Teaching Freedom: Incorporating the Principles of a Free Society into Pedagogy

by Rachel Davison
Oak Farm Montessori School

and Marsha Familaro Enright*

The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute
Teaching Freedom Illustrations‎


Free Enterprise educators are urged to examine their educational principles and align their classroom practice with their advocacy of liberty by providing a classroom environment that develops the virtues as well as the ideas needed to live in liberty. Such pedagogy has a direct benefit to the educator.  When freedom and autonomy are directly experienced, students become more engaged, interested, and enthusiastic learners and more often adopt the ideas and values of liberty. Combining empirical evidence from Socratic practice and Montessori education with research on development and optimal learning, the authors suggest ways to create such a classroom culture.


“To consider the school as the place where instruction is given is one point of view.  But to consider the school as a preparation for life is another. In the latter case, the school
must satisfy all the needs of life. ”
Maria Montessori (1994, p. 5)

I. Schooling Versus Autonomy

When we think of free societies, we often think of industry, free markets and minimal government. But real freedom starts within, with self-understanding, self-responsibility, self-direction, determination, and a nimble ability to adapt to life’s challenges.

If young people are schooled in the facts about the overwhelming advantages of a free society, and how to reason well about them, and they study the full range of great ideas, the likelihood that they will be convinced of the ideas underpinning a free society goes up greatly because the facts are on the side of freedom.

Yet, it’s one thing to be lectured to about liberty and the virtues needed for it; it’s another to know how to act in freedom. It’s valuable to know the ideas of liberty, but can you apply them in your life? Where do you learn how? As Aristotle said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Book II, Chapter 1)

It’s one thing to believe in the ideas abstractly; it’s another to experience what such a society would be like—and to be motivated to achieve it.

To build a free world, we need people at many levels of society and in many areas—

business, the trades, the arts, medicine, journalists, as well as intellectuals and professors—with the ideas, values, and habits friendly to liberty. This is where a sound, liberal education is essential.

With history as the measure, it’s clear that free society advocates don’t need to be a majority to significantly change the culture. But they need to be a significant, knowledgeable, and active minority. Such a minority made the progress towards full freedom and individual rights possible in Britain; such a minority in the American Colonies was instrumental in achieving independence from Britain.

Unlike the American Colonists, none of us has been raised in a highly self-reliant society of the Enlightenment Era—did we have the chance to develop the habits needed to embody its values? To act in our families, among our friends, in our towns and cities, the way a free person should act? To have the skills and force of personality to implement the changes needed to make our lives better and freer, whatever our professions, associations and interests?

Educators familiar with the facts, history, and ideas of free societies and spontaneous order understand the value of dispersed and localized knowledge and the prosperity and flourishing that results from individuals peacefully collaborating as trading partners.

What they might not have considered is the way in which the classroom is a micro-society in which students learn how to behave in the larger world and whether their classrooms reflect the social relationships, the virtues, and the psychological conditions that sustain and advance the behavior of free people. Educators have the opportunity to craft an experience in which students learn how to behave as self-reliant, independent, self-responsible individuals.

The modern classroom, from grade school to graduate school, relies heavily on a structure of a single arbiter of knowledge, often in the position of lecturer, discussion leader, knowledge authority, and director of learning. Directed group lessons in traditional grade school and lectures in higher education are favored methodologies of the traditional method of education.

The teaching paradigm encourages an authority to convey the “right” answers to the waiting student-receptacles. Yet, this top-down environment is counter-productive to conveying the ideas, values, and virtues of a free society.

In the traditional teaching model, students are considered passive empty vessels, to be filled with knowledge by the academic authority, rather than active agents in their own learning.

This model is a legacy of the movement to economically mass-educate the populace and is literally based on factory organization, i.e. everyone doing the same thing at the same time for mass production.

How is a young person supposed to learn to be an autonomous individual if he or she is being treated like an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge? What opportunities are students give to learn and practice the skills of a self-reliant, independent, and self-responsible individual?

If we are aiming to foster a society driven by free enterprise, shouldn’t the pedagogy of our classrooms align with those values?

Traditionally, “learning” is measured by the amount of information the instructor has offered which the student is able to reiterate on tests and in papers. How does the instructor know if real understanding has been achieved? Whether the student has deeply incorporated the instructor’s information and ideas into his or her thinking? Whether the student can use this information in his or her life?

Consider the psychological effects of the traditional methods of teaching in which:

  1. The teacher is the repository of truth.
  2. The student is taught one line of reasoning given in the lecture or presentation.
  3. The student is the receiver, not initiator of learning.

In this paradigm:

How does the student learn how to arrive at truth himself?

How does the student learn that there are multiple ways of approaching a problem?

How does the student learn to find subjects of interest to himself, individually, and know how to go about the process of learning new material?

If students have no skills in these processes, how can they grow into autonomous individuals, arriving at their own conclusions and navigating all the choices and opportunities which freedom presents?

“‘Autonomy’ suggests, strictly speaking, that one gives or has given laws to oneself; that one is self-governing; that in essentials one obeys one’s own imperatives.” (Kaufmann, 1980,15).

The conditions of freedom cannot be consistently and sufficiently conveyed in a traditional, lecture-based environment because it does not provide the individual with opportunities to learn how to be a free, autonomous person.

Advocates of reason and freedom understand that the mind cannot be forced to accept truth. Nor does the social pressure of authority or peers result in a real understanding of truth, and certainly not the first-hand comprehension and autonomy of the innovator. Neither does a top-down environment cultivate an independent person’s ability to fight for his or her individual freedom.

To acquire truth, each person must observe and reflect on facts for him- or herself. Each person must compare and contrast, analyze and synthesize those facts, for him- or herself. Each person develops ideas, from those facts within him- or herself. Each person must integrate one set of facts with another, one set of ideas with another, for him- or herself. This is the only way to arrive at truth, since an understanding of truth cannot be transferred directly from one mind to another.

If a classroom structure can serve as the sandbox in which to practice how to live as a free person, then the independence of rational inquiry and the development of rational judgment, need to be incorporated into that sandbox.

Advocates of a free society understand the value and power of the dispersed and localized knowledge of the individual within the structure of a market, the creativity it unleashes and the flourishing that results.  In turn, the micro-society of a classroom structure that endeavors to encourage the exchange of ideas between individuals, while still incorporating the guidance and expertise of the educator, mirrors the creative process of the market. This is impossible in a strictly lecture structure, and difficult in many discussion structures.

Free society educators can endeavor to construct a classroom structure parallel to a market with a productive exchange of ideas between individuals, while still incorporating the guidance and expertise of the educator.

Such a classroom offers the student the opportunity to develop and practice the skills of rational independence, creative thinking, collaborative exchange, honesty, objectivity, justice, and honor—all skills and virtues valuable and necessary in a free society.


II. The Principled Pedagogy of Freedom

“The greatest [obstacle for] an attempt to give freedom to the child and to bring its powers to light does not lie in finding a form of education which realizes these aims. It lies rather in overcoming the prejudices which the adult has formed in this regard.”

Maria Montessori (1955, p.48)

Developmental and cognitive research, plus over 100 years of experience using the Montessori philosophy of education argues that optimal learning occurs through freedom within a structured environment, where the following conditions are present (Lillard, 2005, passim):

  • The instructor is informed about and alert to the developmental needs of the young adult student,
  • Questions are actively encouraged by classroom methodology,
  • Instructor’s activities are modified based on the interests of the students, within the limits of the studied material,
  • Activities are crafted with optimal learning conditions in mind, ones that engage the needs, attentions, and interests of young adults.

Methodologies rooted in the Montessori educational philosophy encourage individualism and self-reliance, foster individual development, unfettered creative discovery, exploration, and integration of newideas. In support of this claim, researchers have recently identified the unusual number of highly creative people who were Montessori students (Sims, 2011).

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, French cooking evangelist Julia Child, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are among the many unusually creative and capable people with a Montessori background. Some insist this type of education was instrumental in their radical creativity.

For example, Brin and Page have identified the individually-driven exploration of the Montessori classrooms as a major source of their willingness to try new things and think out of the box again and again. (Goodwin, 2012)

The environment created in a Montessori classroom relates to the well-known facts of spontaneous order: The discovery of truth, the correct identification of life-supporting facts, is not a centralized, top-down procedure. Instead, it results from a complex process of discovery and argument, demonstrated through the history of thought and the progress of civilization.

Socratic practice, short lesson-lectures and self-selected research projects are examples of classroom strategies for higher education which encourage individual autonomy and contribute to fostering attitudes that are receptive to the complex ideas of freedom.

III. Specialized Discussion Methods and Individualism

“Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is     an individual annihilated, not disciplined.” Maria Montessori (1912, p. 86)

The classroom is a micro-society in which the social order emerges through the exchange of ideas and values, explicit and implicit, and from the way in which participants interact with each other according to the discussion principles.

The term “Socratic Seminar” is used variously. We are using it here to mean a very particular discussion format and methodology in which students are engaged in examining, analyzing, and discussing the material themselves, first-hand. They are synthesizing the information themselves, rather than having it handed to them. It is an active learning environment. Michael Strong’s book, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice well describes this particular methodology and its benefits.

Socratic Practice harnesses important and powerful social-psychological elements that encourage a freedom-oriented classroom culture while increasing learning. It is a process of collaborative inquiry which develops fact-based reasoning, objectivity, listening skills, and team work for problem-solving.

Seminars run by the principles of Socratic Practice function as a market of ideas, where reason, combined with the invisible hand of individual self-interest, results in greater knowledge, reasoning, and social skills for all. As a collaborative learning experience, it taps into all the advantages of learning by imitation; it’s an opportunity to see multiple ways to reason on the same materials. Research by the Jasper Project on Cognition and Learning at Vanderbilt University shows meaningful group problem-solving results in superior learning (Jasper Project, 2000).

