Thinking Folk

Newcastle City Learning

This project introduced Socratic dialogues as a pedagogical construct for ESOL tutors to use to develop their critical thinking skills by drawing on the lived experiences of BAME learners. The resulting conversations were soon described as ‘real’ talk by learners, which, in a process that not only developed the authentic use of English language, also enabled them to recognise the common bonds that make us all human. The project led to a curriculum rethink and a commitment to dedicating one day a week to participatory ESOL learning activities.

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Our findings from whole service lesson visits revealed that critical thinking and questioning were key areas for development. In addition to this, very few lessons drew on the rich resource of learners’ personal histories. When critical thinking was evident it tended to be focused on occasional questions rather than activities designed for the sole purpose of its development. This project introduced Socratic dialogues to ESOL tutors to develop learners’ critical thinking skills by drawing on their lived experiences. This activity had originally been inspired by a similar project implemented by Danish adult educators to counter isolation during the first Covid 19 pandemic lockdown. (The Danish People’s Education Council, 2020). Engaging in conversations that explore life’s ‘big’ questions has a long tradition in Denmark due to the Danish Folk High School movement making it a central pillar of their pedagogy (Danish Folk High School, 2022).

Other Contextual Information

Newcastle City Learning is one of the largest local authority adult learning providers in the North-East, and our largest area of provision is for ESOL learners. Our learner demographic is represented by over fifty nationalities, with the Bangladeshi community being the largest group represented. Around 11% of Newcastle’s total population are Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic (BAME), which rises to 24% among school-age children (Newcastle Council, 2021). With a department of over twenty staff, this research activity was contributed to by four tutors and over a hundred learners.


The Thinking Folk project is focused on developing working practices within the ESOL department but also to stimulate wider appeal across the college. CPD sessions were attended by tutors from a range of subject specialisms. In total approximately thirty tutors attended sessions, along with external stakeholders who work directly with the BAME community, including the local authority’s ‘City of Sanctuary’ active inclusion team. To support sessions, we set-up a Google Classroom as a collaborative space in which resources and successful questions could be shared.

This research activity followed the characteristic steps of a Socratic dialogue in the tradition of Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) and Gustav Heckmann (1898-1996). In Ancient Greece these dialogues were known as mauetics, from the Greek for ‘midwife’.

The dialogues follow a deceptively simple process. First, a selection of questions is chosen, either using ethical terms – What is honesty? – or alternatively an open question such as, Why is time important? Questions are chosen on the premise that participants are afforded an opportunity to reflect on their lives and those of others. Next the dialogue participants are invited to give a personal memory-based narrative, in which they once experienced the topic at stake. In the next phase these narratives are reflected upon and investigated in order to make initial definitions about what the topic means according to each narrative. One tutor noted in their narrative reflection, “A student gave an example of a country he’d lived in where he thought people were too focused on the past and another country where people live more in the present. He said that living in the present is better for mental health because you can’t change the past, but you can decide what you do now in the present.”

This stage is repeated until time has run out or a definition or conclusion has been mutually agreed from the different narratives and reflections that have been shared (Krohn, 2004, p17-20).

6 Steps of a Socratic Dialogue

Steps of a Socratic Dialogue

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

ESOL tutors quickly realised that the Socratic dialogues they were leading were conversations that replicated the ‘Production’ element of the Presentation, Practice and Production Method of language acquisition. Research indicates that expecting people to use ‘presented’ and ‘practised’ language effectively in the ‘production’ phase is unrealistic. As Willis points out, ‘It is difficult to see how activities can be regarded as truly communicative if Everyone in the group spoke, even the least confident studentthe learners’ main objective is not to achieve some outcome through the use of language, but to demonstrate to the teacher their control of the target form.’ (1990:4-5). Instead, learners need to be given the opportunity through task-based activities to simply throw all their language together and mutually strive for meaning ‘Since risk-taking is an important ingredient of natural learning and the search for perfection and fully defined linguistic goals does not allow for variety’ (Willis, 1993). As one tutor commented ‘Students were so keen to express themselves that they used any words they knew to get their point across to the group.’ This striving for meaning without feeling anxious about grammatical errors, built confidence and esteem in our learners. One tutor noted, “Everyone in the group spoke, even the least confident student. She is a new student who worries about making mistakes when she speaks. I could see her becoming more confident as the discussion went on and she realised that everyone was listening to what she was saying and not how she was saying it. She has been more confident in class since the Socratic dialogue too.”

Tutors also commented on how the conversations generated mutually supportive It helps me feel more connected to others againrelationships and shifted the learning dynamic from being tutor-directed to one of collaborative learning, ‘If someone didn’t understand a word, the other students automatically explained the meaning of the word to help each other to understand.’ Likewise, a tutor commented that ‘I found that the students were naturally turn taking because they were genuinely interested in hearing the opinions of others in the group.’ We also noticed that the ensuing development of mutual understanding and respect helped with the creation of ‘a positive classroom environment where everyone can relate better to each other as individuals.’ Simply put by a learner, ‘it’s good to speak to different people and learn about different countries.’ Perhaps the most telling feedback, considering the impact of Covid 19 on all our lives, came from a tutor who believed that the conversations impacted on their mental health and wellbeing as, “it helps me to feel more connected to others again.

