The Dialectic Stage: HOW are Teens Thinking??

It’s the burning question every parent of a teenager wants an answer to: “What is my kid thinking?”

There’s a quote by Winston Churchill that I feel applies here. Speaking in October 1939 (at the beginning of World War II), the prime minister said: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma . . . ”

Many parents consider the internal goings-on of their teenagers in much the same way Churchill did trying to predict the internal goings-on of Russia. Teenagers can be tough nuts to crack. Kids don’t always accurately display what’s happening inside, and the adults in their lives don’t always accurately diagnose what they see happening on the outside.

I’ll relieve you of the suspense: I honestly can’t predict with any certainty what your teenager is thinking at any given moment. But I can offer you some suggestions to help you guide them through their studies in the upper grades.

For the last several years, I have been one of several teachers asked to help respond to emails received by Classical Academic Press and Scholé Academy. Folks write in to “Ask the Magister” with questions regarding classical education, and some of these emails are forwarded to me. One area that generates a lot of discussion involves parents wondering whether or not their student is prepared to tackle a Dialectic-level class.

This is such an important question: How do we determine readinessand successin the dialectic and rhetoric stages of classical education? And it’s directly tied to what your student is thinking.

Talk about riddles, mysteries, and enigmas. Delving into the Dialectic and Rhetoric stages can be such nebulous territory for so many—especially for those who really appreciated the concrete, linear constructs of the Grammar stage. So, how can we know when a child is thinking dialectically? As abstract a notion as this question is, we must answer it to approach the dialectic and rhetoric stages differently than we do the grammar stage.

But where do we begin? When most of us started the exploration of classical ed, we were taught the basics: In the grammar stage, students ask the Who? What? When? and Where? questions; in the dialectic stage, students ask the How? and Why? questions. Those can be helpful conceptualized ideas, but that vague direction doesn’t help an awful lot when we’re trying to identify who’s ready for dialectic and who isn’t, making lesson plans, conducting our classes, or evaluating our students differently than we did in the lower grades.

It’s not enough to merely change a test question from “Who invaded England during the Battle of Hastings?” to “Why did William the Conqueror invade England during the Battle of Hastings?” That’s not “dialectic.” Dialectic is what happens before you ask that question. Equally non-dialectic is a perfunctory decision to require your student to read more books or write longer papers. I often remind parents and teachers that dialectic- and rhetoric-stage courses are not merely about more reading and more challenge. “More work” and “more challenging” aren’t the next classical stages.

Reaching the upper grades and carving out a curriculum is one of the first places parents consider throwing in the classical ed towel, because they don’t know what makes it different. When parents think the only way to pursue classical ed at higher academic levels involves more, more, more, they quickly begin to loose their focus on scholé. And they’re right! Where’s the rest in that kind of learning?

So, if merely revamping our questions or giving our kids more work and tougher assignments aren’t the recipe for scholé, and if they aren’t the defining differences between the grammar stage and the other two stages, then what should we do differently? Part of the answer lies in shifting gears to understand what is being assessed in the dialectic and rhetoric stages. Unlike in the grammar stage, upper-grade assessments and tests shouldn’t be solely concerned with evaluating fact-based answers. The real test of student success for the dialectic student shouldn’t only be about getting the right answer. Instead, we should be wondering, “Did my student go through the right thinking processes in approaching the answer?” Assessment in the dialectic stage becomes a function of judging a student’s thinking processes, not merely their answers.

Let’s look at an example. For many years I’ve taught pre-algebra to students in the 7th–8th grades, the sweet spot for what we consider the dialectic stage. My pre-algebra students are shown early on that the primary focus of math at this level and beyond should never be about getting the correct answer. That may sound odd—why wouldn’t correct answers be the goal of mathematics courses?

In pre-algebra, students should be exposed to many new rules and laws governing mathematical concepts—and it’s crucial that they don’t resort to basic arithmetic when solving these problems. A student in pre-algebra could find they arrived at all the same answers that the answer key provides, but haven’t actually learned a thing about pre-algebra. A true course in pre-algebra requires a student to learn a new way to think through their problems using the new mathematical concepts, applied through many varied problem constructions.

In teaching my pre-algebra students, I expect them to apply and demonstrate the new processes to their problem solutions. And if they haven’t approached the problem correctly, the answer is marked incorrect, despite the answer matching the answer key.

That is dialectic. That is how to stretch and engage students on this level—and it’s not limited in application to just mathematics instruction. Across the disciplines, upper-grade courses must provide more than right answers. Students need teachers to demonstrate how they are reasoning their way through the labyrinth of facts, fallacies, statistics, expert authorities, circumstantial evidences, primary sources, and arguments of all varieties.

(As a quick aside, I’d like to suggest here that if your student is a self-taught student making his way through his mathematics text, checking his answers with the answer key, please consider finding a good math teacherone who requires your student to learn the new mathematical concepts and who doesn’t just check the student’s answers.)

So what does this look like in the classroom? Where do we start shifting gears and approaching our upper-grade courses in this new way? Classical pedagogy should include the following paradigm: theory, imitation, and practice. At the dialectic and rhetoric stages, it’s no different.

  • Students should understand what’s expected of them. This means clearly explaining the theory of the new thinking processes. Consider here some application of the Three Acts of the Mind, or identification of the terms, propositions, and arguments presented in any discourse. (Most logic and rhetoric texts can provide some guidance and training in these areas.)
  • They need you to model your thinking for them. Break down your thinking processes into pieces they can see, explore, and understand; this allows them to imitate the process. Be mindful of which questions you asked of yourself as you engaged with a particular subject. Go through the exercise of recording your internal dialogue. Show your students how you do it.
  • Students need to be required to practice the new processes through a variety of guided exercises, discussion questions, and response opportunities. Provide places for them to apply the newly imitated skills. Consider directed class discussions, response papers, debates, counterarguments, thesis statement development, outlines, syllogism construction, etc.

When I was a kid, my piano teacher had a sign hanging in her studio: Practice Makes Perfect . . . But Only If You Practice Correctly. How true! Correct practicing is the root of excellence. In the coming academic year, I encourage you to shift your focus to help your upper-grade students correctly practice and develop how they are thinking.

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