“One particular thing that I learned at Queen’s [College]—both from faculty and students—was how to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose.”  Billionaire founder of Paypal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk

This method requires each participant to focus on what exactly is said in the text, and what can be surmised from it; the instructor guides the discussion with incisive questions and by requiring the participants to stick to the facts of the work when arguing their opinions.

  • All opinions must be grounded by reference to the work studied, developing the habit of fact-based judgment and objectivity.
  • The teacher acts as a facilitator, encouraging the students to use their own minds to find the meaning of the text; the teacher does not act as an authority on the text.  The best reasoning is the highest authority.
  • The teacher demonstrates and encourages questions and thinking in different ways when approaching the material. The points of view and questions of the different participants demonstrate how material can be approached in a variety of ways. This outcome encourages creativity by illustrating many ways to reason about the same issue. Consequently, not only excellent deductive reasoning, but creative, inductive reasoning is encouraged.
  • Participants effectively trade their knowledge and skills by example.

These elements work together to strengthen student reasoning skills and instantiate the value of individual differences.  Displays of inordinate knowledge about a subject are irrelevant and discouraged because each discussion member cannot verify them. This reduces non-productive jostling for social position. Reason’s authority is the great equalizer and students come to appreciate each other as helpers in their learning. This results in a psychologically safe environment, which encourages exploration and creativity.

At the end of every Socratic seminar, the instructor guides a “debrief,” a self-reflective discussion in which each participant comments on what went well and what could be improved. The beneficial effects are:

  • Significant improvement in the discussions from one session to the next by raising conscious awareness about participant actions and interactions,
  • Participants learn to be equally responsible for the quality of the inquiry,
  • A culture of equality among peers is established, including the instructor; the instructor and other participants values each individual’s thoughts and reactions, while the best reasoning remains the highest authority; Mastery Learning research on how individuals acquire mastery in knowledge and skills found that the attitude of the teacher seriously affects the students self-image and motivation, (Dweck, 1999, passim),
  • The validation of the person of each individual because each person’s participation with rational arguments adds value for the other participants,
  • The encouragement of the habit of taking responsibility, giving validation to the virtues of others, and working together in a rational way.

The discussions improve radically from one session to another because of the awareness generated by the debrief, and the expectation of achievement and cooperation. These methods benefit from the strengths of peer-learning and exchange (Brown, et al., 1989, Orr, 1987).

In Socratic Practice, the teacher uses his or her expertise to craft the entire environment of the class:

  • Physical:
    • Every participant sits in a circle facing all the others as equal intellectual explorers.
    • The room is well-lit and comfortable to enhance concentration.
    • No phones or outside distractions are allowed.
  • Cognitive:
    • Works are chosen and taught in a purposeful order, so that students can discover their meaning and connections themselves and find joy in doing so. They are invited to engage with the material rather than passively receive it.
    • Focus is on paying attention to the deepest meaning of the works studied and each other through questions of clarification, i.e. what does the other person mean?
    • Solid evidence and reasoning are required for all opinions.
  • Social:
    • The instructor takes a limited role and gives feedback in a way that is kind, but honest, encouraging student awareness of each other, and cooperation through self-moderated exchange.
    • Students are encouraged and enlightened as to how to respectfully listen by the instructor’s sincere attempts to hear and understand what the other is saying, before replying.
    • Students are responsible for their own contributions and encourage contributions from others.
  • Psychological:
    • Reflection at the end of the discussion about what went well in the discussion and what can be improved generates a high level of self-awareness and self-generated improvement in learning from session to session.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research on Flow, the psychology of optimal experience, shows that attention is the most limited cognitive resource (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). But it’s husbanded very well in this type of seminar.

  • Every person’s reasoned contribution is valued; being active makes it easier to pay attention,
  •  The specially selected texts are of deep interest about issues of importance; this makes it highly motivating to pay attention to the discussion.

These skills are enormously practical: a 2014 study by Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems analyzing Census Bureau data of 3 million U.S. residents found “the overwhelming majority of employers are desperate to hire graduates who have a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.” (Samuelson, 2014)

Lastly, students report that these seminars require the best of them; their best thinking, behavior, and awareness of others.

 “You see how much value you have to offer and to add to your own thinking. It’s not a zero sum game like in traditional education where you’re trying to compete with each other and there’s one answer. It’s not “the right answer”; it’s better and better answers. Everyone’s building a mosaic of truth together. We all study one text but there many objective truths in it, you’re benefiting from hearing all these different ways to understand things objectively and truly. And you realize you have something to contribute. It doesn’t have to be the perfect thing, but together it fits with what other people are saying.” –   Michael Natividad, junior, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


IV. Conclusion

“Be careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” Maria Montessori (1937, p. 26)

Comparing this method to the regular educational system, this unavoidable feeling of frustration comes up: Why, with such a fantastic method, isn’t there a change? The passion in learning that everybody had is proof of this seminar’s effectiveness.”  Tobias Mihura, junior, Clarin High School, Buenos Aires

The authors are sure they have not communicated all the ways in which teachers of free enterprise can encourage the values of a free society in the classroom micro-society. We welcome suggestions and wish to learn from the skills of others. But we urge such teachers to reflect on what kind of habits they are encouraging in their students. We hope that we have triggered reflection on how to develop the virtues needed for freedom.



Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 1, Moral Virtue http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.2.ii.html

Brown, J.S., Collins. A. & Dugid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, Jan/Feb, 21-42.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1991. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dweck, C.S. (1999).Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press/Tarylor & Francis.

Goodwin, Danny. August 31, 2012. “Maria Montessori Google Doodle: How Montessori Education ‘Programmed’ Google’s Founders.” Search Engine Watch.


Jasper Project on Cognition and Learning. 2000. Vanderbilt University.

Kaufmann, Walter. 1980. Discovering the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill.


Lillard, Angeline. 2005. Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Montessori, Maria, translated by Anne Everett George. 1912. The Montessori Method, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/montessori/method/method-V.html

Montessori, Maria. 1938. The Secret of Childhood. Bombay: Orient Longsman.

Montessori, Maria. 1989 (1955). The Formation of Man. Oxford: Clio Press. http://www.moteaco.com/abcclio/form.html

Montessori, Maria, 1994 (1948). From Childhood to Adolescence. Oxford: Clio Press.


Orr, J. (1987). Talking about Machines. Palo Alto: Xerox PARC.

Samuleson, Scott. March 28, 2014. “Would You Hire Socrates?” The Wall Street Journal.

Sims, Peter. April 5, 2011. “The Montessori Mafia.” The Wall Street Journal.


Strong, Michael. 1997. The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. Chapel Hill: New View Publications.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. January, 2014. “Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment: Setting the Record Straight.” http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/nchems.pdf


Ms. Enright would like to thank Rachel Davison for initiating the idea of the presentation leading to this paper as well as for her lovely work on the presentation, and K.R. for his encouragement and help with the ideas and vision.

Originally published at the conference site of the Association of Private Enterprise Educators. http://www.etnpconferences.net/apee/apee2014/User/Program.php?TimeSlot=12





Flourishing Through Education in the Creative Destruction of Capitalism: The Science and Educational Principles of The Great Connections Program

By Marsha Familaro Enright
President, The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute,
sponsor of The Great Connections Program

The Economic Stage is Set

In recent decades, the creative destruction of capitalism has changed the face of the U.S. economy, destroying many former giants of industry like TWA and Montgomery Wards, integrating others into colossal conglomerates, like GE. Simultaneously, thousands of new, small businesses grew from the work and talent of retired, outplaced workers. These developments were made possible by the adaptability and creativity of Americans.

Thomas Friedman’s 2005 runaway bestseller about globalization, The World Is Flat, argues that our remarkably cheap, worldwide communications technology is changing the nature of work even further. Internet email, Web sites, satellite links, and the rapidly expanded use of computer technology to automate many functions are unleashing change as fundamental as that of the Gutenberg press.

At root, these changes are empowering individuals around the globe. Most apparent is the ability of millions of people with good technical skills in faraway lands to offer excellent work for half or less of U.S. labor prices. “Global Outsourcing for the Little Guy,” in the Chicago Tribune (5/29/2006) reports on this phenomena. Web site designs that cost thousands of dollars in the U.S. can be created for $750 in India. India’s system of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and the powerful ambition of its long-impoverished people make their huge population an awesome pool of talent.

Elance.com, a job-bidding Web site also mentioned in the article, empowers individuals and small businesses in the U.S., too. This website especially helps those with the creativity, adaptability, and great collaborative skills that have kept U.S. business in the forefront of innovation—and rich. These key ingredients enable individuals to offer unique skills and products to the market, thereby maintaining a market edge.

The Gartner Group, the technology consultants, coined a term to describe the trend in the information technology world away from specialization and toward employees who are more adaptable and versatile. The group calls the employees ”Versatilists.” Building employee versatility and finding employees who are already or are willing to become Versatilists “will be the watchword for career planning. “…Versatilists are capable not only of constantly adapting but also of constantly learning and growing,” says Friedman. These are people who have the ability to master technical knowledge and can easily adapt and move from one area of expertise to another.

The highly adaptable Versatilist can effectively move from a job requiring one skill set to another, like Marcia Loughry, whom Friedman interviewed. As her former functions became outsourced or obsolete, she moved from an Electronic Data Systems (EDS) word-processing job in 1978 to four other jobs, taught herself Novell Netware and acquired other skills and knowledge. Eventually she rose to one of the highest positions at EDS—enterprise architect—all through curiosity, learning, excellent reasoning skills, and a willingness to adapt.

“The deep technical skills around math and science are going to get you in the door, but they are not what are going to keep you there or make you wildly successful. What will keep you there is developing a broader view,” said Loughry.

What fosters a broad view? The ability to continually learn. How can we use education to nurture young people so they will be well prepared for a life of versatility? At root, human developmental needs and psychological tendencies must be respected. Teaching methods honed to fit learning and development can make all the difference.

