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A Typology for an Online Socrates Café

by Jody Piro & Gina Anderson - 2016

Background/Context: Increased polarization of viewpoints in the United States may have detrimental consequences for democratic pedagogy. The goals of civil society require a reliance on democratic values, and active participation is necessary for a strong civil society that demands the common good be deliberated in democratic ways. Discussion as pedagogy has been advanced for furthering democratic learning spaces in higher education with adults and in teacher education programs. Opportunities to participate in democratic discussions may also be created in online courses to prepare students who are literate in multiculturalism and an inclusive society. Engaging students in discussion that facilitates diverse perspectives and that challenges taken-for-granted assumptions is necessary.

Purpose: This article explores the theoretical frameworks of a pedagogy of process called a Socrates Café, resulting in a typology for an online Socrates Café. This framework may assist instructors to create and sustain purposeful online discussion forums that engage students in deliberative discussion to develop democratic learning spaces and civil discourse. If democratic pedagogies are enhanced when people deliberate in online discussions by sharing their reasoning with each other, listening to competing points of view, considering new evidence, and treating one another as political equals, then the Socrates Café has much to offer as a pedagogical process.

Research Design: Drawing on scholarship from key pedagogical and dispositional components, this analytical essay offers a typology that finds its theoretical roots in several areas, including: philosophical forum, discussion and dialogue, critical inquiry, habits of mind, intellectual traits, critical reflection, and civil discourse.

Findings/Results: From both the pedagogical and dispositional components of the Socrates Café, we develop an integrative framework for guiding the creation and ongoing development of an online discussion. Our purpose in creating the framework was to determine those pedagogical and attitudinal dispositions that were foundational elements of the online Socrates Café: clarity of thinking and other habits of mind; attitudes of empathy, confidence, open mindedness and scholarliness; and questioning and dialogue.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This essay concludes that the online Socrates Café is fraught with unavoidable contradictions resulting in a pedagogy of process that is negotiated and dynamic, but also purposeful and intentional. The integrative framework proposed in this work assists students to examine who they are as scholars, practitioners, and members of a democratic society. The inherent tensions between the competing values that situate the Socrates Café make it a complex pedagogy that invites students to encounter issues that surpass the self and connect them with larger societal problems, enhancing the potential for discussions that are purposeful and result in an expansion of perspectives. Supporting students as they negotiate these and other contradictions and paradoxes in a functional Socrates Café has immense potential for facilitating democratic spaces in pedagogy for civil discourse.

Our nation has been termed a rude democracy (Herbst, 2010) and a place where compromise is a dirty word (Baker, 2012). Extreme polarization of viewpoints appear in various forms of media and according to McAvoy & Hess (2013, p.15) one need only look at recent publications to observe its prevalence in our world. They suggest that titles such as Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Sunstein, 2009), The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It (Gutmann & Thompson, 2012), and Its Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (Mann & Ornstein, 2013) demonstrate our nations great divide in opinions on complex issues. It has even been argued that the opposing political parties have created an unbridgeable gulf between them that limits working solutions and actual governance, and that purposeful discussions are necessary between factions for a democracy to remain healthy and functional (Dworkin, 2006).

Increased polarization of viewpoints in the United States may have detrimental consequences for democracy. The goals of civil society require a reliance on democratic values and active participation is necessary for a strong civil society that demands the common good be deliberated in democratic ways (Edwards, 2009). Discussion as pedagogy has been advanced for furthering democratic learning spaces in higher education with adults (Brookfield & Preskill, 2012) and in teacher education programs (Hess, 2009; Mari, 2005; Parker & Hess, 2001). Opportunities to participate in democratic discussions may also be created in online courses to prepare students who are literate in multiculturalism and an inclusive society (Banks, 1996).  Engaging students in discussion that facilitates diverse perspectives and that challenges taken-for-granted assumptions is necessary. Purposeful and deliberative pedagogies may accomplish communication across differences. Linda Darling-Hammond (1996) stated:

Americas capacity to survive as a democracy . . . rests on the kind of education that arms people with an intelligence capable of free and independent thought . . . that helps people to build common ground across diverse experiences and ideas . . . that enables all people to find and act on who they are, what their passions, gifts, and talents may be, what they care about, and how they want to make a contribution to each other and the world. (p.5)

A Socrates Café is a deliberative discussion (Parker & Hess, 2001) in an online forum that may facilitate the core elements of civility in discourse. A Socrates Cafe constitutes an ongoing inquiry, one we call a pedagogy of process (Anderson & Piro, 2015), whereby ones instructional intentions are to assist students to engage with contradictions and competing values by setting alongside ones perception of the matter under discussion the several perceptions of other participants, challenging our own view of things with those of others (Bridges, 1979, p.50), creating a new dialectic in the course of action. An online discussion of this form has the potential to facilitate civil discourse and democratic engagement for both individuals to create a community of critical learners whose commonality is commitment to civil communication, itself.

This article explores the theoretical frameworks of a pedagogy of process called a Socrates Café which may assist instructors to create and sustain purposeful online discussion forums that engage students in deliberative discussion to develop democratic learning spaces and civil discourse, not only for the purposes of education, but as a way of life (Dewey, 1916, 2004). If democratic pedagogies are enhanced when people deliberate in online discussions by sharing their reasoning with each other, listening to competing points of view, considering new evidence, and treating each other as political equals (McAvoy & Hess, 2013), then the Socrates Café has much to offer as a pedagogical process.

