Whatever Happened To Paideia Schools?

In the early 1980s, a wave of criticisms called U.S. public schools failures. Triggered by the mediocre performance of American students on international tests, a group of reform-minded educators drawn from academia and private and public schools–looked to the ancient Greek paideia as a model for school improvement across the nation.

Who Founded These Schools, When, and Why?

Mortimer Adler, philosopher and educator, published the Paideia proposal in 1982. A believer in the importance of a liberal education, Adler critiqued U.S. public schools as being too vocational, too focused on preparing children and youth on jobs and careers. He proposed a return to a humanities and science curriculum that produced liberally educated graduates. A number of schools, both private and public, embraced this notion of a liberal, academically demanding education.

What Are the Basic Principles of Paideia Teaching and Learning?

The Paideia Group states 12 principles upon which they base their approach to teaching and learning:

We believe…

  • that all children can learn;
  • that, therefore, they all deserve the same quality of schooling, not just the same quantity;
  • that the quality of schooling to which they are entitled is what the wisest parents would wish for their own children, the best education for the best being the best education for all;
  • that schooling at its best is preparation for becoming generally educated in the course of a whole lifetime, and that schools should be judged on how well they provide such preparation;
  • that the three callings for which schooling should prepare all Americans are, (a) to earn a decent livelihood, (b) to be a good citizen of the nation and the world, and (c) to make a good life for oneself;
  • that the primary cause of genuine learning is the activity of the learner’s own mind, sometimes with the help of a teacher functioning as a secondary and cooperative cause;
  • that the three types of teaching that should occur in our schools are didactic teaching of subject matter, coaching that produces the skills of learning, and Socratic questioning in seminar discussion;
  • that the results of these three types of teaching should be (a) the acquisition of organized knowledge, (b) the formation of habits of skill in the use of language and mathematics, and (c) the growth of the mind’s understanding of basic ideas and issues;
  • that each student’s achievement of these results should be evaluated in terms of that student’s competencies and not solely related to the achievements of other students;
  • that the principal of the school should never be a mere administrator, but always a leading teacher who should be cooperatively engaged with the school’s teaching staff in planning, reforming, and reorganizing the school as an educational community;
  • that the principal and faculty of a school should themselves be actively engaged in learning;
  • that the desire to continue their own learning should be the prime motivation of those who dedicate their lives to the profession of teaching.

What Are the Curriculum and Instructional Methods in Paideia schools?

Since most public school academic subjects are mandated by district and state, Paideia schools include all of the required subjects in elementary and secondary schools. Instruction is a suite of methods known to all experienced teachers (e.g., lecture, whole group discussions, small-group activities, homework, quizzes). Both teacher-centered and student-centered approaches, advocates would say, are primary instructional approaches. There is, however, one classroom activity that is the core of these schools: the Socratic Seminar.

What Happens in Paideia Classrooms and Schools?

The instructional centerpiece to a Paideia classroom is the Socratic Seminar.

Socratic Seminars occur in non-Paideia schools in both elementary and secondary grades. They have been adapted by many public school teachers to their particular setting. To see instances of these Seminars in non-private schools, see short YouTube videos here and here.

One fifth grade public school teacher at Leland Street STEAM elementary school in Los Angeles Unified School District conducts Socratic Seminars. Here is the guide he gives to his students:

Are There Paideia Classrooms and Schools in 2022?

As the above text, photos, and videos show, there are both public and private Paideia schools. The Socratic Seminar, central to such schools, has spread in its many varied incarnations to many public schools. Teachers who have never heard of Paideia schools use a key instructional approach of such schools.

The National Paideia Center evaluates and certifies schools that embrace the Paideia approach including the Socratic Seminar which they call the “Paideia Seminar.” As of 2018, there were 16 schools listed.

How many public school teachers use the Socratic Seminar? I have no idea.


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2 responses to “Whatever Happened To Paideia Schools?

  1. This is a really interesting series, Larry. I have to comment because this adds to what I was saying in my comment about your last post. I was commenting about the people who came to give professional development on the proportions of time for the I do – we do – you do approach. Did you notice I used the word “didactic?” These people used the term “Paideia!” They also taught us to do Socratic Seminars, but what I remember is that it was all crammed into one training. I saw what it was going to be and was interested since I had a background in progressive approaches. The rest of the staff was split. I don’t the trainers came back because the Principal did not get feedback that our teachers were even trying the seminars in their classrooms. Unfortunate. I didn’t know it was big in the early ’80s. I was a bit young then…However, my father at one point gave me ALL of his education books. One of them is “The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus.” Essays by the Paideia Group with a Preface and Introduction by Mortimer J. Adler.

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