by Lynna Sutherland

At the HEAV Convention in June, I had the privilege of sitting in on a workshop session by Adam Andrews of the Center for Lit. His talk was entitled “The Socratic Method for Dummies.” It was not only inspiring and encouraging, but equally practical and helpful. I couldn’t do justice to his humor and instruction by trying to summarize the entire talk, but here are three big ideas I was left pondering.

Homeschooling Is for Dummies

Andrews began by defining what is meant by the “Socratic Method”—more on that in a moment—but then proceeded to define what he meant by “Dummies.” No, he wasn’t trying to insult his audience. Rather, he was reminding all of us that we don’t need advanced degrees or certificates in order to be able to teach our own children.

He shared the importance of “alongside learning.” One of the best postures of teaching, he said, is to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with your child and say, “I don’t know, either. Let’s find out together!” He proceeded to show how this approach can work with literary analysis, too.

All Stories Share Common Elements

All stories—from classic works to children’s picture books—contain common elements: plot, characters, setting, and especially conflict and resolution of the conflict. Because all stories contain similar elements, there’s no reason why children (and parents) shouldn’t start their exploration of literary analysis with simple examples, such as children’s books!

During this session, Andrews read A Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoban to the audience. He then walked us through the process of using the Socratic method—essentially just directing learning by asking good questions—to pull out the themes in the story.

Conflict and Resolution Are Important Keys

When authors write stories, they do seek to entertain. But more than that, they seek to contribute to the “great conversation.” Authors use stories to share their ideas about the big questions of life. They explore ideas of freedom, friendship, duty, honor, glory, and more. One of the best ways to get an inside look at what the author is demonstrating is through the conflicts that arise and how they are resolved.

Andrews began the analysis of the book by asking what the characters “want.” He pointed out that the term “want” can mean either “desire” or “lack.” And either angle can give us a perspective on their goals in the story. Those “wants” can often lead to conflict between the characters. And the ways in which those conflicts are resolved (and the tension in the story relieved) points to the author’s message about those interactions. I was impressed by the number of reflections and observations he was able to elicit from the audience just on the basis of this angle of questioning.

If you’d like to listen to the full talk, you can order an MP3 copy from Resounding Voice. You can also find another similar (though not identical) talk called “Asking the Right Questions” on the Audio Library page of the Center for Lit website. And if this approach sounds like a good fit for your family literary discussions, The Center for Lit offers a complete curriculum called Teaching the Classics.

Lynna Sutherland blogs at Homeschooling Without Training Wheels, where she loves to remind moms (and herself!) of the freedom and flexibility that come with homeschooling! Lynna and her husband have seven children. The motto of their homeschool is “Wisdom Is the Principal Thing” from Proverbs 4:7. You can also find Lynna on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.

Lynna hosts a private Facebook group called Family Schooling without Training Wheels specifically for encouraging parents in multi-age homeschooling and outside-the-box approaches to meet the needs of their unique family.