The theoretical framework grounding the Socrates Café includes the pedagogical and dispositional components of the online discussion forum. From the theoretical components, we identify the essential elements of the Socrates Café, the literature that supports those elements, and the guiding goals or outcomes online instructors may propose as focus for scaffolding online Socrates Café discussions. This final typology may be used as a guide for students to use when writing their online discussions, as a self-assessment framework aimed at growth, or as a typology for professor-researcher inquiries within context.


An online Socrates Café discussion contains several key pedagogical components. It finds its theoretical roots in several areas: philosophical forum, discussion and dialogue, and critical inquiry. An online version of a Socrates Café is derived from these public and educational forms of these expressions.


A Socrates Café is a discussion format where the ancient form of Socratic dialogue can emerge.  The Socrates Café has gained contemporary relevance with Christopher Phillips, who developed café style discussions in coffee shops, schools, and libraries. Phillips stated that Socrates Cafe reveals people to themselves& [and] makes them see what their opinions really amount to (Phillips, 2001, p. 20). Engaging in Socrates Café is a way to seek truth by your own lights (Phillips, 2001, p.18). Socrates Café is a pedagogical practice that connects the practice of philosophy to the practice of democracy (UNESCO, 2007). Socrates Café discussions invite participants to engage with issues that surpass the self to connect with larger societal problems, enhancing the civil discourse necessary in a democratic society. The Socrates Café is not so much a search for absolute truth and certainty as it is a quest for honesty (Phillips, 2001, p. 53).  Similar to other styles of interaction, the Socrates Café has common philosophical roots with public-style philosophy forums and philosophy in educational environments, such as Collaborative Philosophical Inquiry (Millett & Tapper, 2012), world cafes (Brown, 2005) and knowledge cafes (Gurteen, 2009) in that these practices focus on the reflective component of the process of thinking and are grounded in the works of John Dewey (1938, 1985) and Matthew Lipman (2004, 2010).  In the Lipman tradition, philosophical cafes include the practices of metacognitionor thinking about ones thinking; the quest for meaning as an outcome of the discussion, conversation as dialogue, not debate; critical thinking as a necessary element of dialogue; and using open-ended questions to initiate discussion (Lipman, 1993; Lipman & Sharp, 2010). UNESCO identified the democratic and discussionary paradigm of a public philosophical pedagogy such as a Socrates Cafe as pedagogy in context, a practice which has ties to the advancement of democratic principles:

The idea is that for democracy as a political system to mature, it needs to have a thinking citizenry, that is to say, citizens with critical minds who can avoid the excess of which democracy is always capable: doxology, majority rule, sophistry, persuasion by any means, demagoguery, and similar. (UNESCO, 2007, p. 85).

The facilitators role in a Socrates public philosophy cafe is to develop opportunities to interact and pose Socratic questions in a process-oriented search for students own reflective conceptions of taken-for-granted assumptions about current issues and to develop their understanding of those issues. The goals of learning are critical reflection of ones own thinking for personal development but also as that development relates to furthering democratic expression and problem-solving.

Discussion and Dialogue

Discussion is a form of shared inquiry that requires a group of people, an aim, a text (broadly defined), and a focusing question (Parker & Hess, 2001, p. 282). Thoughtful discussions are situated and contextual and are dedicated to creating subjects with particular identities and abilities in relation to the state, ethnic group, civil society, market, family, strangers, and friends (Parker, 2006, p. 11).  The Socratic dialogue as a form of discussion has taken many pedagogical forms.   Any pedagogical method that disinterestedly pursues truth through analytical discussion may be viewed as Socratic in nature (Honderich, 2005).  The purpose of the Socratic dialogue is not one that leads to the instructors self-proclaimed content outcomes. In fact, the facilitator is actually curious about the inquiry at hand and has not yet crystallized an interpretation or truly made up her mind (Parker & Hess, 2001, p. 279) about the issue being discussed. It is an organic facilitation whereby students come to their own learning conclusions through a socially constructed dialectical and dialogical or textual process. The Socratic dialogue is a participatory pedagogy wherein one examines opinions, attitudes and ways of knowing as they intersect with questions posed by the instructor or other students.

Socratic questioning that encourages students to recognize their own limitations in content and in analysis may be referred to as dialectic, a Greek word that means discourse. This form of discourse in pedagogy begins with an open-ended question which proceeds to student response, further questioning and continued dialogue. The instructor, or other students, facilitates further questioning to create a forum of self-investigation; thus, a dialectical is created. The outcome is process-oriented, constructivist and focused on both personal and collective learning. The ultimate purpose is increased personal understanding of difficult issues through social learning, not victory or conquest, as in debate. An examination of Socrates dialogue with Thraysmachus demonstrates this dialectical:

Thrasymachuss purpose is to win points to win applause. The purpose of Socrates is to try, through dialectical discussion with Thrasymachus and others, to understand better the essential nature of justice. Each of the two men makes a choice of weapons appropriate to his purpose. The rising voice, the personal accusation&the vanity that replaces love of truth with love of victory are all exemplified by Thrasymachus. What Socrates displays towards Thrasymachus is courtesy. He treats him not as an enemy but as a valued colleague in the mutual search for understanding. Socrates is never fearful that he will lose precisely because he is not trying to win. (Barr, 1968, p. 3).

