Let A Thousand Learners Bloom

Toward an Antifragile Classroom

Yesterday I had the pleasure of talking with the students of the Michael Polanyi College at Universidad Francisco Marroquín about my recent criticism that argues that the Socratic method is a fragile system and even dangerous in the wrong hands.

Some people got quite angry at my suggestion that the Socratic method may be more fragile than it seems. Criticism has a role — if it’s done well, it inspires honest conversation. No further justification is necessary for honest criticism.

But with some problems laid out, here’s an attempt at some positive ideas for saving Socratic dialogue from its fragile nature.

Replace The ‘Facilitator’ with a Referee or Guide

‘Teachers’ in Socratic classrooms are often called facilitators. It’s an ugly word and I think this still suggests too much power on behalf of the classroom authorities. Too much ‘facilitating’ of everything is a soft way to exercise control over the classroom. It also gives too much room for self-indulgence by facilitators to control the lives and learning of students by ‘facilitating’ their path.

How about ‘guide’ or ‘referee’ instead?

The involvement of facilitators should be voluntary at nearly every step of the student’s process. These terms match the spirit of noncoercive education, which we’ll soon discuss. You choose guides to lead you to your destination. When you consent to play a specific game, referees enforce the rules.

Perhaps something useful can be learned from the Sudbury model, where classroom authorities leave students alone unless explicitly asked to be involved.

This means that dialogues are run by students without facilitators, unless one is explicitly invited. Projects are led by students without facilitators unless they’re asked to join. Schedules and tasks are set by students without facilitators, unless they’re asked to help.

This puts a strong and healthy barrier between referee and student. Many students will want guidance and companionship. Referees that truly generate value will have no problem being included by students in their work.

Students Set Global and Local Goals with Semester Revision

When students enter a program they set global goals for their time. This includes things like “read 30 scholarly books in physics” or “write a novel”. These global goals are broken down into local goals, perhaps by semester.

Personal growth shifts goals, so there must be room to change. At the start of every semester, students may revise them. They have a meeting with a referee or group of their own choosing to revise and commit to these goals.

The global goals must remain big and ambitious and the local goals feasible. It is not the job of their chosen referee to tell them what their goals should be. It’s also not their job to tell students to ‘be realistic’ or to suggest they can’t accomplish any particular sub-goal. It is the referee or guide’s job to offer them tools at the student’s request that will help them achieve their goals.

Commitment Strategies and Voluntary Monitoring

Research shows that commitments are more likely to be honored when they’re monitored carefully and made in public. After the student sets their goals, they must choose a monitor or referee. Different monitors can be chosen for different tasks.

For example, a professor of physics asks the student to send them a detailed email each week with their latest reading toward their goal of 30 physics books. Monitors need to question thoroughly enough to root out any dishonesty or fake work (such as a ‘cliff notes’ reading of a physics book).

Monitors need not even be human. The aspiring novelist composes online and schedules an automatic post on a platform like Medium every Monday morning. Whether they’re done or not, their work is suddenly made public. This is like the Public Humiliation Diet, when people post their weight every morning on Facebook.

Students can choose any monitor, including other students. This allows groups to form that use peer-pressure to self-monitor. You might call them Commitment Circles. “We economics geeks keep each other on task as well as discuss our independent reading.”

It’s probably best to require at least some public element of commitment, so people feel pressure and no one slips through the cracks. There are lots of apps to help here. For example, Stickk, which let you write commitment contracts with financial or personal penalties that a chosen monitor overseas.

The free flow of groups and free choice of commitment strategies prevents students from becoming trapped in bad arrangements. The turbulence of this process generates value for the overall classroom. One student who discovers a powerful strategy for their work may be able to bring it to the rest. In this way, the ebb and flow of independent learning with others starts to resemble an anti-fragile system.

The Minimally Invasive Booklist

A learning community does need some common culture. A booklist that all students discuss and read is like a constitution. It’s crucial for the development of the group. But also like a constitution, it can easily grow and become a tool of abuse and oppression.

