The Socratic method is not so much a “method” as it is an approach to lifelong learning. It presupposes that all learning naturally occurs inside the student’s mind, so a Socratic class revolves around student speaking more than teacher speaking. It aims to train the student to turn his mind’s attention away from authority and toward substance and evidence. Whether the student is reading, hearing a lecture, or listening to others, he must form his own ideas of what is proposed and then look at his own experience to see if his understanding matches up with the reality. So, in a way, an active learner is engaged in an interior conversation. “Was the teacher saying this? Does this match with things I know?” Without this interior dialogue, real learning does not take place. Instead, the student acts like a tape recorder, taking in words without meaning so that they can replay it on the test and get a good grade.
Discussion classes stimulate the student’s own thinking. They make the interior discussion exterior and explicit, so that the teacher and the student can see it going on.
Socratic discussions—which are much more than question and answer sessions—are a wonderfully rich “method” for turning the interior discussion to an exterior discussion, particularly when the matter being discussed is most difficult or most important, when the questions have depth, or when you want to arouse wonder and the excitement of learning. Most students really enjoy getting a taste of thinking; many enjoy explaining their own ideas to others; some even enjoy the thrill of intense discussions, trying to prove their point against stiff opposition. Maybe these are reasons why discussion classes (sometimes referred to as “collaborative learning environments”) are catching on at places like MIT!
Typically, the teacher will ask a question, which the students will then discuss. Students offer their opinions about to how to answer the opening question; other students will agree, disagree, offer alternative suggestions, or raise their own questions. The teacher will help students to clarify their own ideas, sometimes by questions, sometimes by restatement. He will decide which of the ideas need to be explored further, either because they seem more promising, or perhaps because they contain common misconceptions that should be revealed as such. The teacher will ensure that students give reasons for their ideas. And, most importantly, the teacher will help students to listen to one another: “Jane, you’re saying that Achilles is petty because he’s crying over an insult. But John has said that the goddess, Athena, seems to be taking Achilles’ side. How do you account for that?”
Socratic discussion is not relativistic. All are encouraged to voice their opinions, but they also have to listen to and respond to criticism. Students are encouraged to pay attention to the reasons for and against the opinions that are offered so that they can come to a reasonable judgment. Frequently, this means saying, “Oh, I see that was wrong.”
In my 20 years of experience, I have found success in working with students from high school freshmen through the collegiate years; I believe that in a modified form they will work with middle schoolers as well. Here are a few examples:
1) “In Act III, Scene 4, line 57, Lady Macbeth asks of her husband: ‘Are you a man?’ How does the play answer that question?”
So I began a seminar discussion of Macbeth one evening some years ago at Thomas Aquinas College. The students launched into a fascinating exploration of the different views of what a male should be held by Macbeth and his Lady, and how the failure to recognize rational and moral restraints on daring led both of them to lose their humanity.
2) I began a discussion of the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments with my high school Moral Theology class by asking why “God spoke all these words.” This led us to ask further questions: Why didn’t God write them down right away? Why did God bring them to Sinai in the first place? How did the Israelites react to God speaking with them? How important was Moses in the relationship between God and Israel?
3) With an on-line class of sophomores at Regina Coeli Academy, I asked why Homer’s Iliad ends with the burial of Hector. This question led to seeing how the rage of Achilles was only finally brought to an end by the pity that he felt for Hector’s father, Priam.
In preparing to lead a discussion class, start with a good reading. Textbooks don’t lend themselves to discussion, because by making everything clear they remove the depth of their subjects. Of course, you can have fine discussions without any book at all, but good books often suggest to students deeper ideas and clearer arguments than they could develop on their own. I will often try to find a selection from an important author that touches on subjects in the textbook; frequently the textbook itself makes suggestions along those lines.
Choose a question that involves looking at some of the important ideas brought up in the reading. Or introduce an important question for you, one that you think will help you to understand the reading better. Learning with the students in discussion is a great delight and a wonderful example to students. Or choose a question that will excite students, since getting them actively involved in the discussion is a great benefit of this practice. Some teachers will announce seminar days ahead of time and have students submit questions for discussion.
Having chosen a question (or two or four, just in case the first one doesn’t go well), think about possible ways students might go with it. During the discussion, listen carefully. Listening is the most exhausting and most important part of leading discussions. Keep track of the conversation, asking yourself how the current topic relates to the opening question. Try to get students to listen to each other and to pay attention to texts, to give and seek reasons, to quote texts to support their points.
Perhaps the hardest discipline for a discussion leader is resisting the urge to correct mistakes. As kids need their parents to let them fall when learning to walk or ride a bike, the teacher has to let his students make mistakes. Always remember that students are developing good habits of learning even if they are making mistakes about a particular subject.
Frequently, through the assistance of fellow students, they will come to see their mistakes. Many mistakes are irrelevant to the important issues being discussed; most will be forgotten after class. When you do move to correct important mistakes, do it by proposing another text for their consideration. Ask them how this might fit with what they’ve said. Or suggest your idea, giving the reasons for it and asking what they think of that. Leave it open for them to reject what you’re suggesting, as long as they understand your reasons for it.
In most schools, Socratic discussion will never replace lectures, question and answer, and other more traditional forms of teaching. But it does offer an irreplaceable experience of wonder, joy, and excitement for both students and teacher.