Socrates love of truth over love of victory echoes Phillips truth by ones own light. Socratic questioning as a component of Socratic dialogue has historically been recognized as a method for developing critical analysis (Golding, 2011; Knezic, Wubbels, Elbers, & Hajer, 2010; Paul & Elder, 2007) and Socratic questioning has shown promise in cultivating critical thinking in an online or hybrid classroom formats (MacKnight, 2000; Perkins & Murphy, 2006; Yang, Newby, & Bill, 2008).  Not all questioning in discussion forums is Socratic in nature. When an instructor guides students through a discussion with questions that ask them to self-analyze, engage in further dialogue and use rebuttal for critically analyzing their understandings and misunderstandings of issues, they are making use of Socratic questioning (Copelston, 1985).

Assisting students through a contemporary-issue online discussion using Socratic questioning informed by the Universal Intellectual Standards may scaffold this academic dialectic.


Critical inquiry advances thinking which meets standards of adequacy and accuracy and thinking that is goal-directed and purposive& thinking aimed at forming a judgment where the thinking itself meets standards of adequacy and accuracy (Bailin et al., 1999, p. 287). Critical inquiry encompasses disciplined, self-directed thinking that exemplifies the perfections of thinking appropriate to a particular mode or domain of thought (Paul, 1992, p. 9)

According to Elder & Paul (2007), humans regularly distort the truth, and it is this distortion in thinking that led them to create Universal Intellectual Standards for thought. Universal Intellectual Standards may assist students and instructors to scaffold Socratic questioning (Piro & Anderson, 2015). Universal Intellectual Standards are standards which must be applied to thinking whenever one is interested in checking the quality of reasoning about a problem, issue, or situation (Elder & Paul, 2007, p. 1). Universal Intellectual Standards (Paul & Elder, 1996; Elder & Paul, 2008) advance a framework for this outcome.  The nine Universal Intellectual Standards known as clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness are used to scaffold and develop Socratic questions during the discussion as well as to assess their use at the conclusion of the activity. Probing questions for each standard consist of the following:

1.   Clarity: Could you elaborate further? Could you give me an example? Could you illustrate what you mean?

2.   Accuracy: How could we check on that? How could we find out if that is true? How could we verify or test that?

3.   Precision: Could you be more specific? Could you give me more details? Could you be more exact?

4.     Relevance: How does that relate to the problem? How does that bear on the

 question? How does that help us with the issue?

5.   Depth: What factors make this a difficult problem? What are some of the

complexities of this question? What are some of the difficulties we need to deal with?

6.   Breadth: Do we need to look at this from another perspective? Do we need to consider another point of view? Do we need to look at this in other ways?

7.   Logic:  Does all this make sense together? Does your first paragraph fit in with your last? Does what you say follow from the evidence?

8.   Significance: Is this the most important problem to consider? Is this the central idea to focus on? Which of these facts are most important?

9.   Fairness: Do I (you, they, etc.) have any vested interest in this issue? Am I (you, they, etc.) sympathetically representing the viewpoints of others? (Elder & Paul, 2007, p. 5).

From these theoretical viewpoints, we illustrate the main pedagogical components of an online Socrates Cafe, which includes literature from philosophical forums, discussion and dialogue and critical inquiry. The framework in Table 1 includes the pedagogical component, its main proponents and the strategy or characteristics of the component emerging from the theory.

Table 1: Pedagogical Components of an Online Socrates Café



Main Proponents

Strategy or Characteristics

Philosophical Forums


Brown, 2005; Dewey, 1938, 1985;

Gurteen, 2009;

Lipman ,1993, 2004, 2010;

Lipman, Sharp, & Oscanyan 2010; Phillips, 2001; Manthey, 2010;

Millett & Tapper, 2012; UNESCO, 2007


Public Philosophical Pedagogy

Democratic Dialogue

Open Forums using Open-Ended Questions


Parker & Hess, 2001;  Parker, 2006; Honderich, 2005; Golding, 2011; Knezicic, Wubbels, Elbers, & Hajer, 2010; Paul & Elder, 2007; MacKnight, 2000; Perkins & Murphy, 2006; Yang, Newby, & Bill,

2008; Elder & Paul, 2007

Socratic Method

Socratic Seminar

Socratic Questioning

Deliberate Discussion and Dialogue

Critical Inquiry

Bailin et al., 1999;

Paul, 1992; Elder & Paul, 2007

Goal-directed and Purposive

Disciplined and Self-Directed

Universal Intellectual Standards











The success of an online Socrates Café rests on participant use of dispositions in thought, as well. The dispositional elements as a framework for analyzing our Socrates Café discussion and encouraging civility in dialogue are discussed in the next section.


