The Socratic method as a teaching tool

The Socratic Method or sometimes called Socratic dialog, is a very useful tool for teaching. It is especially useful to help people see errors in thinking.

The Socratic Method is named for Socrates, the Greek philosopher found in the writings of Plato. In these writings Socrates would engage in dialog with others, in which the flaws in their own thinking would be realized.

This is different from the lecture style of teaching, in that, it is teaching by allowing others to realize their errors instead of them being pointed out. After seeing their errors in thinking they would then be guided to find their own answers to the questions.

 

This is very powerful. Coming to your own knowledge, is more memorable than having someone just lecture you. And the information will be more firm in your own mind.

This is incredibly useful for secular humanists, and atheists who wish to help people out of faith based thinking. However, this post will not be going into street epistemology techniques. Even though Socratic teaching is perfect for this purpose, the intent here is to give an examination of the Socratic method, its history, and some of its uses.

 

The Socratic method in the dialogs of Plato

The Socratic dialogs found in Plato’s writings are the source of the Socratic method. Socrates would be shown to be in conversations where he would lead people to answers through asking them a series of questions.

These questions were not a generic predetermined script, but rather relevant to the individual Socrates happened to be speaking with. Please consider this excerpt from Plato’s Apology where Socrates faces his accuser Meletus:

 

 

    • Socrates:
      • Which is better, to live among bad citizens, or among good ones?
      • Do not the good do their [ neighbors ] good, and the bad do them evil?
    • Meletus:
      • Certainly.
    • Socrates:
      • And is there anyone who would rather be injured than benefited by those who live with him? […] does
        any one like to be injured?
      • Meletus:
        • Certainly not.
      • Socrates:
        • And when you accuse me of corrupting and deteriorating the youth, do you allege that I corrupt them intentionally or unintentionally?
      • Meletus:
        • Intentionally, I say.
      • Socrates:
        • But you have just admitted that the good do their [ neighbors ] good, and the evil do them evil. Now, is that a truth which your superior wisdom has recognized thus early in life,and am I, at my age, in such darkness and ignorance as not to know that if a man with whom I have to live is corrupted by me, I am very likely to be harmed by him; and yet I corrupt him, and intentionally, [ to ] so you say, although neither I nor any other human being is ever likely to be convinced by you. But either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally; and on either view of the case you lie. If my [ offense ] is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of unintentional [ offenses ]: you ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me; for if I had been better advised, I should have left off doing what I only did unintentionally no doubt I should; but you would have nothing to say to me  and refused to teach me. And now you bring me up in this court, which is a place not of instruction, but of punishment.

         

 

This dialog shows that Meletus either is lying about Socrates corrupting the youth or is wrong in affirming that “…the good do their [ neighbors ] good, and the bad do them evil…” and since he is not in error what is left is that Meletus is lying.

The purpose of this trapping technique as used in the dialog was to clearly show that Meletus had lied about Socrates corrupting the youth. This is only a single example of how this technique works.

If this were not a combative situation, the concept of questioning one’s prior assumptions and motivations through discovery is highly effective.

 

A classic teaching tool in the dialog of Meno

A less combative example of how this is used in teaching can be found in Plato’s dialog Meno
The dialog starts out with Meno asking Socrates:

 

 

  • Meno:
    • Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether
      it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?

 

 

Socrates responds by telling Meno That not only does he not know the answer, but he also does not know what virtue is. He goes on to tell Meno that he does not know anyone else who knows this either. Socrates asks Meno what virtue is and Meno proceeds in enumerating the virtues. And Socrates points out that he is merely listing virtues and has not explained what a virtue is.

 

  • Socrates:
    • How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue, you present me with a swarm of them, which are in your keeping. Suppose
      that I carry on the figure of the swarm, and ask of you, What is the nature of the bee? and you answer that there are many kinds of bees, and I reply:
      But do bees differ as bees, because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for
      example beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer me?
  • Meno:
    • I should answer that bees do not differ from one another, as bees.
  • Socrates:
    • And if I went on to say: That is what I desire to know, Meno; tell me what is the quality in which they do not differ, but are all alike;would you
      be able to answer?
  • Meno:
    • I should
  • Socrates:
    • And so of the virtues, however many and different they may be, they have all a common nature which makes them virtues; and on this he who would
      answer the question, ‘What is virtue?’ would do well to have his eye fixed: Do you understand?
  • Meno:
    • I am beginning to understand; but I do not as yet take hold of the question as I could wish.

 

 

Socrates shows Meno his error in defining virtue by just listing virtues. He goes on to apply the same to a swarm of bees, by asking what is the common quality that makes each individual bee a bee.

Again we see that Socrates is not giving information, he is guiding Meno through a series of questions designed to have Meno find his own errors in thinking. It is in fact the process of guided questioning that is at the heart of Socratic teaching.

 

The above excerpt is just the beginning of the dialog between Meno and Socrates. The dialog continues on in piecing together the meaning of virtue, or at least to point out that it is without precise meaning.