I propose a “Minimally Invasive Booklist”. This list includes books about skills and culture, for instance titles on how to read well, how to do research, how to commit and execute goals, how to be organized, and how to maintain a civil dialogue.

The Minimally Invasive Booklist allows for tools and certain cultural habits to reach students. But it doesn’t homogenize them. It just gives them tools, which is precisely the job of a good referee.

The “MIB” does not fragilize the classroom because it does not dictate the content of the learning. It also insulates the curriculum from ideological abuse or self-indulgence by authorities.

Set up a Class Chatroom

Save your time and stay off of Facebook during the day. Use a class chatroom instead and do away with information silos for internal communication. I like Slack.com, but there are plenty of other options.

A common pool should always be maintained for knowledge sharing of cool articles or cute cat pictures. But students should be free to create new chat groups for their Commitment Circles or based on topics of interest. The flow of the chat room reflects the flow of groups like the Commitment Circles.

Here’s what we recently started to use at the Startup Cities Institute. Different groups, represented by hashtags on the left side, allow us to discuss specific projects together. (Yes, I covered up a few for confidentiality reasons).

Slack.com chatroom

Group chat cuts down on internal emails and keeps everyone aware of the important stuff around them. Perhaps all or most communication from referee to student (except for in the personal meetings I mentioned below) could be logged in the chat for public accountability.


Fifteen-five is a tool used by businesses to do weekly check-ins on projects. It’s easy. It takes 15 minutes to write and 5 minutes to read, hence the name.

Every week the student spends 15 minutes answering the following questions:

Name: (John Smith)
Week ending: (January 5th, 2013)
Accomplishments for the week: (List completed activities and notable accomplishments. In general, what is working? What is your current situation?)
Priorities for next week: (Be specific.)
Challenges/Roadblocks: (Describe potential challenges that may impede your intended tasks/goals.)
Lessons Learned/Opportunities for Improvement: (List any area that might benefit from improvement; questions you are trying to solve; lessons recently learned or relearned.)

These reports can be shared as broadly as the classroom wants. Perhaps they could be posted publicly. Or perhaps they could be sent to the class referees. This gives referees the chance to see systematic problems, if there are any.

If the referee sees a student struggling, they can ask the student if there’s anything they can do to help. They don’t go and shame them or tell them what to do. They simply make themselves available as a supportive guide so the student can call upon them if necessary. “Just let me know if you want to talk together about that challenging book.” “Remember that we can always talk about new commitment strategies to help you meet your goals.”

Fifteen-five encourages consistent accountability. It also lets students brag a little bit if they’ve had a good week, which feels good.

Regular Check-Ins for Emotional Health

In my earlier piece, I argued that Socratic learning can be an emotionally difficult process. Constant learning and challenge destroys old ideas and old parts of the self.

I think boys in particular have a harder time breaking down their ego and accepting the sadness and fear that comes with it. All students run the risk of feeling alienated, worn-out, or depressed.

Students are asked to choose someone to serve as their check-in partner. It can be another student who they truly trust or a guide/referee.

With their partner, they schedule a regular check-in every two weeks. It can be just a 5 or 10 minute conversation. “How are you feeling about everything?” This is a private conversation. Go away, groups.

The free choice of students makes sure that they’re paired with someone who they feel gives them true empathy and has their best interests in mind. To guard against abuse of these private conversations, students may switch partners at any time and for any reason without anyone asking any questions about anything.

Accountability through Categories and Meta-Goals

A liberal education does require broad reading. Beyond the Minimally Invasive Booklist, a program can set broad, open-ended goals for students.

Here’s an example of an open-ended reading list that still encourages liberal learning. This is taken from the Gallatin School’s requirements for the senior colloquium. This reading list informs a 2 hour debate with professors to defend your ideas.

Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance Classics
At least seven works produced before the mid-1600s;
Modernity-The Humanities
At least four works, produced after the mid-1600s, in Humanities disciplines such as Literature, Philosophy, History, the Arts, Critical Theory, and Religion;
Modernity-The Social and Natural Sciences
At least four non-fiction works, produced after the mid-1600s, in the Natural Sciences and Social Science disciplines such as Political Science, Economics, Psychology, Anthropology, and Sociology.
Area of Concentration
At least five additional works representing the student’s area or areas of concentration; students whose area of concentration already appears among the above categories may simply choose five additional works from these categories.