Most measures of critical analysis attempt to limit reasoning that is constrained by extremely biased prior beliefs because these expressions reduce the open and reflexive dialogue that promotes democratic expressions (Ennis, Millman & Tomoko, 2004; Facione, 1990; Norris & Ennis, 1989). Expression in a Socrates Café is no different. Engaging in purposive dialogue and discussion stimulates this transcendence of the self and further improves habits of mind (Meier, 2002) necessary for the interpretive element of inquiry in an online discussion forum such as the Socrates Café. Dispositional elements of the Socrates Café which are essential for this process include attitudinal elements of critical inquiry, such as habits of mind and the Intellectual Traits, critical reflection and civil discourse. Each of these elements is discussed in the next sections.


There are habits of mind, or attitudes for critical analysis, which are different from the actual ability to engage in critical thinking. This differentiation led Facione (2000) to suggest that critical thinking abilities and the attitudes that make that thinking possible are two disparate entities and he defined those dispositions as consistent internal motivations to act toward or respond to person, events, or circumstances in habitual, yet potentially malleable ways (Facione, 2000, p. 64). Similarly, Paul (1992) advanced the idea of dispositions by titling these types of attitudes of thinking Intellectual Traits. The Essential Intellectual Traits consist of:

1) Intellectual Humility: consciousness of the limits of ones knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which ones native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively;2) Intellectual Courage: awareness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given serious hearing; 3) Intellectual Empathy: the awareness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them; 4) Intellectual Autonomy: the ability to have rational control of ones beliefs, values, and inferences: 5) Intellectual Integrity: realization of the need to be true to ones own thinking; 6) Intellectual Perseverance: awareness of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations; 7) Confidence in reason: confidence that , in the long run, ones own higher interests and those of humankind at large will best be served by giving the freest play to reason; and 8) Fairmindedness: awareness of the need to treat all viewpoints alike, without reference to ones own feelings or vested interests. (p. 16-17).


In How We Think (1933), John Dewey addressed the dispositional element of thinking by suggesting that the thinking process is integrative in nature:

Human beings are not normally divided into two parts, the one emotional, the other coldly intellectualthe one matter of fact, the other imaginative. The split does, indeed, often get established, but that is always because of false methods of education. Natively and normally the personality works as a whole. There is no integration of character and mind unless there is a fusion of the intellectual and the emotional, of meaning and value, of fact and imaginative running beyond fact into the realm of desired possibilities. (Dewey, 1933, p. 278).

Ideally, critical reflection must embrace attitudes and emotions as an integrative element of inquiry, but also must recognize when those emotions inhibit clear thinking during discussion.  When desire, fear, need, or other strong emotions direct the course of inquiry we tend to acknowledge only the evidence that reinforces that premise (Rodgers, 2002, p. 858) and then, those dispositional elements must be harnessed for dialogue and reflection to persist. Rodgers (2002) explored the four attitudes of mind that Dewey (1933, 1944) suggested should guide reflection: wholeheartedness, directedness, open-mindedness and responsibility. The first, wholeheartedness, also referred to as single-mindedness, encompasses a teachers content, the actual learning by the student, and the intersection of that teaching and learning. Rodgers suggested that this attribute is a kind of total engagement (2002, p. 859) that demonstrates passion, curiosity and enthusiasm for the subject-matter. A second attribute for reflection is directedness, which can best be described by what it is not. It is not self-consciousness, distractedness, or constant preoccupation with how others perceive ones performance. Rather it indicates a confidence, but not a cockiness& (Rodgers, 2002, p. 859-860). This forgetting of self and with the obsession with ones performance leads to a self-awareness that is grounded in the confidence in the subject matter of teaching. Dewey suggests that the third attribute, open-mindedness, is characterized by welcoming new ways of thinking as one would welcome a guest into ones home, a candidness that allows one to be mistaken, to play with fresh notions, and to change ones perspective with new information. Dewey reminds us that to be open-minded means not only being hospitable but also being playful& (Rodgers, 2002, p. 861) with novel ideas and perspectives, to be delighted with the freshness and uniqueness that new viewpoints bring to our own thoughts and positions. The last attribute, responsibility, integrates the other three elements of reflection: whole-heartedness, directness, and open-mindedness. This integration should lead to action that is not isolated from the world (Rodgers, 2002). Responsibility is bound in the pragmatic philosophy that ones individual and social learning has a component of agency, a responsibility that to acknowledge ones meaning-making results from ones view of the world that is constructed through experience with the world (Rodgers, 2002). Moving from the reflective act to experience and the interpretation of that process embodies the attitude of responsibility in reflection (Dewey, 1985).


The ability to problematize issues and understand the perspectives of others is a particularly significant outcome when promoting pedagogies that support critical analysis through civility in discourse. John Dewey is attributed with saying that democracy begins with conversation (Farrell, 1959) and we might add, with conversation that is civil. Civility has been defined as a form of goodness&an active interest in the well-being of our communities and even for the health of the planet on which we live (Forni, 2002, p. 9); Courtesy, politeness and good manners (Forni, 2002,  p. 9); or when citizens of a given culture speak and act in ways that demonstrate a caring for the welfare of others as well as the welfare of the culture they share in common (Davetian, 2009, p.9). For some, civility is best understood by behaviors which are in opposition to its meaning, such as discourteousness or displaying a lack of regard for others (Andersson & Pearson, 1999). Incivility may be seen as any self-centered behavior that is impolite or boorish or shows a disregard for rights and concerns of others (Weeks, 2011, p. 7). Civility may be viewed as a personal virtue whereby one communicates basic moral attitudes of respect, tolerance and considerateness (Calhoun, 2000, p. 255).