Organisational Development

The promotion and celebration of different perspectives and insights was integral to our research activity. What was most striking was the significant impact on how tutors viewed ‘talk’ as a learning activity. Rather than ‘talk’ as means to an end those tutors who participated began to understand its value as an end in itself. Despite initial scepticism from some colleagues and subject specialisms, the ease of ‘giving it a try’ dispelled initial beliefs that the activity might only be suitable for certain subjects or with linguistically competent English speakers. The idea of ‘giving it a try’ fed directly into an organisational priority to I’ve never learned so much by feeling that I’ve done so little’ Tutordevelop more pedagogical risk taking and was taken up in other curriculum areas such as digital skills and LLDD programmes. Through the sharing of experiences, it became apparent that tutors, regardless of their specialism, could acknowledge that the dialogues led to positive and collaborative relationships that promoted mutual understanding and inclusion. As one tutor commented, ‘I’ve never learned so much by feeling that I’ve done so little’. Another theme from these cross-specialist conversations was the shared experience by many of continuing to think about questions after dialogues had concluded. A number of tutors reflected that the conversations ‘got inside their head’, whilst one learner put it as ‘I keep on thinking afterwards’.

Learning from this project

What then of the implications for educational praxis? The following are three tentative suggestions based on this project.

Life is full of ‘big questions’, and this project taught us to be bold enough to know that they transcend lists of knowledge and skills criteria and appreciate their importance. One of the residual traditions of adult learning is that it should be grounded in, and respectful of, the lived experience of learners, and this project reminded us why.

Brian Simon (1915-2002,) the English Educationalist and Historian, believed that education has the power to help people think, question and be sceptical (1998). Using philosophical questioning through Socratic dialogues made us realise that we are all philosophers, and that such conversations have the power to develop, not only critical thinking, but also mutual understanding and inclusion. This was evidenced by our learners’ comments and our observations of learners expressing their thoughts and feelings, making connections and making friends.

“When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought’’ (Zeldin, 1998, p98). This simple quote encapsulates why talk, discussion, dialogue, conversation, whichever word is chosen, is so important in learning. The participants in this research activity called it ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ talk. Through what we have learned during this project we have now made ‘Talk’ training and participatory ESOL activities integral to what we do. Sometimes new initiatives change practice and occasionally they truly change thinking. For us it was the latter, and as one tutor commented

“These conversations stay in your head afterwards and I really wasn’t expecting that.”

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 5. Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion.

    Our project provided a platform in which social and cultural diversity could be shared, understood and celebrated. Despite following a procedure, the resulting dialogues mirrored the ‘café’ conversation of everyday life, bringing an authenticity to learning that brought learners and tutors together in greater mutuality.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners.

    Our project was built on the foundation of promoting togetherness. The process of sharing glimpses of learners’ lives resulted in participants reporting that they tangibly felt closer and understood each other better. Importantly, the positive relationships were built on equality and in some ways were a naturally occurring by-product of each dialogue. The introduction of a Google classroom resource sharing space provided a space in which tutors not only shared resources but also shared and discussed experiences.

  • 10. Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning.

    Our project gave tutors the opportunity to talk about and evaluate learning differently. In a profession bogged down by data and administration procedures the project allowed tutors to think with greater professional reflexivity and talk instead about the ‘tangible immeasurables’ or the usefulness of what Alan Tuckett (2015) called ‘seriously useless learning’.


Appendix 1: The project team

Appendix 2: Learner case studies

Appendix 3: Thinking Folk conversation example highlights

Appendix 4: Example questions


Danish Folk High School (2022). Pedagogy at the Danish folk high schools. Available at: (Accessed 13 June 2022)

The Danish People’s Education Council (2020) Would you like to share your corona story with Nørrebro Theatre and the National Museum? Available at: (Accessed 15 May 2022)

Krohn, D. (2004). Theory and Practice of Socratic Dialogue. In Neisser, B.& Saran, R. (Eds.), Enquiring Minds: Socratic dialogue in education (pp.15-24). Institute of Education Press

Newcastle Council. (2021). A profile of Newcastle’s people. Available at: (Last accessed: 24 March 2022)

Simon, B. (1998). A Life in Education. Lawrence& Wishart.

Tuckett, A. (2015) ‘Jesus and History and Thunder and Lightning’, Inaugural Professorial Lecture, University of Wolverhampton, 7 October. Available at: (Accessed: 18 January 2021).

Willis D, (1990) The Lexical Syllabus: Collins Cobuild

Willis, J. (1993). Preaching what we practice – Training what we teach: Task-based language learning as an alternative to P.P.P. The Teacher Trainer, 8(1), pp17-20.

Zeldin, T. (1998). How Talk Can Change Your Life CONVERSATION. The Harvill Press.