group of fifteen sophomores, the teacher should have fifteen thoughtful questions to help guide the conversation. The teacher can generate additional core questions, if there are key elements that should be discussed. But students’ own inquiry is a key element, because reading with the intent to ask an interpretive question keeps students engaged with the author as in a conversation.

A Christlike Pedagogy

Who do we turn to for pedagogical inspiration but Christ himself? Jesus continually modeled a method of inquiry, asking his disciples to ponder truth. Consider Matthew 6:26-27,

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”

Christ used questions to lead his disciples toward drawing connections. He put the burden of discovery on them, so that they would have to ask and seek in order to find (Matt. 7:7).

Asking questions is deeply embedded in human nature, from our natural curiosity and wonder as toddlers to the skepticism we develop as we age. Jesus knew the human spirit better than anyone, and knowing this, he chose to engage listeners through questions, riddles and parables. We as Classical educators can do no better than to follow His lead. If we replace wonder and inquiry with a purely efficient, pragmatic approach, we may fail to engage an essential element of our students’ humanity.

Though some worry that lengthy student conversations will lead to poor content or ‘unsafe’ waters, research demonstrates that missing out on student engagement is itself ‘unsafe.’ If we want to persuade Gen Z, then be aware that Gen Z finds being involved in the dialogue as more important to their persuasion than whether we presented a compelling argument (Jeff Myers, “Six Ways to Connect with Gen Z.”). Young people, more than ever, are drawn to truth communicated with collaboration and vulnerability, rather than to just a “strong” argument.

Furthermore, if students do not air their questions and learn from committed believers while in Logic and Rhetoric school, how will they be prepared for a secular environment? As our colleague David shared, “Students who can ask questions, discuss, and challenge ideas recognize that they are on a journey. They can build on their belief by dragging unbelief into the light, rather than stuffing it away to fester.”

Reading and discussing a text in a circle — with students looking one another in the eye — is more important now than ever before. A pedagogy that instills the values of listening, responding, and treating others with worth and dignity is crucial to the development of civil dialogue. Our highest aim as classical educators is to impart virtue and wisdom, and this cannot be accomplished solely through memory work and lecture. Students must be coached and discipled in how to disagree well and how to present thoughtful rather than merely emotional arguments. We have an opportunity to open the door for soul-nourishing dialogue centered on the Holy Scriptures.

Tools and Training

It is true that tools and training may be required to facilitate the richest kind of dialogue. Sometimes concern is expressed that Socratic discussion will become a pooling of ignorance as each student airs their unfounded opinion. This is not the case when teachers have been trained in how to structure rich text-based discussion. A variety of training exists, including the National Paideia Center, Classical U, and other consultants.

In rich, text-centered discussion, students are trained and then assessed for how they notice details in the text, draw appropriate interpretations, ask good questions, and offer thoughtful responses. The skills begin with specific active-listening steps, like referring to one another by name when building on their comment. We should find ourselves regularly providing feedback, pausing to remind students of the goal we are working on or handing back their pre-seminar written work to re-do. To create rigorous learning, we will need to think like master craftsmen about training our students in the skills it takes to become great readers, thinkers, writers and speakers.

The results of a Socratic conversation are revealed as a teacher commits to this pedagogy for the long term. As with any skill, it improves over time with practice. We have seen the same flighty seventh graders have a discussion on the level of graduate students, as their textual and discussion skills progressed and as we coached and assessed accordingly. Early conversations will pale in comparison to mature conversations, and the mature conversations will be a joy to experience.

Let’s embrace our role as lead-learners, guiding our students to the great conversation rooted in the great texts, but all founded on the greatest text of all: Holy Scripture

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