Civility is bound in principles of democracy (Papacharissi, 2004). People involved in functional civil discourse display several behaviors. They undertake a serious exchange of views; they focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them; they defend their interpretations using verified information; they thoughtfully listen to what others say; they seek the sources of disagreements and points of common purpose; they embody open-mindedness and a willingness to change their minds; they assume they will need to compromise and are willing to do so; they treat the ideas of others with respect; they avoid violencephysical, emotional, and verbal (Leskes, 2013).

Attitudes of critical inquiry such as habits of mind and Intellectual Traits, critical reflection and civility encompass the major elements of dispositions for thinking and interacting in a Socrates Café discussion forum. Table 2 summarizes and compares these dispositional components of the online Socrates Café, the main proponents, and the dispositional strategies.

Table 2: Dispositional Components of a Socrates Café

Dispositional Component

Main Proponents

Strategy or Characteristics

Habits of Mind/ Intellectual Traits


Ennis, Millman & Tomoko, 2004

Facione, Sánchez, Facione, & Gainen, 1995;  Facione, 2000; Halpern, 1998;  

Bailin et al, 1999; Paul, 1992;

Paul & Elder, 2001






Critical thinking



Intellectual humility

Intellectual courage

Intellectual empathy

Intellectual autonomy

Intellectual integrity

Intellectual perseverance

Confidence in reason

Reflective Attributes

Dewey, 1933, 1944





Civility and Civil Discourse

Calhoun, 2000; Davetian, 2009; Leskes, 2013;

Papacharissi, 2004.




Undertake a serious exchange of views.

Focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s) espousing them.

Defend their interpretations using verified information.

Thoughtfully listen to what others say.

Seek the sources of disagreements and points of common purpose.

Embody open-mindedness and a willingness to change their minds.

Assume they will need to compromise and are willing to do so.

Treat the ideas of others with respect

Avoid violence (physical, emotional, and verbal)

Concern for the welfare of others

Civility through democratic principles.


Our Socrates Café discussion is situational, interactional, dialectical, reflective, and process-oriented. We situate our Socrates Café in several of the pedagogical and dispositional frameworks discussed above. In that we require a textual or content foundation for analysis, our Socrates Café  resembles a Socratic seminar, whose purpose is to increase students powers of understanding, or what Adler (1982) termed enlarged understandings, through the application of content and reading to open-ended questions. This requirement focuses on a disposition of scholarliness and use of text through readings to inform the participants dialogue, an element we have identified as an essential element of the Socrates Café. For example, in an online Socrates Cafe discussion regarding Peggy McIntoshs White Privilege article (1988), a student clarified her perspective by grounding it in an outside textual reference:

Non-whites are not oblivious to white privilege just as females are not oblivious to male advantage. W.E.B Du Bois first introduced the idea of white privilege as a psychological wage in his book, Black Reconstruction of America. So it seems that there may some obliviousness on McIntoshs part as to who is actually oblivious to white privilege.

Another student connected her analysis to the reading:

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks (McIntosh, 1988). 

Referring to text expands the students perceptions beyond the self and connects their discussion to course content through scholarly interpretations of course or outside materials. This use of text to substantiate ones analysis connects our online discussion with Socratic seminar, whose purpose is to reveal the world with greater clarity and nuance to the participants (Parker & Hess, 2001) and is a core instructional process of our online Socrates Café.  

We additionally ground our Socrates Café in what Parker & Hess (2001) term as deliberative discussionwhich has roots in the notion of a deliberate democracyand is further grounded in interpersonal engagement and not simply personal reflection (Ackerman, 1989). The purpose of a deliberative discussion is more outcome and action-oriented, and perhaps more political than the Socratic seminar, which has no specific outcome rather than increased understanding. A deliberative discussion springs from the powers of understanding of issues that emerged from the Socratic seminar and culminates in a course of action. The question at hand, whether urgently present as foreground or lurking in the background (Parker & Hess, 2001, p.282) is what should the communal outcome of the discussion be? The emphasis on action beyond the discussion resonates with the progressive and critical pedagogies that frame our educational mission as educators

Unlike Parker & Hesss (2001) deliberative discussion which focuses on the communal question, What should we do? (p. 282), our Socrates Café focuses on individual action in classroom or school-wide pedagogy that may result in an action-oriented questionWhat should I do in my classroom?though the process toward those individual pedagogical actions emerges out of a social dialogue and it certainly encourages communal actions. Encompassing Deweys reflective principles (1985), students are encouraged to move from the reflective act within discussion to actual experience and to an attitude of responsibility in their own educational practice from participation in the Socrates Cafe.  A students reflection in the online Socrates Café regarding her analysis of a textbook for issues of diversity illustrates his commitment to expand the topic of discussion to actual practice within his classroom:

Completing the textbook analysis gave me hope that textbooks will continue to incorporate more diversity and clearer images of race, class, gender, religion, ability, and much more.  I did find that the middle class was represented 100% of the time and that the poor or working class was not represented at all. If I were using this textbook in my classroom, I might incorporate additional readings that show different socio-economic classes, especially if we were covering a unit on families and topics that influence families over time.  Therefore, I will make a conscious effort to start providing written and visual representations of diversity, which will help create a diversity-affirmative, culturally inclusive learning community in my own classroom.   