The Montessori Approach

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori

This is not a new puzzle to those familiar with the Montessori Method. Maria Montessori used almost 50 years of observation and experimentation deeply informed by science to hone her ideas and methods on education. These methods stoke individual curiosity and ingenuity while ensuring that students master basic skills and effectively ingest huge amounts of information.

Although, in the U.S., Montessori schools are known mainly as preschools, many Montessori schools go through 8th grade and some even through high school. In the past 20 years, these schools have grown rapidly throughout the country, due to their superior system for producing knowledgeable, happy, highly motivated, and capable students.

University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Stoll Lillard’s 2005 book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, succinctly explains Montessori’s principles and the research evidence supporting them. The Great Connections’ approach grows out of the application of Montessori principles to the adult level of education.

“When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education.” Maria Montessori

When it comes to attention and learning, Montessori could have been talking about anyone, not just the child. Without attention, there is no learning. Attentional resources (focus) are limited. They must be used well to efficiently learn the most possible.

Further, the developed ability to concentrate on work and goals and to self-maintain interest and focus allow a person to succeed in long-term projects and purposes. In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Jerry Kirkpatrick calls this “Concentrated Attention.”


Mihály Csíkszentmihály

In his studies on intensely productive and creative people, University of Chicago research psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi found that certain conditions elevate the ability to pay attention, and pay attention deeply for long periods of time. He also recognized that specially designed practices in Montessori classrooms provide these conditions throughout the school day. His research group, including the work of Kevin Rathunde, has found many exceptional outcomes from these Montessori practices.

The use of the Three-Period Lesson is a case in point.


Layers of the Earth Lesson

Layers of the Earth Lesson

Much scientific research shows that humans learn best if:

1. They are highly motivated to learn the material for some personal end.

2. They are physically engaged.

3. They understand the application of the material to their lives.

The classic Montessori Three-Period Lesson ingeniously engages human attention. With small groups of students, teachers (or “Guides” as we prefer to call them in Montessori) demonstrate learning materials specially designed to focus attention on an important concept, such as rates of change in calculus. Pictures, objects, sounds, and machines make the idea vivid. These Montessori materials engage the student’s whole intellect, sensory, motor, and conceptual, thereby powerfully imprinting memory.

The Guide gathers one to four students ready for the particular lesson, seats them in front of the materials, and then demonstrates their use with as few words as possible.  For example, the Guide might use fraction circles to demonstrate the addition of fractions. (see picture below)

Fraction Circle Montessori Material

Fraction Circle Montessori Material

These are sets of metal, pie-shaped circles cut into different quantities of wedges with little knobs on each wedge. For example, one circle consists of 4 wedges, another of 12, to demonstrate fourths and twelfths. There are numerous kinds of problems possible with these circles, including all the operations of arithmetic. In the most basic, the child can literally see the relationship of different proportions to each other by taking the wedges out of the circles and putting them back in—in different combinations. Each lesson demonstrates one possible use of the materials.

During the lesson, the Guide speaks little, allowing the student to focus and observe the demonstrated examples carefully. The Guide encourages questions from the student; she also, models curiosity, and triggers discussion with questions of her own when students are not forthcoming. Truly successful teachers are exceptional at listening to students’ questions, surmising what students need to know, and modeling and encouraging thinking.

After the fraction demonstration, the Guide asks the student to explain what to do with the materials to solve the next example and moves the materials according to the student’s instructions. Finally, the Guide asks the student to demonstrate the material, turning student into teacher and thereby requiring a more complete level of understanding for the student’s performance.

After the lesson, the student is free to pursue more problems right then or use these materials later to practice until the material is mastered, at a time when the student feels interested in working on the material (on the principle that one learns best when one is intrinsically motivated).  The Guide regularly takes notes while observing the children in her class and if she finds a child avoiding some material, she makes it her job to think of a way to interest the child in the work.

A key to the Montessori Method’s success is ensuring that the amount of material conveyed at one lesson is not overwhelming. More frequent, shorter lessons with follow-up exercises are preferable to one long demonstration. Of course, preparing shorter, pointed lessons is far more taxing to the teacher, but the Montessori Method has systems to make this aspect of teaching less time consuming.

The Three-Period Lesson can be fruitfully adapted to many college-level subjects. In fact, some college classes, such as chemistry, often use a version of the Three-Period Lesson, with the experiment as the final student demonstration. However, as with most excellent methods, the devil is in the details, which is why The Great Connections’ guides are trained in Montessori principles.

Lectures in Their Proper Place

If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.

However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener. Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.

For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture usually does not engage the whole mind, including vivid perceptions and imagination, or the body of the student. Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.

One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.

Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests and comprehension difficulties.

A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation or replay what the lecturer said. Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.

In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas.

Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the listener. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.

The best learners are active learners. They can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.

Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy.

A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.

Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, young students often goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.

Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.

These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.

Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become “active learners,” interested in the material and in charge of their own education.

These are some of the reasons we at The Great Connections program are so bent on instituting the best learning environment possible. The best methods result not only in superior knowledge but also in the development of highly needed motivation and self-confidence.


What college graduates do with the information they learn will now, more than ever, determine their competitive edge. Consequently it is imperative that education teach how to think, create and integrate. Broad knowledge and capability to learn combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one’s repertoire is essential to the adaptable Versatilist. The liberal arts and sciences studied at The Great Connections program is specifically designed to develop these qualities in students, even if they’ve endured a lifetime of lectures.

Developing broad knowledge is directly related to the work of integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind’s subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller’s 1956 psychological classic “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“) If you’ve ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here’s the reason, and it’s one of the reasons for our limited attentional resources.

Ideas—abstractions—are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a single audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of “baby,” and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You’ve saved a lot of time and energy.

Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas, like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like “mammal” make the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas and actions into skills is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.

The person who is a master at the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker.

This is the reason the curriculum of The Great Connections emphasizes work on subject matter across domains of knowledge, studying books that integrate philosophy with economics, epistemology with poetry. Further, integration is encouraged by the consistent emphasis on asking students to relate what is learned in one class and course to another.


Integration of knowledge across broad ranges of subjects is a characteristic of creativity—and versatility. Research consistently finds that highly creative people tend to have very broad, as well as deep, interests and knowledge. They apply unconventional information and ideas to problems, integrating information in unusual ways across conventional subject areas.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

Famed physicist Richard Feynman is a case in point. Think of his brilliant demonstration of the space shuttle temperature problem, Challenger’s O-Ring: by dropping an O-ring in an ordinary glass of ice water, he simply and directly proved it could not stand up to low temperatures. His demonstration integrated an esoteric, bedeviling engineering problem with a mundane experience.

He was also famous for his wide-ranging interests, which included samba bands and experiments on ants. He put no limits on his curiosity about the world. Feynman’s measured IQ was in the high range—124—but not what IQ test-makers consider genius (135+). Contrary to traditional thought but consistent with research findings, most recognized geniuses do not have IQ’s in the 135+ range. (No one knows how individuals acclaimed as geniuses because of their work, such as DaVinci and Newton, would have scored on the test. Given the findings with current individuals, the results of an actual IQ test on Newton might surprise us!) Measured IQs of people considered to be geniuses are 116 or higher, apparently making an above average IQ a condition—but not a sufficient one—for high creativity. (Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity).

“What I cannot create, I do not understand” Richard Feynman

Unfortunately, IQ tests—and most tests—cannot measure working creativity and intelligence. In other words, they don’t adequately measure how intelligence is put into life’s service by creatively solving problems .

The number of highly creative and successful business people who score average to low on SAT tests, for example, is indicative of the test’s inadequacy in measuring working intelligence.

Besides IQ, other conditions seem to be equally important to the development of creativity, conditions which we can create in educational settings, thereby enabling education to make a significant difference.

For example, the tendency to amass information from close, first-hand observation

Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday

is very important. Michael Faraday, pictured here, exhibited this tendency par excellence as a young man: he had no formal education and knew only arithmetic, but discovered the laws of electromagnetism through fascinated observation of and experiments on nature.

A mind that is curious and constantly problem solving is another characteristic of the creative. Take the inventor of VELCRO, George Mestral, for instance. He and his dog became covered with burrs during a walk. Examining how the burrs use microscopic hooks to stick to the loops of his pant fabric, he realized he could make a new type of fastener. A little nature hike turned into a billion-dollar industry.

What’s needed in education to develop creativity?

We cannot change what nature gives our students in terms of basic intelligence. However, we can offer a program that nurtures those abilities and habits of mind that are known to be needed for creativity and productivity such as:

  • Develops their objective reasoning skills, not just in science and math, but all domains of knowledge, including such areas as art, history, and literature.
  • Not only informs students, but provides them with a broad array of information, ancient and modern.
  • Guides them in connecting information and ideas from one domain of knowledge to another (the way highly creative people do), by:
    • Teaching through works that are cross-domain, like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a work of moral philosophy that founded the study of economics
    • Guiding them to draw cross-disciplinary connections by example; pointing out examples of the way in which original thinkers do this.
  • Encourages their curiosity by:
    • Encouraging their questioning
    • Modeling enthusiasm and curiosity in what is being studied
  • Encourages their careful observation of the world through:
    • Demonstrating careful observation and the relation of any idea to the facts on which it rests
    • Questioning the observational/factual basis of their ideas
  • A curriculum infused with deep questions about meaning and purpose, which connects knowledge to living by:
    • Always asking what any given fact or idea means to human life
    • Asking of any knowledge: to whom is this information valuable and how will it be used?

Using the Great Books, our curriculum schools students in timeless ideas, useful in any era or place, by the best thinkers in civilization. These works are extremely influential today. They include works from philosophy to economics, mathematics to literature, history to science and more. Simultaneously, the the Great Books’ authors and their ideas serve as examples of the highest in creative thinking skills.

Properly schooled to think deeply about these works, a student economically recognizes patterns, trends and influences everywhere in culture, from art to business, from job trends to medical discoveries.

