The Socratic Method
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Have you ever been to a lecture-style class where you listened to the information provided by the teacher but found it difficult to learn it? Perhaps there were too many facts to absorb or you were simply bored by it and not motivated to learn. What if instead you were in a class where you knew your teacher might ask you questions at regular intervals? What if you would be given a chance to engage in a discussion with your teacher and peers?
In this Newsletter, we will look at how this second type of classroom experience relates to the Socratic Method, a style of inquiry in philosophy and education. Socrates taught his disciples by asking questions, drawing out answers from them, thus challenging the completeness and accuracy of their thinking. In this way of teaching conversations are made mainly back and forth between a teacher, like Socrates, and a student. These types of conversations may not answer all of your students’ questions, but they raise new questions for discussion.
The Socratic Method is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the teacher asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of both the teacher and others, thinking critically for themselves, and open up their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. This enables them to learn to work together with others and to question intelligently and respectfully.
This approach is a different style of education involving a conversation in which the students are asked to question their assumptions. It is a forum for open-ended discussion, in which both the student and the teacher can use probing questions to develop a deeper understanding of the topic. The modern application of this method is mainly about gaining deeper understanding of a topic. The goal should be greater knowledge, not just winning an argument or showing you to be superior.
When a student is back in that traditional classroom listening to the old way of lecturing, he will have no other option except taking in what the teacher tells him is the truth. On the other hand, when he engages with the teacher using the Socratic Method, he uses his critical thinking skills to critically examine the teacher’s viewpoint and his own, considering many different ways of looking at a topic.
It is important to remember that teachers should not use this method to embarrass or demean students. It is a tool for mastering difficult concepts and principles. It prompts students to define, articulate, and apply their thoughts. If you give all the answers and break down the case yourself, would your students really be challenged?