Socrates guides Meno to his own answer, to the question of whether virtue can be taught, rather than just giving out an answer. It was more firm in Meno’s mind and he left the dialog with greater understanding of his own question than if Socrates had of just given him a generic answer.

 

Socratic Teaching in the modern world

The modern view of Socratic teaching is widely varied. The term Socratic is often applied to many uses that may or may not be in line with the way it was used in the dialog. The phrase ,Socratic method, is appropriate when it is applied to a series of guided questions. Yet, it may have evolved in its purpose and goals from the dialogs of Plato.
The modern iteration of the Socratic method is useful in teaching and learning critical thinking skills. To use this method, requires critical thinking skills in the person taking on the role of the teacher, or questioner. It is these tools that make the Socratic dialog effective.

 

Critical thinking is the key to all of this. In the modern world critical thinking has taken on a field of its own, and the Socratic method is a valuable teaching tool in this regard.

After all, when looking over the dialogs, Socrates was walking people through critical thinking steps. This led them to find where they were wrong and discover their own answers. Critical thinking is all this really is, and the Socratic dialog is a tool within it.

 

Socratic dialogs are more about bringing to light uncertainties rather than providing information. And thus in the modern iteration of this, we begin to take out the idea of the teacher as the arbiter of truth. The teacher becomes a participant rather than an authority in the road to discovery.

ask

Ask questions, and challenge assumptions

How to use the Socratic Method in your daily life.

Individually, we can engage in a Socratic dialog internally. We can question our own assumptions about the world, and question what our motivations are in taking specific actions. This can lead us to find our own biases and uncertainties, which will in turn help us discover the gaps in our knowledge. Then we can engage in an endeavor to educate ourselves in an attempt to fill those gaps.

 

Engaging in an internal Socratic dialog is not for everyone, and can represent challenges in recognizing and overcoming our own cognitive biases. It is best suited for conversation between two or more people.
A classroom is a great place. A teacher can work through complex topics with their students through dialog. This will more finely ingrain the information in their minds, because they have been allowed to discover the knowledge rather than having to accept it on authority.

 

How to use the Socratic Method as a tool to foster critical thinking

All of this brings us to understand the Socratic method on a meta level. We have discussed what it is and what its uses are, but we have not yet went through the how. How the you use the Socratic method falls into a few simple steps. But first let’s examine the dialogs to find the process. Going back into the dialog Meno: We find that when asked to define virtue Meno replies with a list of virtues. and Socrates replies by saying

 

  • Socrates
    • >How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue, you present me with a swarm of them, which are in your keeping. Suppose
      that I carry on the figure of the swarm, and ask of you, What is the nature of the bee? and you answer that there are many kinds of bees, and I reply:
      But do bees differ as bees, because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for example beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer me?

 

 

Here we have Socrates summing up what Meno had said and then restates it into a more concrete example. By summarizing and restating the response with a more clear example, Socrates is showing how the response fails to answer the question.

He uses the example of bees. In the example, Socrates shows that if he wanted to know the quality of bees that make them bees individually as well as whole, the statement ,”there are a lot of bees”, is inadequate. Then after Meno accepts the contradiction in his answer, Socrates then restates the original question taking this into account.

 

From this and the other dialogs we can discern the following steps:
  • Step 1: Listen critically to the statement
  • Step 2: Summarize the statement
  • Step 3: Restate it in terms that emphasize its implications
  • Step 4: Find contradictions and counter examples.
  • Step 5: Restate the original question taking into account the implications, contradictions, and counter examples.
    • while taking these things into account, also emphasize any cognitive biases through the counter examples
    • don’t enumerate or list the particular biases or logical fallacies
    • instead use the counter examples to point out how these fallacies and biases can lead to false or contradictory results.
  • Step 6: Check for comprehension of new questions.
  • Step 7: Start over at step one with the revised answer.
  • Step 8: Repeat this process until there is an over all understanding and clarification of the topic at hand and all counter examples have been accounted for.

 

These above steps outline one potential approach to utilizing the Socratic Method in argumentation or in teaching.

However, it is important to note the use of sarcasm by Socrates in his dialogs. Such as the line “How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue, you present me with a swarm of them, which are in your keeping…” This was clearly sarcasm on the behalf of Socrates, and this level of sarcasm, while effective in some situations and with some individuals, it is not a good idea in general.

Using sarcasm and humorous ridicule, is not conducive to a positive learning environment. It should be avoided in most situations where you wish to engage someone to elicit an environment of critical thinking.

 

There is also caution that should be exercised, when there is an unbalanced power dynamic.(such as professor:student) The authoritative imbalance can be addressed by allowing reverse questioning as well.

This is where the student is encouraged to question the teacher as well, or where the professor makes it clear that the overall goal is to explore the topic together. Overall, the Socratic Method is an important tool in critical thinking. It has its uses and limitations, and has a variety of ways it can be implemented.