Our Socrates Café is online whereas the forum of traditional Socratic seminars and public style Socrates Cafes tend to be face-to-face in organization. A public style Socrates Café is not evaluated by the facilitator or participants. Our Socrates Café is assessed as part of the course requirements. Our choice to assess the Socrates Café arises from literature that suggested instructional assistance is an a priori requirement of instructors who hope to increase critical analyses in their classrooms (Abrami et al., 2008; Bailin, et al, 1999; Facione, 2000; Halpern, 1998; Hew & Cheung, 2003; Landsman & Gorski, 2007; Paul, 1992).

When accompanied by the pedagogical and dispositional components, an integrative framework to evaluate a Socrates Café emerges. From both the pedagogical and dispositional components of Socrates Cafe, we developed this integrative framework for guiding the creation of an online discussion. Our purpose in creating the framework was to determine those pedagogical and attitudinal dispositions that, through our own research and pedagogical practice and through a search of other literature, we determined were foundational elements of the Socrates Café. The framework provides a focus for the elements that are essential for the online Socrates Café: clarity of thinking and other habits of mind, interactions in dialogue, attitudes of empathy, confidence, open-mindedness, scholarliness, questioning and dialogue in the Socrates Café.

The following typology emerged from the essential pedagogical and dispositional components from the theoretical viewpoints (Tables 1 & 2) that reflect those components. The first four elements of the integrative framework are pedagogical. These elements included Socratic dialogue, Socratic questioning, Intellectual Standards, and use of text or course content to ground the students analyses of the issues. The last two elements of the integrative framework are dispositional and include interaction and attitudes that are central to a successful Socrates Café discussion. For each element of the framework the components from the literature are listed. Additionally, there are guiding student goals or outcomes that represent the use of the element.

Table 3:  Typology for an Online Socrates Café Discussion

Essential Element

of Online Socrates


Supporting Components/Literature

Sample Student Goals


Socratic seminar and discussion (Elbers, & Hajer, 2010; Honderich, 2005; Knezic, Wubbels, Elbers, & Hajer, 2010; Paul, 1992; Parker & Hess, 2001; Parker, 2006)

Philosophical forums (Brown, 2005; Dewey,

1938, 1985;

Gurteen, 2009; Lipman, 1993, 1998, 2004;

Lipman & Sharp, 2010; Phillips, 2001; Manthey, 2010;

Millett & Tapper, 2012; UNESCO, 2007

Undertake a serious exchange of views (Leskes, 2013)

Whole-heartedness (Dewey, 1933).

Remains intellectually open for dialogue.

Engages with the open-space.

Connects between dialogue and the quest for truth.

Reveals passion for content and discourse

Socratic Questioning

Socratic questioning (Meier, 2002; Phillips, 2001; MacKnight, 2000; Perkins & Murphy, 2006; Yang, Newby, & Bill, 2008)

Open-ended questions (Lipman, 2010; Lipman, Sharp, & Oscanyan, 2010; Phillips, 2001)

Undertake a serious exchange of views (Leskes, 2013)

Whole-heartedness (Dewey, 1933)

Inquisitiveness (Facione, 2000)

Maturity of judgment (Facione, 2000).


Questions own and peers taken-for-granted notions.


Passion for truth drives inquisitiveness.


Connects questioning and the quest for truth.

Questioning is deliberative and focused on an honest exchange of values and issues.


Use of Intellectual Standards

Intellectual Standards (Elder & Paul, 2007)

Analyticity (Facione, 2000)

Confidence in reason (Paul & Elder, 2001).

Uses varying levels of the Intellectual Standards in dialogue and questioning is deliberative.


Intellectual Standards (Paul, 1992; Elder & Paul 2007)

Defend their interpretations using verified information

(Leskes, 2013); Truth-seeking (Facione, 2000)

Intellectual perseverance (Paul & Elder, 2001)

Intellectual courage (Paul & Elder, 2001).

Grounds opinions in text or other course content.

Uses reasoned thought.

Encourages peers to ground their interpretations through the text.


Thoughtfully listen to what others say (Leskes, 2013);


Embody open-mindedness and a willingness to change minds (Leskes, 2013)

Assume compromise and  be willing to do so (Leskes, 2013)

Treat the ideas of others with respect (Leskes, 2013)

Avoid violence (Leskes, 2013)

Open-mindedness (Dewey, 1933; Facione, 2000)

Intellectual Humility (Paul & Elder, 2001)

Fairmindedness (Paul, 1992; Paul & Elder, 2001)

Respect, tolerance, considerateness (Calhoun, 2000)

Enters the discussion respectfully.

Participates actively.

Listens actively.

Encourages participation by others.

Questioning is respectful.

Uses appropriate language.

Displays open-minded orientation toward others ideas.

Compromises appropriately.