One small example: Did you know that there was a time when people were confused about how something could be one thing now and another thing in the future? How could something be an acorn now and yet the very same thing is an oak tree later? They could not figure out how that worked. I’m sure you all take for granted the idea that something can actually be one thing yet potentially another—like a baby is potentially an adult human.

However, it took the genius of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to resolve this problem with the identification of the concepts of “actual” and “potential.” Try to imagine our world without these ideas—how could we think about science and technology, among many other things.

Our students learn about such great ideas as Aristotle’s breakthrough, along with the important fact that so much we take for granted in our great civilization was invented by creative individuals all through the ages. Further, reflecting on concepts that we take for granted raises the students’ analytic thinking skills. This is just one benefit of studying the Great Books.

Knowledge Across Categories

Through use of the Great Books coupled with assignments posed by our teachers, our classes purposefully integrate knowledge from one domain to another and encourage students to find connections between seemingly disparate material, just like creative thinkers such as Feynman and Mestral. Teachers urge students to constantly seek connections among these great ideas and between the ideas and our contemporary world. Unfortunately, most college curriculums and faculties make no attempt to execute these crucial tasks.

Discussing the place that a fact, idea or theory has in human life is a constant aim. Teachers consistently require—and offer–—proof for statements and beliefs and explicit logical arguments. Everyone checks their premises. Facts and truth, however unpleasant, are the standard. By modeling and emphasizing these practices, our faculty encourage our students to have excellent observational skills.

How to deal with unpleasant facts without denying them is also a highly encouraged skill. Teachers who model such thinking teach volumes. Our special teacher training ensures these aims.

Ultimately, students will learn the skills needed to think objectively.

Collaboration and Teamwork

With the special methods we use, an elaboration of Socratic Practice (Collaborative Inquiry methods), students learn to deeply understand others’ points of view and communicate their own clearly. These skills are crucial to successful teamwork in any profession, as well as life in general. Our Advisor Michael Strong is an international expert in this method.

When The Great Connections is implemented as a full time program, students will participate in collaborative research work and business internships throughout the year. Explicitly tied to the curriculum and to individual professions that students want to explore, these internships will greatly enhance teamwork skills.

These activities and more will give students a breadth of experience as well as a breadth of thinking so important to the creative Versatilist.

Lastly, the close, in-person interaction of students and faculty as well as outside experts and special guests in and out of class facilitate development of these skills and further nurture the kind of deep, thoughtful examination of ideas, thinking, purposes and assumptions that  are so radically life-changing and empowering.

“First We Must Inspire, Not Just Inform”

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori

By embodying great thinking, respect for independent judgment, and deep appreciation of individual freedom, the faculty model the very values on which the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute is founded.

The student is a “spiritual embryo,” with his or her own innate pattern of growth ready to unfold, delicately and amazingly, given the right psychological and physical environment. The teacher’s role in this unfolding cannot be underestimated.

Maria Montessori said: Teachers “have to conquer minds stirring up the great emotions of life,” to achieve real learning in students. In other words, teachers must tap into students’ deepest desires and values, such as love, joy, and pride, to motivate students. And, although Aristotle’s dicta “All men by nature desire to know” captures the human species’ trait of curiosity, curiosity can be squashed through ridicule or sapped through boredom by teachers—or coaxed into riotous flowering.

Great teachers are often transformative to the student, helping him or her learn to love knowledge and serious work, to acquire heightened reasoning skills, to look at many sides of a problem, to gather information from far-reaching domains in order to find solutions and to be self-reflective and reasonable – all important ingredients to future success.

Famed investor Warren Buffet, who did not want to go to college, said of his time achieving a master’s degree at Columbia University, “But I didn’t go there for a degree, I went for two teachers who were already my heroes.”

These principles necessitate teachers of the highest order: those with the utmost respect for their students, who can teach by example and guidance through difficult material.

While it is possible to be competent in communicating information and in conveying some of these traits long distance, in-person interaction is the most compellingly effective method. We actively seek technology of all kinds to creatively facilitate learning and collaboration and make scholars and public intellectuals from around the world accessible to our students. However, classes are in person with skilled and specially trained teachers.

Let’s examine some ways teachers influence students.

Teachers and Activation Energy

Csikszentmihalyi notes that human beings have limited mental resources and energy when it comes to paying attention (focusing on material), and these should be used wisely. Hence, our program keeps these factors in mind and seeks to facilitate attention.

A small group of people, like concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, seem to find riveting interests when they are mere toddlers. This kind of person often barrels full speed ahead in what they want to do; but most people are not as definite or enthusiastic about any particular interest. Teachers can make a difference in the subjects in which students become interested and even their choice of profession.

Often, a passionate teacher triggers an individual’s interest in a new subject. A previously unknown, boring, or distasteful field becomes the person’s area of professional interest through their teacher. I’ve seen many a student with no previous interest in, or maybe even a repulsion to, cicadas or worms become enthralled with them after an enthusiastic teacher shows them the interesting parts of the worm or the weird way the cicada flies. The teacher fuels what research psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “activation energy.”

Many complex and deeply engaging areas of knowledge and skill require an enormous amount of unrewarding work before they become enjoyable. Ballet dancing, mastering physics, or successfully managing employees are a few examples. Initially the learner must expend intense mental energy in order to focus on the learning: this is the “activation energy.” Learning a musical instrument is a good example: the student spends hours practicing physical movements and enduring awful sonic productions before acquiring enough skill to make enjoyable music!

In the early 20th century, Montessori noted the same phenomena and realized its connection to teaching: “I believed that at the start the teaching material had to be associated with the voice of the teacher which called and roused the [students] and induced them to use the material and educate themselves,” Maria Montessori.

A great teacher like the character of Edward James Olmos in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” helps students through difficult material with contagious excitement and the ability to make it dramatically interesting and well-related to students’ deepest needs and values.

Long-time Montessori teacher Pat Schaefer summed it up, “First: we must inspire, not just inform. Second: It is in relationship that the secret of [human learning] power is released.”

Teachers and Great Questions

On the precipice of full adult life, the college student needs answers to the great questions: “Why am I here?” ”How should I live?” ”How should I deal with other people?” “What should I do with my life?” If the student is not already asking himself these questions, it is his teacher’s job to show him how to ask them and how to find good answers.

Knowing how to pose the right questions can lead to a great awakening with unforeseen, amazing consequences. Forestry Consultant Charles Tomlinson often regaled friends and family with stories of his experience at The University of the South (called “Sewanee”) with “Abbo.” Charles claimed himself a rather complacent product of a middleclass Southern family when he encountered “Abbo,” English Professor Abbott Cotton Martin. Abbo spent considerable hours poking holes in everything Charles took for granted, from football to religion, with some English literature thrown in for good measure. This was Abbo’s stock-in-trade.

Abbo taught Charles to thoroughly question and examine what he thought he knew, as well as his beliefs. But Abbo didn’t just throw students in the water of quandaries, he made himself available to talk all during the week, not just during Sunday office hours. Charles learned to “check his premises” through Abbo’s prodding as well as reading Ayn Rand. The other wonderful teachers at Sewanee helped too. They inspired him to demand more of himself, leading to a long, creatively productive, exciting life.

This included deeply influencing many, many people, including Jaroslav Romanchuk, a major figure in the opposition to Belarus’ authoritarian government.

Active Listening and Independent Judgment

Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.
Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)

Inspiration is the fundamental mission of the teacher, because of motivations’ deep importance to learning. Active Listening is a powerful teaching tool which promotes an inspiring relationship between teacher and student. For one thing, Active Listening conveys deep respect for the individual’s independence in thought and value.

“Be “careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” Maria Montessori


Active listeningActive Listening is a key skill enabling teachers to nurture independent judgment. The Active Listener authentically tries to understand what the other person means, empathizing with the other’s point of view by working hard to grasp his or her full context. This means trying to understand the other person’s level of knowledge about a subject, their age, what emotional issues may be affecting their thinking, and the set of ideas they are using to grasp the subject.


Used in teaching, this means the Active Listener asks clarifying questions about the student’s terms, respectfully allowing the student time to finish what he or she is saying before responding and, importantly, conveying an attitude of alert interest in what the student says.

The Active Listener must try to leave aside any personal feelings about the subject and squash the desire to assert and forcefully drive home the rightness of his or her own opinion. These actions only serve to distract a student from deep thinking and learning by bringing in issues of social hierarchy, personal power, and self-worth (i.e., do I know enough, what does the teacher think of me, he’s got more status than I, I should listen to him). These issues elicit powerful, distracting emotions.

Further, the Active Listener tries to sense any motives in the student’s statements beyond the informational. For example, if a student in a class on Freud asks “What if a son is extremely fond and affectionate toward his mother—does that mean he has an Oedipus complex?” The teacher needs to be aware that the student may be feeling anxiety about his love for his mother and respond with gentleness, general reassurance, and kindness.

Active Listening promotes the spread of truth. Only by Active Listening do we end up having a full idea of what the other person means and thereby gain the opportunity to respond with appropriate facts and reasoning.

Independent judgment is the well-spring of real choice, and true individuality and judgment is well-developed through good discussion. Unfortunately, these days teachers sometimes find it difficult to conduct good discussions because students have been led to believe all opinions are equal in value and everyone should open their mouths to babble whatever they wish, no matter how inaccurate or trivial. Resulting from the reign of the Post Modernist attack on objectivity, this belief cripples students’ minds by encouraging them to think that any opinion is acceptable, regardless of foundation, as long as it is theirs.

While stoking their egos by making them feel whatever they think is important, this practice stops them from learning that true, valuable opinion must be grounded in facts and good reasoning.

Postmodernist ideology further deforms a student’s concept of self by equating diversity with group membership. In the Post Modernist schema, one’s diversity depends on race or ethnic background or sexual preference rather than considered, ideological judgment. It promotes a concept of tribal or social diversity rather than true ideological difference.

