The Socratic Method
Episode #2 of the course The theory of education: Effective learning and teaching by K.C. Finn
In this lesson, we explore a teaching method developed originally from the excellent philosophical thinking of Ancient Greece. This is a method which opens the mind to critical thinking and is excellent for thinking more deeply on topics that may have more than one answer.
Where Does the Method Come From?
Socrates was an Ancient Greek philosopher who was widely renowned for his wisdom. Upon being told that it was believed he was the wisest man in Greece, Socrates responded not with certainty, but with more profound questions on how this opinion was formed. And so the idea of “talking teaching” was formed, and it works well in subject areas where more than one answer may be applicable to a question. Socratic thinking can help us to think around a topic and not simply “go with the flow” of someone else’s opinions, and it’s those original thoughts and ideas which produce better essays and debates in students’ work.
The Role of the Teacher
Some teachers misunderstand the Socratic Method as one in which the teacher does all the talking, and I’m sure that will have led to a lot of very dull lectures and hours of lessons for us all in the past. What the teacher should do in Socratic teaching is to perform the role of facilitator and questioner, allowing students to try and figure answers out for themselves rather than only explaining one perspective. For example, if you’re learning about literature, the teacher should take many different opinions on characters in the book, and also ask questions advocating for the opposite of those opinions.
The most important thing by far is to get students talking and allow everyone to have moments of interaction and opinions. The best learning comes from our opportunity to engage with information rather than merely having it given to us, and we’re more likely to retain it if we have thought about it in greater detail. Here are some great examples of Socratic questions. If you don’t have a teacher for your own learning experience, you can ask these questions to yourself to better understand your subject matter.
Key question examples:
• “Is that always the case?”
• “Could there be another reason for that?”
• “Who benefits from this idea, and who loses out?”
• “What reasons do you have for your opinion?”
The Role of the Learner
If the teacher’s role is to facilitate engagement, then the role of the learner in this method is engagement. A common pitfall of this method in traditional teaching is the fact that sometimes learners simply refuse to speak for fear of giving a “wrong” answer. As a learner, it’s vital to understand that there are no wrong answers when you are exploring complex topics. Even in simpler circumstances like mathematics or foreign language learning, it is often our mistakes that we remember more of and can learn better from, so there’s no reason not to get stuck in and ask, answer and engage with the questions of the teacher. Here are some essential mantras to remember as a learner in a “talking teaching” situation.
Key rules for Socratic learning:
• “If I think there’s another opinion that could relate to this topic, I should ask about it.”
• “If a teacher asks me to examine my evidence for my opinion, don’t be defensive. I should be critical about my thinking and where it has come from.”
• “Every piece of information has to come from somewhere. Rather than taking things at face value, I should question sources and their reliability.”
In this lesson, we’ve learned an essential method for questioning and interacting with our learning resources to get more out of them and engage our brains with the material at hand. In lesson three, we begin to explore the materials themselves by looking at our first significant learning style: that of the auditory learner.
See you then!
For more information on The Socratic Method, have a look at this great article from the University of Stanford.
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