Focus on the issues rather than on the individual(s)

espousing them (Leskes, 2013)

Seek the sources of disagreements and points of common purpose (Leskes, 2013)

Self-confidence (Facione, 2000)

Intellectual Autonomy (Paul, 1992; Paul & Elder, 2001)

Intellectual Empathy (Paul, 1992; Paul & Elder, 2001)

Directness (Dewey, 1933)

Responsibility (Dewey, 1933)


Habits of Mind (Meier, 2002).

Demonstrates respect for others positions.

Acknowledges varying perspectives.

Displays confidence.

Exhibits problem-solving orientation.

Mediates disputes.

Demonstrates empathy.

Adheres to principles of democratic discourse.


Of course, the online Socrates Café is not a panacea for democratic education or democracy, more generally. There are some who fear that online discussions have the potential to balkanize participants even more than before they engaged in the discussion (Bellamy & Raab, 1999; Witschge, 2004); that participants gravitate to discussions with people who are like-minded and resist discussions with people with divergent perspectives (Davis & Owen, 1998) and that this tendency increases non-deliberative forms of interaction (Schlosberg,  Zavestoski & Shulman, 2008); that the requirement for participants to ground their analysis in theory and text results in a fractured sense of self (Simon, 1992); or that participants in discussions with divisive issues feel more powerless than before the discussion (Mansbridge, 1998). Paralleling the contention that Americans prefer a stealth democracy (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 2002), it is even conceivable that participants prefer a stealth democratic learning environment in which participants want democratic procedures in classrooms, but do not necessarily prefer to engage in democratic dialogue.

With these potential limitations also come possible benefits. Online discussions may have the capability to advance the public-sphere through the use of critical and reasoned discourse (Dahlberg, 2001; Dryek, 1996).  Dewey (1927) suggested that communication systems which do not serve citizens are more of a threat to democracy than incompetent citizens. Following Deweys reasoning, it may be that the design of a communication system such as an online discussion forum affects the participant outputs (Wright & Street, 2007), with some designs advancing more democratic, less polarizing forms of interaction (Morrison & Newman, 2001). The intended functional design of the Socrates Caféwhich includes outputs that focus on an increasing critical analysis; connecting text to opinion; expanding perspectives beyond the self; and respecting diverse opinionsmay result in a pedagogy that is deliberative in its attempt to value democratic forms of expression instead of restricting them. Noting that technology by itself does not result in democratic spaces in online environments, Barber (1998) observed that the intention to create deliberative democracy is an essential element. He stated, If the technology is to make a political difference, it is the politics that will first have to change. There must be a will toward a more participatory and robust civil society (p. 263). In educational contexts, there must be the will to scaffold deliberative discussions toward the purpose of increased and better student engagement with difficult and potential divisive issues.

To use the proposed framework in an online Socrates Café discussion is to promote and sustain perturbation, disturbance, and disequilibrium (Doll, 1993) as natural and anticipated outcomes of the online discussion forum. The pedagogical and dispositional elements from the theoretical framework challenge students taken-for-granted notions and habits of thought. The process may be uncomfortable for some. With this natural imbalance as a consequence of the pedagogy, we offer some recommendations for developing a Socrates Café.

First, relate the discussion topic or original open-ended question to course content that is bound in contemporary educational relevance. For example, in our graduate-level diversity course in teacher education and curriculum, we offer Socrates Café prompts related to globalization, prejudice, discrimination, immigration laws, and religious diversity. General topics in education courses that make excellent prompts or a basis for initial questions include any current educational policy, reform efforts, the purposes of instruction and assessment, ethical dilemmas, the notion of professionalism, or instructional styles and personal missions. Consider using the big curricular questions, such as: What is the purpose of education? Who decides?  Who are the stakeholders? Who wins? Who is marginalized in the process? Must learning be assessed?

Second, encourage questioning and dialogue, both self-and peer. Consider introducing the Universal Intellectual Standards as a guide for varying the types of questions students use. To keep the Socrates Café from becoming a repository of distorted thought, urge students to resist opined expressions and diatribes that are unreflective, not grounded in readings or course, and undisciplined. Use the pedagogical and dispositional components in Tables 1 & 2 to scaffold expectations for discussion. Further, consider the final framework we present in Table 3 as an instructional focus and guide.

Third, model the habits of thought and critical reflection you expect from students (Hemming, 2000). Dispositional components are required for an online Socrates Café to have the effect of a functional civil discourse which further democratic expression. Empathy, fair-mindedness, and inquisitiveness within an open forum also beget thinking that is reasoned, courageous and autonomous. The instructors own entry into the Socrates Café as an originator of topics or questions and within the discussion is the place to model those salient dispositions. Table 2 may assist instructors with the dispositional foci for their students.

Fourth, allow cognitive dissonance, self-questioning, and disequilibrium as a natural consequence of the online Socrates Café. The Socrates Café as a pedagogy of process encourages students to frame competing discourses in educational topics as interrelated and complementary in many circumstances. Further, expressions of thought emerge from the participants own social, cultural, ethnic, and gendered experiences and these contextual expressions have the ability to expand others viewpoints and situate students own investigation of their perspectives. Encourage students to investigate further into difficult and complex issues by looking at new research, policy or news.  Promote students ability to simultaneously hold opposing viewpoints in perspectives while they continue their investigation as demonstration of the dispositions of inquisitiveness and open-mindedness and also analyticity and perseverance.