In contrast, Active Listening in the classroom conveys a deep respect for the independence of the other person’s mind: the Active Listener takes the student’s ideological point of view seriously and tries to respond to it carefully. The aim is full understanding of what the other is saying in the service of arriving at truth. Just imagine the kind of productive political discussions we all might have if we used these principles!

Some people have a rare, natural ability or tendency to listen like this, but since it can be learned, there’s hope for the rest of us. It is also typical of the Montessori teacher, because of his or her deep training in careful observation of students.

Socratic Practice

“It is a sign of crudity and indigestion to throw up what we have eaten in the same condition it was swallowed down; and the stomach has not performed its office, if it has not altered the figure and shape of what was committed to it for concoction…Let the tutor make his pupil thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon mere authority…To the fragments borrowed from others he will transform and bend together to make a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment. His education, labor,and study aim only at forming that.” Michael Montaigne

Socratic Practice is a formidable method that, when used properly, incorporates Active Listening at its best. Some of you may have been to classes that mimic this style of teaching. In these, a teacher might ask a question like “What is justice?” and then proceed to tell students they’re wrong when they give an answer the teacher doesn’t want. Well, that’s wrong; Socratic questioning is meant to develop the student’s ability to think about a subject, not to test them and catch them when they are wrong or call them on the carpet for the right answer.

Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for himself or herself. The excellent teacher aims at helping students learn how to find the right answer themselves. They help students use the facts and best theories available while learning to think well.

Teachers skillfully using Socratic Practice often have to spend time rehabilitating students after a lifetime of being told what to learn, what is the “right” answer— or that any answer is right, with no standard of truth. Students often view school as the place to feed back the answer the teacher wants to hear, not learn new knowledge in order to figure out the truth with their own powers.

Consequently, in the beginning of a program using Socratic Practice, the teacher (often called “tutor,” i.e. guide to learning) must work especially hard to shape the learning environment. Just as in any Montessori school, the prepared environment is a key to success in developing the thriving, independent-minded learner.

Physically, the environment must be quiet All participants are required to respect the appointed time of discussion, with no phone calls, text messages, etc. They sit in a circle facing each other. Attention must be on the discussion, and all participants are expected to have read the assigned text.

Psychologically, the tutor shapes the environment by many principles. He or she requires a formal politeness among discussants, to encourage rational, civil discourse. Sometimes participants must address each other by title and last name (e.g., Ms. Smith and Mr. Murphy).

Unless a student starts the discussion with a question about the study material, the tutor leads off with a thoughtful question about the reading—or often a factual question if the material is mathematical or scientific.

At our program, students are given extra, explicit instruction in reasoning skills and logic, to make them more consciously aware of how to reason well, both inductively (e.g., how to make an accurate generalization) and deductively (e.g., how to derive a conclusion from already-given facts and ideas). All these practices serve to develop student reasoning skills.

The tutor must walk a fine line, skillfully encouraging excellent reasoning while being careful not to discourage students from talking because they might have  errors in their arguments.

Learning to reason objectively about complex material requires the willingness to entertain possibly incorrect ideas in order to examine them fully, to measure them against the facts, and to analyze their rational foundation.

If a student is too fearful of looking foolish or feeling humiliated when caught in an error, he or she won’t explore complex ideas thoroughly enough to find out if they are true.

On the other hand, students are not allowed to have bull sessions and their opinions are not all equal. Only those opinions arrived at objectively through facts and reasoning are considered worthwhile.

The tutor must skillfully encourage questions and comments evincing an earnest search for truth, while discouraging or disallowing talk in which the student is proving his knowledge or disingenuous agreement with the tutor.

During a seminar on Aristotle’s Politics, if a student who says “Richard McKeon says that Aristotle’s politics….” is deflected from this line of discussion by a question such as “Do you think that is true? What does Aristotle say that makes you think that?” The tutor aims to bring the discussion back to the facts of the text studied, plus the student’s own experience and reasoning. In this way, the tutor encourages observations of the facts, generalizations closely derived from the facts, and conclusions reasoned from the facts.

Our Advisor John Tomasi implemented this method in his hugely successful special program, The Political Theory Project at Brown University. He says: “Kids are sick and tired of being told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. They want to be challenged.” The kind of work done through Socratic Practice discussions of the Great Books does exactly that.

The Habit of Thought

Questions and questioning of a special type are central to great education. The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice consistently applied increases cognitive skills is clear. Our advisor, Michael Strong, extensively discusses these methods in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.

Strong established remarkable programs in four high schools around the country. He measured program outcomes with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a cognitive skills test correlated with performance on intelligence tests and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Administering this instrument before, during and after a year at school, he found cognitive skill gains ranging, for example, from 30% to 84%. The mean score of one school’s 9th grade group moved from below the national 9th grade mean to above the 12th grade mean in one year, while one inner city student who scored at the 1st percentile on the initial test, scored at the 85th percentile by the end of four months. While more work is needed to fully validate his results, they were consistent from school to school. Any teacher would be proud to so deeply help students learn to think well.

Teachers and Observation

“Our care of the [student] should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” Maria Montessori

To be a good listener, a teacher must be a careful observer. Maria Montessori, the quintessential scientist, incorporated the scientific method into her teacher training program. She urged her teachers to spend time every day sitting back and watching the students work, interact with each other and deal with problems. In this way, teachers learn a great deal about each student, their interests, abilities and difficulties, enabling the teacher to guide him or her well. Observe, empathize, respect—these are the basics of good teaching.

The only way teachers can learn these methods is by intensive questioning and self-reflective experience. Guidance by mentors with great experience, knowledge and skill helps. Such training will be a key component of a special two-month teacher training course and apprenticeship for every teacher at the full-time Great Connections program.

In this course the teacher will both study and practice the programs specific methods, as well as experience the breadth of the ideas and the excitement and challenge of examining the great works used in our curriculum.

Teachers at The Great Connections

The in The Great Connections program are highly educated individuals, consistently willing to engage in discussions of the great questions inside and outside their domains of expertise. An excellent seminar leader asks intriguing, deep questions respectfully, keeps discussion on important topics but lets students diverge from the set topic if it means exploring something important and meaningful to them. Clearly, much art and judgment is involved, which is why extensive training is necessary.

Program focuses attention on human achievement and what makes it possible, both existentially and psychologically. We require our teachers to implement his or her best attributes: commitment to clearly knowing what he or she knows and doesn’t know (the first step on the path of objectivity); passion for learning new material and integrating it with other knowledge; commitment to modeling the highest virtues of the free person, including honesty, responsibility and respect for the rights of others; commitment to the restless pursuit of personal improvement and growth; willingness to submit to careful investigation and evaluation in order to improve. Through embodying these virtues, the teachers inspire students to the highest ends of the free man and woman.

As Scott Buchanan, architect of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, said: “Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise.”

The Delicacy of the Young Spirit

Achievement and success in life require the vision of the possible and the ability to weather the actual.

To navigate the stormy waters of life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the setbacks and the failures, students need cognitive skills and plenty of encouragement and emotional fuel. They need great examples of other human beings who have successfully dealt with many difficulties.

As the scientific findings of Positive Psychology have recently identified, knowledge and cognitive skills integrate with emotional habits and character traits. Healthy, successful, happy people tend to have cognitive habits that deeply influence their emotional tone in a positive direction.

Our curriculum teaches the works of the Classics “The best that has been thought and said” as well as modern science and the usually neglected works of the liberty movement. In addition, students do special work on the skills of logic, introspection, and self-knowledge, and the achievements of great human beings. Students are armed with inspiring and invigorating knowledge that help them achieve their goals. We apply philosophical principles as well as recent findings in scientific psychology and neuroscience. And these teachers and other staff are available to help students in many aspects of their lives.

To implement this plan, we seek individuals who are exceptional in their learning, their self-knowledge, in their passionate curiosity, and in their character, who can serve not only as guides but as inspiring examples to the students. To see the complete curriculum plan, see www.rifinst.org.

An earlier version of this article, predicting the outcomes of our curriculum and methodology, was published in 2009 online.

Education for a New Enlightenment

By Marsha Enright

Winter 2010 — If you’re familiar with two- to five-year-old children, then you understand what Aristotle meant when he said “All men, by nature, desire to know.” Very little will stop the young child from exploring the world and trying to learn—sometimes to the exasperation of parents!

The young child who turns into the restlessly eager-to-learn, -to create, -to achieve adult is the fountainhead of human progress. Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Ayn Rand, Craig Venter, Steve Jobs—these are the people that never lost their two year old’s passionate, internally-generated drive to know and, consequently, change the world.

This is the state-of-mind which education in a Good Society would strive to achieve. These are the type of people who made Renaissance Florence, Enlightenment England, Revolutionary America, and our technology-abundant current culture possible. By nurturing this state of mind, the Good Society would create a self-perpetuating future of rational ideas, science, technology, liberty, and inspiring art in the renaissance of a New Enlightenment.
Before describing the shape of that education, let’s consider what kind of cultural backdrop would support that state of mind.

Upward Striving: The Essence of the New Enlightenment Culture

Reason, achievement, and liberty would be commonly accepted values and revered openly: ironically, this is not as different from today as we might think, but it would be much more consistent, well-justified, and widespread. Achievement in all fields would be honored much more uniformly and that of entrepreneurs and good businesses would be praised often on the nightly news. Capitalism would be celebrated as a boon to mankind.

Unlike today, these three values would be understood as an integrated whole, valued in all endeavors, from poetry to politics. Heroes of reason, liberty, and achievement would be widespread role models, rather than confined to comic books as freaks with supernatural powers. Only a shrinking minority would revere rap stars or leftist academics, like those who strategized the Chicago Way to the White House.

All excellent work would be honored. Individuals would feel proud of whatever they deservedly achieved, whether as a janitor or a jazz violinist. Schools would cater to vastly different educational needs; some for the academic life, some the artistic, some the trades, some for business, athletics, or the military—any productive area of human endeavor. A culture of creativity would surround the developing child.

