Abstract Thoughts on Learning: What Socratic Method Is and Isn't, Part 1

I've come to realize something that I should have anticipated a while ago: people mean different things by the phrase "Socratic method." Because I'm immersed in the books of Plato as part of my profession, I forget that not everyone understands what I mean when I say, for example, that we use the Socratic method in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. In fact, there are so many misconceptions about the Socratic method that I hardly use that phrase anymore. Unless I'm talking to fellow Plato scholars, I say things like "discussion seminar" or "interactive question-and-answer classes" or "student-centered, faculty-lead classes" or, really, anything except "Socratic method."

Lest I've given up too easily on that venerable phrase, I want to explain what a proper conception of the Socratic method is. To do this, I want to describe what you might find if you read some of the original books that feature Socrates engaging in his method. (Perhaps the first thing you'll see is that what goes by the name of "Socratic method" in law schools is not the Socratic method. Not to say that there's anything wrong with that approach to teaching the law, but it's just not a good description of what Socrates did.) There are four things the original Socratic method is, and four things it isn't. In this post, I want to discuss the first is and isn't.

1. The Socratic method is open-ended, not predetermined.

One misconception that readers have about Socrates is that he always knows ahead of time what the conclusion he wants to reach is. Sometimes this might be the case; many times it is not. One reason people assume Socrates knows the conclusion ahead of time is that he often ends up in discussions with people who are stuck in their own ignorance. In such situations Socrates is aware of the fact that the person with whom he is discussing is both ignorant concerning the topic being discussed and (what's worse) ignorant of his or her ignorance. (See, e.g., Meno or Euthyphro or Hippias Major.) In these situations, Socrates works hard to show his interlocutors that they don't know what they're talking about. Usually -- and with a regularity that borders on the dismal -- Socrates is unable to get his interlocutors to see their own ignorance. But he tries.

We should not, however, mistake Socrates's attempts to help his friends (and, sometimes, his enemies) come to acknowledge their ignorance for the knowledge of where their discussion might go once everyone involved has been cured of their ignorance. The best example of this is the Republic. Read the first five books and you'll see that Socrates is, more or less, groping his way through the half-light.

Teachers who try to use the Socratic method to reach a predetermined goal are not using the Socratic method properly. Right now, the sophomores in the Honors College are studying Machiavelli. Here's a recipe for pedagogical disaster: First, arrive at my own conclusions about Machiavelli. Second, ask leading questions of my students in order to get them to arrive at the conclusions I think are true.

Here are two reasons why this recipe will turn out nasty.

One: The students will not be given the opportunity to test their own opinions about Machiavelli, and if they are not given this opportunity they will never (really, never!) be able to acquire knowledge about Machiavelli. How could they? They wouldn't even be starting from their own beliefs, even if they thought they were. Did you know that a clever (and morally bad) teacher can often keep students from understanding what they themselves believe in this way?

Two: The discussion will quickly -- say, within a matter of minutes -- devolve into a game of guess-what's-in-the-teacher's-head. I hate this game, hate it more than I hate the Chicago White Sox. In this game, the goal of discovering the truth is replaced with the goal of guessing what's in the teacher's head. The sophomores in my class don't need to guess what I think about Machiavelli; they need to think about Machiavelli! This isn't to say that my thoughts about Machiavelli are irrelevant, only that they shouldn't be the focus of a class discussion on Machiavelli at the high-school or introductory undergraduate level.

Why do teachers who want to teach using the Socratic method often fail? Two reasons.

The first is that they don't give the class enough time. A good Socratic discussion requires at least an hour and a half, preferably more. I speak from years of experience in saying that a good Socratic discussion with a group of ten to twenty students cannot be done in fifty minutes, which is the allotted time granted to teachers everywhere by Credentialed Educators Who Know Things. What can you do if you only have fifty minutes of class time? The best compromise is to plan a Socratic discussion that lasts two or three class sessions: start the discussion on Monday, pick up on Tuesday where you left off, and conclude the discussion Wednesday. This isn't ideal, but it might be all a teacher can do in his or her school.

The second reason teachers fail to use the Socratic method in the right way: they don't trust the Logos, the divine wisdom that organizes the cosmos and our knowledge of it. Teachers who think that they've got to lead their students to predetermined answers often underestimate what their students are capable of. I once read about a teacher who adopted the principle that, in a classroom discussion, if he thought of a good idea to say, he should wait five minutes before saying it. More often than not he found that before the five minutes was up, one of the students had already made the point he'd thought of. What a gift that teacher gave to his students: instead of telling them the idea, he waited for the students to articulate it themselves, which is much more beneficial. This teacher's principle is one way of trusting in the Logos. If we trust in the Logos, we'll see that he, as Socrates trusted and knew, will lead and guide our discussions toward the truth. The Socratic method does not attempt to control the outcome of a classroom discussion; it trusts that the truth is out there, waiting for teachers and students to discover it together.

Read Part II.

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