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Should Educators use the Socratic Method of Teaching?

By Room 241 Team November 7, 2012

Students and teachers have been debating the best methods of instruction since the rise of the city state but few scholars have made an impact on educational methods like Socrates. The Socratic method of teaching is difficult to define in simple terms, but it involves a style of question orientated dialogue where the teacher takes a role that appears to be almost subservient to the student. The teacher in a Socratic dialogue essentially denies his or her own knowledge of a subject in order to lead the student to the correct idea or answer. The question remains, is the Socratic method right only for ancient Greece or is it relevant for contemporary academia as well?

Does discipline matter?

The most classic form of the Socratic Method uses creative questions to take apart and ignore current ideas. This allows the student to think about important concepts in a new light. This method is ideal for questions of a philosophical nature like “What is Beauty?” or “What is Life?” However, this method may not be right for concepts that have a clear definition like “What is a Cell?”

Based on these ideas, the Socratic method of teaching may seem to work better in some disciplines than in others. This method works well in subjective disciplines like philosophy, art, the humanities, or even the ethics of science, but it may not be the best teaching method for objective disciplines like mathematics or science.

The Socratic method of teaching in objective disciplines

When Socrates was teaching, subjects were not disciplined in the same way that they are now. Mathematicians explored cooking just as philosophers explored literature. The ancient boundaries between disciplines were not as clearly defined as they tend to be in modern day academia. For this reason, and many others, Socrates was able to successfully use his method in objective disciplines like mathematics just as he was able to successfully use it in subjective disciplines like philosophy.

Recently, a student of the Socratic method of teaching brought this method to an elementary classroom. He arrived Friday afternoon when the students would be the most impatient, and using the Socratic method, he successfully taught them about place values. This concept was far beyond what these students were learning in their regular math classes, but by leading them in the right direction through questioning, he was able to help them grasp the concept of place values.

Potential difficulties with the Socratic method

The Socratic method of teaching questions critical thinking by tearing down old ideas and replacing them with new ones. For instance, instead of discussing how to apply justice in diverse social settings, a group of students may discuss the basic concept of justice itself. By talking about this concept through questions given to them by a teacher engaged with the Socratic method, students get the chance to discard their previous notions of justice and replace them with something that is truly philosophically sound. The main difficulty with the classic Socratic method is how to handle the diversity of responses that may be given to any question. Unfortunately, the way Socrates dealt with this particular issue has been lost to history.

The modern Socratic method

The modern Socratic method of teaching does not rely solely on students’ answers to a question. Instead, it relies on a very particular set of questions that have been designed in a way that lead the students to an idea. By using questions, the teacher has the opportunity to get their students involved and excited. By starting with questions to which the students know and understand the answer, the teacher helps the students to learn new concepts. This creates an atmosphere where students are truly learning as opposed to an atmosphere where the students are parroting information and forgetting it.

The Socratic method of teaching is not perfect for every discipline, and it is not perfect for every classroom. However, it is a hugely advantageous style of teaching that will help students to truly learn and it is worth implementing at every school.

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