All education would be private, mostly supported by tuition income with help from a vast array of private philanthropy. Responsibility for educating children would fall clearly to the parents. It would be the norm for parents to value individualism and independence in their progeny. Most parents would know that they should practice objectivity and forbearance in regard to their children. Their responsibility as nurturers would be to help the child develop into an achieving individual, passionate about his work, whatever that might be. Constant, upward striving, i.e. real progress, would be the bellwether of such a society.

(For a taste of these attitudes, read the novels of the early 20th century author Henry Kitchell Webster, such as Calumet K, The King of Khaki,and The Thoroughbred, recently available in paperback.)

Rather than “give my child everything so they won’t have to work as hard as I did,” parents would teach their child the joy of responsibility and work, like Frank Hanna’s father, the investment banker featured in The Acton Institute’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur. Instead of taking his two sons to Little League, Frank’s father provided opportunities for the boys to work at various family businesses. This gave the boys the experience of achievement and a taste of making money from it, plus the analytic knowledge to understand how businesses work. After a brief stint as a lawyer, Frank joined his brother in opening their own investment banking firm, reveling in the joy of finding great businesses to capitalize.

Those families with massive wealth would impart the responsibility of wealth and the ethic of achievement to their progeny. Rather than becoming dissolute ne’er-do-wells who don’t know how to live up to the previous generation, such heirs would find their passion and use their wealth to achieve it. Those in the family interested in the family business would become thoughtful stewards of the wealth, like Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, adding to the family’s achievements. I saw a current example on the TV show Undercover Boss in which Dave Rife, head of family-owned White Castle Corporation, expressed his desire to make his grandfather proud by improving the corporation the grandfather started.

To develop flourishing individuals, education would have to be based on the science of fundamental biological and psychological needs. These principles would call for the development of skills such as the habits of first-hand observation and excellent reasoning which enable objective judgment, so important for knowing what is exactly true in order to achieve success. Skill in creativity is equally important in solving problems and finding new solutions in all aspects of life. Further the integration of mind and body, including a great deal of self-knowledge, is crucial to effective functioning and happiness. The ability to effectively interact with other people is also essential to achieving happiness in home and work life. Finally, it’s almost impossible to live well without the ability to effectively put thought into action. These are some of the needs and abilities—important to a well-lived life—which would be nurtured in a great education.

Furthermore, the people who would implement this approach would be committed to individualism. This means that although teachers, parents, and administrators would recognize that there are universal human needs, they would also realize that individuals vary greatly in the particular way they develop and must have their needs met distinctively. For example, a gregarious child must work hard to develop his independence, while an introverted child not interested in or sensitive to others might need to learn more social awareness to work most effectively in the market.

Schooldays in the Good Society

Well, that’s great you say—but what would a school actually look like in a better future?
For one thing, it would not look much like the average grade to graduate schools of today, which are more often factory-like warehouses than exciting, attractive environments in which to explore the world and oneself.

Students would not be confined to the classroom.

Market competition would provide a plethora of choices, one school building more beautiful and luxurious than the next, even for the most inexpensive schools. If you doubt it, just think of how much more attractive Dunkin’ Donuts stores have become since the spread of Starbucks. The buildings would be well-integrated into natural landscapes or cleverly designed in highly urban environments to keep children in touch with nature and natural opportunities to observe and experiment. The layout would make it easier to make physical activity—the connection between body and mind—a regular part of the day.

The typical school in the Good Society would have classrooms filled with beautiful learning materials which would appeal to the students’ senses and would involve movement, shape, and color to cement concepts in memory. These materials would concretize the concepts and information students need while absorbing their attention effortlessly and appealing to their interests.

Each day, students would choose their work from an array of challenging materials from most knowledge areas. Students of several ages would attend the same classroom, providing an environment more representative of adult life than traditional schools, and giving students an opportunity to learn from each other and practice their mastery of knowledge by instructing other students.

Students as young as toddlers might work with others, but they wouldn’t have to. The result? Many would love to work together, giving students the experience of freedom of association and practice in teamwork. Part of the curriculum should consist of instruction in important social skills, from the appropriate way to blow one’s nose to how to express anger to a classmate in a productive fashion. This way of working readies students for a social life in which they can express and enjoy their individuality in a civil manner.

Excited conversation would take place throughout the classroom, as students share in their discoveries and ideas. The environment would be strategically arranged to allow the student freedom to move, work, make many choices throughout the day, and get feedback from reality about the success and the appropriateness of behavior.
Learning materials could be used for multiple problems; once the basic function of the material is mastered, students can discover their own problems and solutions, thereby encouraging creativity.

As befitting a society that values productiveness and rejects the separation of theory and practice, practical knowledge would be highly esteemed in the Good Society. From the age of three, students would have practical responsibilities for shared school property, returning materials to their place for use by the next student, cleaning up after themselves, feeding animals, or greeting visitors. At the upper levels of education, young adolescents would engage in real work, such as growing food, creating saleable products, operating retail businesses, or taking care of farm animals—all integrated with their academic learning. These activities would enable them to explore career opportunities and enjoy the achievement of production and meaningful work during their energetic adolescent years.
Adolescents would study the classics, such as Plato, Aquinas, Bacon, and Shakespeare, for a strong grounding in the liberal arts. The liberal arts would be recognized as essential to a complete education because, by learning philosophy, history, literature, science, mathematics, music, art, and the history of all these subjects, students grasp the way all subjects are related to each other. They also learn what ideas and events created present-day culture. This knowledge would be vital to maintaining a free and just society, because it would help students learn what made freedom and prosperity possible and how to protect it. Furthermore, the liberal arts would provide a broad base of knowledge to each student. This would enable each individual to adapt more easily to market and career changes. Two 20-year studies of top CEOs and scientists substantiate this view. They have found that the vast majority of these high achievers obtain their undergraduate degrees from small liberal arts colleges.

Because knowledge is practical, students would not be confined to the classroom. It would only be the taking-off point for exploring and experiencing the world. Remember Francisco D’Anconia’s education “all over the world” in Atlas Shrugged? On a more limited budget, every child would have such experiences: going out to explore the places in which he lives, learning to shop for himself, camping, and working in local businesses. Their responsibility and independence would grow with their age.

Schools in the Good Society would be motivated to provide the best possible teachers because the inspiring ideas and values in the culture would demand it through market competition. What kind of teachers would be the most effective in aiding a young person’s work to become the best person he or she can be?

Effective teachers would be highly knowledgeable in scientifically proven child psychology and the philosophical principles of a flourishing life. They would be persons of high character and achievement; passionate individuals who love to learn and form excellent role models for students. They would be empathetic and kind, nurturing the young spirit while inspiring it.

Teachers would also be sensitive to the vast differences among individual interests, abilities, and methods of learning. Their role would be to nurture each child into a flourishing adult, whatever form that would take—plumber or physicist, actor or entrepreneur. They would be the child’s advocate and parent educator, helping the parent understand the nature and needs of each individual child.

It’s Montessori

You may recognize my description of the school in the Good Society as a well-implemented Montessori school.

Like Objectivism, the principles of the Montessori philosophy of education are complex and must be very intelligently understood and practiced in order for their implementation to be consistently successful. I have yet to find anything more excellent for a deep understanding of and fulfillment of the child’s-to-adolescent’s learning needs than a well-implemented and authentically-implemented Montessori school. I believe this philosophy and method of education would be widespread in the Good Society—perhaps its principles would be so well-accepted as to become the common conception of education.

In many respects, the Montessori classroom deeply implements a philosophy of individualism. Yet, the ideas and practices of collectivism often hold sway among many of its teachers, parents, and administrators, undermining the Method’s results. These can be the ideas of radical environmentalism, which mystically values “The Earth” over human life. Or they can be the ideas of altruism which encourage students to dedicate themselves only to charity as the highest of goals. Or they can be an anti-capitalist attitude, which is ignorant of economics and sees all trade as zero-sum.

Rather than these attitudes, the Good Society would encourage a more sensible environmental approach which values clean air and water, and recognizes human time as the scarcest of resources. It would value the creative improvement of human life in whatever form that takes—business, science, art, or charity—and the immeasurable improvements to life possible through free trade.

In the Good Society, the Montessori approach would need to be expanded in various ways, especially to include the values lauded by Ayn Rand, such as an appreciation of capitalistic creativity and achievement.

And that wouldn’t be hard, because the Montessori classroom, materials, and methods already nurture creativity and achievement. Just ask Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, chef Julia Child, and a bevy of other successful entrepreneurs, all of whom were Montessori students. Or ask the thousands of parents and high school teachers who notice the remarkable difference in attitude and action between those of their young people who have attended Montessori schools and those who haven’t. That’s because the Method encourages individual thinking, conceptual development, and an integrated approach to studying subject-matter, while giving the child structured freedom to creatively explore passionate individual interests.

Enhanced Montessori

In the Good Society, the Montessori approach would be immeasurably enhanced with the following:
1. Systematic, highly conscious work on reasoning skills;

2. A stronger emphasis on the liberal arts;

3. A study of free market economics and the institutions of liberty;

4. An expansion of the Montessori Method to the college level.
What are some of the ways these changes would be implemented?
1: To develop cognitive skills, the program would have an extra, explicit focus on thinking skills, objective reasoning, and creative thinking, especially for the upper high school or college level. Students would be taught at least these elements of effective thinking, if not more:

• Observation, or paying careful attention to facts and accurately identifying them;

• Inference, or accurately drawing conclusions from information;

• Implication, or accurately drawing a second conclusion from the truth of a first conclusion;

• Induction, or accurately generalizing from knowledge of particular things to general principles;

• Deduction, or accurately identifying specific conclusions from general principles;

• Integration, or making the connections and relationships between thoughts and ideas to a unified body of

• Productive rearrangement of knowledge or creativity;

• Introspection, or the art of effectively identifying the contents and processes of one’s own mind;

• Evaluation or successfully identifying the value for oneself in what is observed and concluded;

• Implementation, or how to successfully use one’s thoughts to achieve one’s ends.