Notice that this reading list allows for accountability and liberal learning without homogenizing students. Regardless of a student’s interest, books can be found to fit these categories. But the categories don’t tell the student what they should be interested in.

This is another step away from fragility. The requirements are firm and exhibit a high-level of learning. But they impose little — leaving plenty of room for the true trial-and-error process of learning to take place.

Training for Dissent

The more individual focus of these proposals will naturally fight groupthink. But perhaps there also needs to be some focus in the classroom on character and courage building. The challenge is to do this in a way that doesn’t create more groupthink or that coerces students.

Perhaps some readings can be included in the Minimally Invasive Booklist. Works might include Joseph Campbell’s writings on heroism or (auto)biographies of remarkable people.

Contrarians and dissenters should not be shamed. The dominant reason why dissenters are shamed is to “preserve the culture or curriculum”. But if someone truly disagrees with the way things are being done, they can easily exit from bad arrangements within a structure like this. This means that no authorities can accuse them of “destroying the culture”— they can simply suggest they go their own way. This diffuses tension between authorities and dissenters. Students who find a contrarian annoying can simply avoid most associations with them.

Milestone events to challenge students (chosen by them) may be incorporated to global goals. For example, students could live for a few weeks in a slum. They could take on a daring physical feat, like rock climbing. They could try to interview a politician or complete another high-pressure task. Not all ideas need to be completely crazy. The point is to snap yourself out of the easy, comfy complacency that develops in a classroom especially if it’s full of middle or upper-class students.

Most importantly, students must be able to fail at their commitments and their challenges. Failure must be accepted, not scorned. This builds character and creates real learning. Opportunities to honestly talk about failure together and in private must be available. Real emotional vulnerability about failure requires strength and courage — but it builds it to.

The Anti-Fragile Classroom

In a speech called Noncoercive Teaching, educator Giancarlo Ibárgüen argues that education must take place in an

environment that imitates the way free and responsible persons create prosperity and improve themselves, through learning based on Socratic conversations and trial and error rather than through centralized planning of the learning process.

The Anti-Fragile Classroom can be defined as a learning environment that gains, rather than loses, from disorder within it. It must therefore mirror other anti-fragile systems. Autonomy, ample room for failure, free and voluntary association, solid feedback, and firm barriers to abuse by authorities are one way ahead.

You’ll notice that many of the ideas here seem chaotic: students forming and dissolving groups, revising goals, many people reading different things. These ideas would almost certainly create an environment of turbulence — and that’s precisely the point.

The constant change in associations and the collision of different ideas and books gives the Anti-Fragile Classroom its richness and power. No single interpretation, goal, or authority reigns supreme.

This constant flux doesn’t cause damage. Failures become valuable lessons. Dissenters may push out the boundaries and bring new value. Students’ behaviors no longer ‘undermine the Socratic method’ or ‘destroy the culture’ or ‘undermine the curriculum’. They enliven it. They create it. Or rather, the students co-create it through their individual actions. They build something larger than themselves — just as philosopher of science Michael Polanyi suggested the dispersed actions of scientists create a ‘Republic of Science’ based on their individual explorations.

This is the Anti-Fragile Classroom: it grows and shapes itself from the autonomy of the students and their own trial-and-error. It absorbs and uses the turbulence of learning in a healthy and constructive way — rather than denying it, suppressing it, or being destroyed by it.

We venture and fail together, though we march on different paths. Sometimes we come together for mutual benefit. Other times we stay apart. When these moments are freely chosen, our individual quests are made better.

To achieve noncoercive education is a tall order. Many of the ideas suggested here may be completely wrong or at least in need of significant revision. But here they are—one possible way to save the Socratic method from its own fragility.

The Anti-Fragile classroom offers radical decentralization where students are given maximum autonomy within the broad constraints of a learning culture. Let a thousand learners bloom.

What other ideas do you have for creating an Anti-Fragile Classroom?