Last, do not shy away from conflict and polarization by avoiding controversial issues in the Socrates Café.  McAvoy & Hess (2013) offer advice for guiding students through difficult issues by including the issue in the curriculum by teaching the controversy, that is, using the complex issue as a content to teach and by acknowledging viewpoints that are empirically grounded simultaneously while allowing students to disagree. Actively encouraging students to remain open-minded and empathetic about the controversy puts that conflict itself, at the center of the online Socrates Café.

The elements of a Socrates Café deliberative discussion are both pedagogical and dispositional in nature. Its educational purpose is based in individual growth within community as an outcome that supports democratic communication. As in the Greek philosophical tradition, it emphasizes the connection between dialogue and inquiry for democratic principles in pedagogy. Core values come from varying frameworks of pedagogy and dispositions, including critical thinking and reflection for the purposes of civil discourse. Instructors may add student goals, outcomes or even behaviors as the iterative process of development their own online Socrates Cafes and practice emerges. It is best used organically, as a guide and focus for growth, rather than as a static structure. Pedagogical and attitudinal dispositions of a Socrates Café include:


Socratic questioning and dialoguing to develop ones ideas;


Connecting viewpoints to text and course content;


Supporting social learning for the individual and the group;


Encouraging interactional behaviors stimulate inquiry; and


Embracing attitudes that are bound in respect and compassion.

Using the integrative framework for creating and sustaining an online Socrates Café with the essential elements to support students in the process may foster a community of critical learners (Dewey, 1916, 2004) where the common value people experience in a deliberative online discussion with diverse and conflicting opinions is a commitment to civil communication.


Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this word of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. (Churchill, 1947/1979, p. 150)

It may be contended that the rise of polarization between people is an opportunity for democracy (Flores, 2014) and this prospect for democratic dialogue arises within an online Socrates Café, as well. Churchills above sentiment about the challenges of a democracy suggests its complexity as a form of government, and by extension, the difficulty of creating democratic learning spaces that honor vital and sustainable democratic principles as an outcome of education. Because facilitation of this integrative online discussion forum is so challenging, assisting students through deliberate discussion of demanding and multifaceted subjects in teacher education is the worst form of pedagogy, except for all other pedagogies. The online Socrates Café is fraught with unavoidable contradictions resulting in a pedagogy of process that is negotiated and dynamic, but also purposeful and intentional. The integrative framework proposed in this work assists students to examine who they are as scholars, practitioners and members of a democratic society. The deliberative discussion that is foundational to an online Socrates Café is bound in a paradigm of pedagogy for democratic learning spaces and civil discourse that requires students who can think critically and also compassionately; who can remain intellectually confident and open-minded simultaneously; who can dialogue and question; who can listen even when they disagree, and mediate intellectual disputes.  Specific content or textual outcomes are not required and would be antithetical to the pedagogy; yet, relying on the scholarly practice of referring to text in dialogue is a necessary disposition. The tensions between these competing values makes the Socrates Café a complex and complicated pedagogy that invites students to encounter issues that surpass the self and connect them with larger societal problems, enhancing the potential for discussions that are purposeful and result in an expansion of perspectives. Supporting students as they negotiate these and other contradictions and paradoxes in a functional Socrates Café has immense potential for facilitating democratic spaces in pedagogy for civil discourse.


The authors wish to thank Diana Hess from the Spencer Foundation whose probing questions helped to focus the theoretical foundations of our online Socrates Café.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 5, 2016, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19365, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:36:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Jody Piro
    Western Connecticut State University
    E-mail Author
    JODY S. PIRO, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor in the Doctor of Education in Instructional Leadership program at Western Connecticut State University. She has been involved in education for over twenty-five years in K-12 as a social studies teacher and as a dean and principal, and in higher education as a professor and dissertation director. Dr. Piro’s current scholarly interests focus on integral instruction and problematizing discussion for critical analysis and civil discourse. Dr. Piro is the author of the book 10 Dilemmas in Teaching with Discussion: Managing Integral Instruction, which will be published in 2016. Her most recent publications with co-author Gina Anderson include, Discussions in Socrates Café: Implications for Critical Thinking in Teacher Education, Managing the Paradoxes of Discussion Pedagogy, and A Partnership in a Pedagogy of Process: Conversations about Co-teaching Critical Analysis.
  • Gina Anderson
    Texas Woman’s University
    E-mail Author
    GINA ANDERSON, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education and the Interim Associate Dean College of Professional Education Program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. Prior to her work at TWU, Dr. Anderson taught several years of elementary and middle school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and served as a student teacher supervisor and teaching and research assistant at Oklahoma State University. Culturally-responsive teaching strategies and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning guide her research and scholarly interests. Her most recent publications with co-author Jody Piro include, Discussions in Socrates Café: Implications for Critical Thinking in Teacher Education, Managing the Paradoxes of Discussion Pedagogy, and A Partnership in a Pedagogy of Process: Conversations about Co-teaching Critical Analysis.
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