2: Excellent life preparation means being able to participate knowledgeably in civil society—just as the citizens of the early U.S. republic did. Their high rate of excellent literacy made The Federalist Papers the subject of everyday reading and debate; this would be the expected norm in the Good Society. Studying the liberal arts, students would be introduced to important and difficult works such as those of Plato and Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, Bastiat, and Rand at an early age, with intensive study of them in college.

3: Students would learn about the heroes of business and the achievements that made our civilization possible, along with the heroes of science, history, mathematics, and literature. And they would be introduced to the ideas and history of freedom and tyranny early in their school life.

4: Finally, as is done for students at other developmental levels in Montessori schools, the developmental needs of the young adult would be thoroughly considered to craft the teaching methods, setting, activities, and curriculum of college students.

College as it Could and Should Be

So what would college look like? There would be far more exact scientific research and understanding of what human beings need at the college level to develop well, resulting in a plethora of choices. And within an institution, careful scientific observation and experimentation about the best means of learning would be de rigeur, as it is in every authentic Montessori program.

Parents and students would be treated more like customers of a service business.

According to Michael Novak in The Fire of Invention, by 1852 there were more colleges in Ohio than in the whole of Europe. The sharp differences among the more than 4,400 colleges we have today are being dulled by government oversight of policies, curriculum, and finances. Government loans drive affirmative action policies. The accreditation process, which has been required only since the advent of government funding for college, hampers innovation. According to studies done for the Association of College Trustees and Alumni, accreditation does little to assure and excellent education.

Everything would be run more efficiently with little or no bureaucracy—it would instead be actually responsive to customers. Parents and students would be treated more like customers of a service business, every college competing to do the best job possible, instead of leaving students alone to get through a mandated course of study.

The current college system is, basically, a certification program for work or graduate school, i.e., “You’re worth X to your employer.” It results in an odd business structure. Students fail to graduate, or take longer than needed. Five years is the current average, no doubt enabled by low-cost government loans which delay the pain of borrowing money until after graduation. Fifty-seven percent take six years to complete the BA! This breaks down as follows: 60% of whites, 49% of Latinos, and only 40% of African Americans graduate within six years.

It’s ironic that our current culture tolerates such high risk in one of life’s biggest purchases, a college education. Where else do we put up with such results, for so much money? Not at Starbucks. Could you imagine “Sorry, even though you’ve paid, you can’t have your coffee”? Richard Vedder (of the Center for College Affordability and Accountibility) and a variety of economists and researchers attribute this failure to the lack of accountability caused by easily obtained government loans.

In the Good Society, colleges would be free from government interference or help. The higher education market would be a hotbed of competition, as it was in the U.S. up to the last 40-50 years. Many more small colleges would arise to give personalized guidance and service, and allow students to more easily know and be connected to their teachers and other students.

Not as many people would attend college. Many would be interested and skilled in non-academic areas such as crafts, the trades, the arts, and business. Their high school education would be so rich and thorough that they would be knowledgeable citizens without college. Further, non-college-level work would be honored for its excellence and importance in our civilization so that people without a college degree would not feel like second-class citizens as they often do today. There would be no government-generated push for “everyone” to attend college, resulting in the current idiocy of BAs for Construction Management and MBAs necessary to run a McDonald’s. Rather, high school education would be far more challenging and deeper than it is today, and there would be a rise in detailed, targeted technical education post-high school.

At the college level, inexpensive education obtained through online information, lectures, and demonstrations would be bolstered by judiciously chosen, close, in-person relationships with caring tutor/professors. Precious in-person time would be spent on productive discussions and deep conversations about their studies with these tutors and with other students. Tutor/professors would be expert guides to learning, not task masters.

Technology would be used for information delivery and rich simulations through which to practice all kinds of skills, from sports, to governance, to running a business. And it would also enable the use of new tools of evaluation such as Experiential Sampling which is now used in the study of “Flow,” i.e., high performance and optimal experience. Experiential Sampling researches individuals’ real-time experiences, i.e., actions, thoughts, and feelings. It could be used to find out more about professorial effectiveness. New tools of psychological evaluation and growth derived from the discoveries of Martin Seligman and other researchers in the psychology of high functioning, happy individuals would also be used to craft better in-class processes.

Colleges would design work, portfolios, and experiences to show employers and other schools their students’ achievements, instead of depending on unvalidated and inconsistent evaluations by professors not trained in human development or even the rudiments of teaching. Instead, professors would be required to learn the principles of learning and teaching and they would have to regularly train and review teaching methods and curriculum.
Rather than study in cloistered academic settings for years and years, colleges would offer creative and collaborative learning programs with businesses and other work settings as the norm, as well as opportunities at job sites. One current example is the relatively new program at the John M. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts which requires its students, starting in freshman year, to work in teams on projects.

Ultimately, the education practices of the Good Society would result in an unimaginable outpouring of excellence, energy, and creativity, far beyond even the imagination of science fiction writers. Because these practices nurture the best within each individual, we can foresee a future of amazing technology, higher human fulfillment, and inspiring art. Peace would be widespread, driven by the shared values of reason, individualism, achievement, and freedom. Let us work our mightiest to see such a society in real life.

Marsha Familaro Enright, formerly a psychotherapist, co-founded in 1990 the Council Oak Montessori School (elementary level), of which she is the president and administrator. Enright is currently the president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, and leads development of the College of the United States and its wholly independent scholarship fund. Enright also is a writer for The New Individualist magazine.

Originally published in The New Individualist and at: http://www.atlassociety.org/print/1302



Socratic Seminars: Learning to think first-hand: Revised 1-27-13

by Marsha Familaro Enright

SOCRATIC SEMINARS are a method of teaching, which, if properly implemented, foster independence, develop excellent reasoning skills, and nurture a sense of the rightness of individual liberty. These seminars significantly increase the participants’ abilities to think for themselves. The term “Socratic Seminar” is used variously, but the following describes the kind I am talking about:

A discussion in which all participants read a common text, or study a common work of art, or scientific experiment, or film, etc. and examine its meaning and implications together, following a delineated set of principles which will be described in the following. In this type of discussion, no person or persons are accepted as an authority about the material studied; Reason is the only authority, i.e. facts and logic concerning the material.

Also called a Collaborative Seminar because participants reason together to understand the material.



Rules of the discussion:

  • Ask questions of the text or work studied, and each other.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what you don’t understand, no matter how trivial it may seem – the goal is to understand the meaning of the work clearly.
  • Cite the text or indicate the feature of the work which gives evidence for your opinions/conclusions.
  • References to material outside of the work must be cogently linked to the work and to the discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning.
  • References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
  • Be concise.
  • Keep comments related to the work while making connections with your other ideas and experiences.
  • Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; this means that if you are not happy with the way things are going, please speak up and suggest solutions so as to make the discussion better.
  • Each person treats the other participants respectfully.
  • In the discussion, Reason is the only authority.


Most methods of teaching assume the teacher’s goal is merely to convey a given body of information. Lecture, testing, review are preferred. What good things are left out of such conventional methods?

– INSTRUCTION AND GUIDANCE IN FIRST-HAND THINKING: e.g. in how to look at any aspect of reality for yourself; a skill needed in order to be independent.

– EXPLICIT TUTELAGE IN THINKING SKILLS: Asking questions while learning is essential to develop thinking skills; it is a way of determining what you know or don’t. But, in a conventional classroom, questions about the ideas being taught are often quashed as interfering with the business of information acquisition.

–  TUTELAGE IN CREATIVITY SKILLS: thinking of many different possibilities and combinations of ideas and facts—the substance of creativity—are not usually encouraged in traditional classrooms. This has been especially true with the focus on testing these past decades because of the assumption of most tests that there’s only one right answer. Creativity researcher Ken Robinson has a very informative talk about this at TED.com.

–  INTEGRATION OF KNOWLEDGE: Very little is done to connect subjects across domains of knowledge. Students aren’t taught the relationship of math to history, science to English, geography to politics, or the relationship of philosophy to all the subjects, and to your life. Yet, the ability to use diverse information and ideas from many sources and knowledge domains is crucial–practically, creatively, and productively.

– CONNECTION OF ABSTRACT TO CONCRETE: Very often students are given little help in connecting the ideas and theories they are taught to the facts, or what they are learning to the practical. What’s the connection between the Napoleonic Wars and my contemporary life? Yet, there is a crucial connection.

– PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT: No special learning or guidance is taught about inner development and interpersonal skills. Yet these skills are crucial for self-control, self-direction, productivity, and working with other people.

Here’s what one of my students said about her education before coming to our The Great Connections summer seminar, which uses Socratic seminars:

“I knew about dates and facts, but I wasn’t able to view processes along history, the connection between the facts and philosophy….in many cases, learning is not meaningful for the student.”


Identifying your own opinions, how you arrived at them, and whether they comport with the facts is difficult. It’s a lot of work to continuously analyze ideas and assumptions down to their base. One has only a limited amount of time to think; it’s hard to constantly stop and think about fundamentals. But that’s exactly why it’s so important to develop the habits of mind that make it easy to think about fundamentals in everyday life. Once you have developed these habits, you can analyze and understand events, ideas, readings, people, etc. much more quickly.

Thinking in fundamentals also leads to more creative thinking, because you’re going to the root of the ideas, to the actual reality on which the ideas are based. You are looking directly at the facts, and not accepting the conventional package of thinking, the conventional “box” about the issue or problem. This is how hugely productive, innovative thinkers such as Aristotle or Michelangelo or Michael Faraday or Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs proceeded.


All of the following skills and values–and more–can be developed through Socratic Seminars.

  1. CHECK YOUR PREMISES: identify the facts and ideas on which your conclusions rest and their justification, follow the chain of ideas from the abstract to the fact it rests upon, thereby developing the habit and ability to identify the fundamentals of an argument or work.
  2. LOOK FOR THE CASH VALUE OF IDEAS: Connect abstract ideas and theories with concrete reality.
  3. INTEGRATION: Connect the facts and meaning related to one set of ideas to all your others. This method of discussion emphasizes connections between ideas. Combined with the study of the Classics, this leads to much integration of one’s knowledge. That’s because many of the works used cover issues and questions that span multiple domains of knowledge, such as Plato’s Symposium, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Nietszche’s Ecce Homo. This practice is important for understanding, living, and creativity;
  4. PHILOSOPHICAL DETECTION: Identify the moral implications, the implications for living, of any set of ideas. What would idea X mean if I put it into practice?;
  5. KNOW YOURSELF: like Socrates, identify information/data about yourself and your motivations; learn how to introspect successfully.


It has three elements:
The text or work.
The teacher.
The physical set up.

1. Role of the Work: You must use a text or work (art, movie, scientific experiment, musical composition) of stimulating depth and interest, because of the CENTRAL ACTIVITY, which is: Participants discuss the exact meaning of the text or work, carefully thinking about the wording (or aspects relevant to the kind of work it is) and the implications, and inferences.

PARTICIPANTS ACT AS SCIENTISTS, with the work as the reality to explain, the facts to grasp and analyze, and to integrate with their knowledge and life.

THE WORK must be able to elicit deep thought, significant insight, and add much to knowledge, which is why the Classics or Great Books are so often used. Examples of useful works:

  • The Pledge of Allegiance,
  • Plato’s Republic
  • Film: “Gattaca”
  • Sculpture: The Winged Victory

2. The Role of the Teacher: the teacher is a guide who demonstrates rather than talks about ways of investigating. He or she must be a highly self-reflective person with a great love of learning, whose passionate aim is the nurturance of minds and spirits.

The teacher must present himself as the Expert Learner who serves as an example of rational inquiry, independent examination, and discovery—rather than an expert in the information. To reiterate, the discussion follows these principles:

  1. Each person recognizes that Reason is the only authority in the discussion.
  2. Participants must ask questions of the text and each other.
  3. Participants must cite the text to give evidence for their ideas and interpretations.
  4. References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to each participant are not considered cogent to the discussion.
  5. Participants should try to make connections to their lives.
  6. Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation.
  7. Each person treats the other participants respectfully.

The teacher guides the discussion, helping participants reason together by asking questions that encourage participants to actively think about the work and its meaning. Questions such as:

  • What does the author mean by using this word instead of that word?
  • How does what the author says in this paragraph relate to what is said in that paragraph?
  • How do these ideas relate to other ideas I know? How can I relate these ideas to general principles I know?
  • If I tried to do what the author suggests in real life, what would happen?

The teacher also models how to respectfully talk to others in the discussion.

Further, the teacher encourages students to take ownership of the discussion by encouraging the student to suggest different strategies to approach issues and do any work needed, such as listing ideas on a blackboard, elaborating on the meaning of a passage, or suggesting a way to make the discussion better.

At the end of the seminar, the teacher leads a DEBRIEF: a 5-minute self-reflective discussion about the process of the discussion, including the reasoning and the personal behavior. The teacher asks what ideas, comments, principles, or conclusions advanced or detracted from learning and how to improve the conversation and the behavior for the next time. Blaming is discouraged; constructive ideas encourage.

The Debrief improves future discussions and develops self-awareness and responsibility by encouraging each person to reflect on:

  1. What they could have done differently or better to improve their or their classmates’ understanding of the work or their understanding of what others said,
  2. How they could have encouraged others to speak, or how they could have modified detracting discussion habits.

The Teacher’s Guiding Principles:

  • Find exceptional works which require careful thinking and analysis to understand, and which have complex import.
  • Help students with careful questions to understand these texts or other material (artworks, scientific experiments, musical compositions, etc).
  • Keep his own opinions mainly to himself; instead, lead by example as a most enthusiastic and careful inquirer into the meaning of the study material; showing relationships to other important ideas, with reason as the only authority.

Encourage students to:

  • Voice their own responses to the work and point to evidence in the work to demonstrate what gave rise to these responses.
  • Be unafraid to admit thoughts about the work that don’t seem, at first glance, obvious conclusions, and then explore why they may be thinking them.
  • Carefully listen to and respond to the meaning of what others are saying.
  • Help other participants voice their reasons.

Gently discourage:

  • Competitive displays of knowledge.References to other works and sets of ideas which cannot be simply explained to other seminar members and/or related directly to the material studied.
  • Anything but respectful comments and behavior towards other participants.

All must be done subtly and artfully, so as not to take away the initiative of students or squash their egos.

The Teacher must also give students lots of rein in the direction of the discussion, even if it gets off the specific topic of the text, as long as the discussion still actively and seriously explores ideas. These diversions are perfectly acceptable as a learning exercise because the goal of the discussion is to learn how to analyze materials well, not to master specific material (mastery comes as a result of learning and thinking about the material on your own, before and after class).

Off topic discussion can sometimes be very effective in achieving the discussion goal.



The discussion group should be small, preferably not over 15 people.

  • Enables a controllable discussion.
  • Develops personal relationships among the students; they get to know and care about each other, and gain a depth of understanding which galvanizes the discussion, just like a talk with a good friend.

The discussion should be held in a quiet room, with chairs in a circle, no materials except the works being discussed and water, paper, and pen. This environment:

  • Encourages each member to view others as co-learners;
  • Emphasizes that each person’s mind is his or her ultimate authority.
  • Allows concentration on learning.
  • Establishes seriousness and respect for the learning endeavor.


  • The practice of putting your thoughts into words in order to communicate with others develops your clarity of thought.
  • Each person brings a different focus to the work, thereby drawing participants’ attention to far more aspects and meanings than one person could think on his own.
  • In the discussion, students learn different ways in which the same information can be reasoned about and integrated.
  • The respectful atmosphere can lead to close personal relationships, which can be encouraging and psychologically validating.
  • Students learn how to collaborate to achieve understanding, a very valuable skill in adult life in which trade requires collaboration between buyer and seller and in teams of workers.


  • The ability to ask good questions to find the meaning of any work, skill, or situation in reading and analyzing any text or problem, even outside one’s area of knowledge.
  • The ability to be exact about the meaning of words and their definitions, which sharpens thinking and knowledge tremendously.
  • The ability to identify the logic of arguments.
  • A vastly expanded network of information and knowledge, particularly about some of the greatest, most influential thinkers, writers, artists and scientists.
  • The ability to be self-responsible about learning, not dependent on what a teacher says to learn or think.
  • The confidence and ability to question anything and anybody;
  • The confidence that one’s mind is capable to grasp reality and the most difficult ideas, theories, and works available in any domain of knowledge;

The confidence that one can learn anything.


Michael Strong is an expert in Socratic Seminars and the author of the book The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. In addition to this book, you can find him discussing Socratic Seminars on YouTube. He created 5 high schools based on a Socratic Seminar curriculum, over a period of 15 years.

He administered the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA), a cognitive skills test, to his students before beginning his program (of 5-day-a-week classes), after four months, and then at the end of the school year.

Here are some of his results:

  • 9 of 12 minority females gained a 20% or more increase in their WGCTA scores in four months.
  • One inner city student tested at the 1st percentile at the start, then at the 85th after four months.
  • Even highly achieving upper middle class Montessori students gained cognitive skills. In four months, the average 8th grade Socratic seminar student (n=71) scored 6% higher than the national average.

Through my organization, The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, we offer week-long and weekend seminars using the Socratic method described here, and emphasizing integration across domains and with practical knowledge. Here’s what a former Great Connections Summer Seminar student said about her experience:

Liz Parker was a senior at George Mason University in Economics when she attended in July 2009, interviewed in the fall of 2010:

“When my college classes started they were a big disappointment.

“I normally struggle with ideas on my own and say to myself “It’s not too important to understand.”

“But when you share with people, you’re not so scared about getting the wrong conclusion because, together, you find different ways to think about the readings and the ideas. It makes it more fun to read really hard texts.

“For example, we were reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics onThe Principle of Non-Contradiction and we spent so long on just the first sentence, we were going crazy—

“And then, all of a sudden, someone said something that made it all clear, and I thought “Yes, that’s exactly what I understand it to mean!”

“When two people find that same common understanding, that same interpretation of words that someone else wrote hundreds of years ago, that’s so precious—you hardly ever get that moment of understanding with anybody.

“And there’s no upstaging one another or seeing who knows the most. The way you gauge someone is not whether they get all the answers right because the questions you’re asking don’t necessarily have an answer. It’s more how do you interpret this word or sentence or paragraph, or what does that mean.

“Now when I’m reading something about politics, I can take things to their logical conclusion and see if they’re contradicting themselves—it makes a big difference.

“It helped me at an IHS seminar last year with students from Harvard and MIT who were really intimidating political science guys.

“You could tell who really pays attention to the fundamental ideas, who knows the principles.

“I often found that their ideas were just wrong. Maybe they were just following the ideas of their teachers or maybe some intellectual they like, but they really didn’t have good reasons for what they said.

” What the seminar taught me was that no matter what text I have in front of me, or what my knowledge on a subject, I can understand something that the author is trying to say. I can interpret it from their words. I don’t need to do a lot of research or to consult a lot of experts. I can use my reason, and their words and the text and find my own opinion, and their opinion. It was so empowering just to know I can figure out such difficult ideas.

“Also, now when I go to job interviews, I’m not shy and timid about what I have to offer. I think that I can contribute good work and I’m productive. I think “Not only do I have technical skills, I can analyze texts, no matter what they is, I can figure them out, even if I’m ignorant on the subject.”

You can read the full interview and that of 2 other students on our website, www.rifinst.org.