What Is Socratic Teaching?
You probably have heard that Classical education emphasizes “Socratic dialogue,” a mode of teaching often (vaguely) associated with teaching via discussion and named after the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. In the world of Christian classical education “socratic” has become a sort of buzz word, something to hang your hat on—maybe even a good tool for promoting a school or curriculum. After all, we all have a general sense that learning by interacting with actual human beings can be effective if not transformative.
But what exactly is Socratic dialogue and why is it such a powerful tool?
DEFINITION OF SOCRATIC TEACHING
You may have heard that Socratic teaching is “question-driven instruction.” We tend to envision it being a group of students asking and answering questions. But for Socrates it looks a little bit different.
Socratic teaching derives from the Socratic dialogues, conversations in which Socrates discusses grand questions or big ideas with various people as recorded by Plato. Many of these dialogues are well known, at least by name if not by content: Republic, Meno, Gorgias, and Phaedrus. In each of them, Socrates engages in conversation with another person, typically referred to as an “interlocutor.”
When Socrates engages in dialogue with this interlocutor, he does so via one-on-one conversation. Other people were often present, listening and occasionally interjecting, but the majority of the conversation occurred via a back-and-forth between Socrates and one other person. In some dialogues, that person changes from time to time, as in Gorgias. When that happens, however, Socrates always continues the conversation with just one person at a time. He turns his attention, and thus the conversation, to the new interlocutor.
This one-on-one approach is difficult, of course, for today’s teacher, especially for the instructor who has a whole classroom full of students, as in a traditional school setting. She risks losing her other students to daydreams, side conversations, or doodles. Yet to teach in a truly Socratic fashion, she needs to at least consider the strengths of the one-on-one dialogue. After all, the unique benefits of this approach far outweigh the challenges.
THE HEART OF SOCRATIC TEACHING
At the heart of Socratic teaching are four convictions:
- Truth exists.
- Truth is knowable.
- Truth can be discovered.
- Truth is ultimately one, in the sense that all things fit together into a harmonious symphony of being.
Socrates was confident Truth can be known, but he knew that it is hard to see it and that we spend most of our time living in error. So he engaged in and shared a means by which truth can be perceived called dialectic thought.
In the simplest sense, dialectic thought examines a thought in order to remove contradictions and inconsistencies. This is what Socrates refers to when he famously says, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” as recorded in the Apology. When inconsistencies of thought are examined and then removed, individuals can move forward to new insights, often using analogies and comparisons from what they already know.
Socrates’ dialectic approach, when fully realized, passes through two stages:
- the ironic
- the maieutic
In the ironic stage, Socrates asks questions that help his interlocutor recognize the contradictions and inconsistencies in his own thoughts. If the student is willing to see what Socrates shows him, then he will say those magic words: “I don’t know.” He has reached what Plato calls metanoia, the Greek word for repentance. It means “a change of mind.” The person who accepts his own ignorance, Socrates argues, is prepared to see the truth.
In Meno, Socrates brings his interlocutor (Meno—the dialogues are often named after the interlocutor) to this point, but Meno is unwilling to say the magic words; he is unwilling to admit he doesn’t know. Instead, he complains that Socrates is behaving like the torpedo fish, that Socrates has so befuddled him, numbing him as the torpedo fish does its prey, that he can no longer respond. So Socrates switches gears. They begin discussing the nature of knowledge, and Socrates asks to speak with one of Meno’s slave boys.
Socrates asks the boy a series of mathematical questions, to which the slave boy responds incorrectly, all the while thinking he knows the right answers. It isn’t until Socrates walks the slave boy through the Ironic Stage of dialectic thinking, — when he has come to see that he doesn’t know the answer and can no longer answer Socrates’ questions—that he admits his ignorance and says the magic words, “I don’t know.”
At this point, Socrates turns to Meno and, together, they see that the slave boy was unable to learn the truth until he realized that what he thought he knew to be true was in fact false. Once the slave boy understood this, he was able to walk alongside Socrates in pursuit of the truth. Before that, he had no need to pursue the truth, because he thought he already had it. This is when Meno is able to realize the next step. As painful as it might be: he admits his own ignorance.
Socrates then begins that second stage: the maieutic stage.
Here he helps the student remedy his ignorance. Whereas the goal in the first stage was to demonstrate the disharmony of the student’s thought, the goal of the second stage is to restore harmony within the student.
To do this the teacher must teach “mimetically.” That is, she must incarnate the truth (or lesson) to be learned. Just as the Logos was incarnated that we might know Him, the teacher incarnates the logos of her lesson that the students might know it. She should place analogies or examples of the lesson before her students, and ask them to compare those analogies or examples in order to discover the truth of the lesson. When students draw the wrong conclusion from the analogies or examples, as happens sometimes, the teacher then adds more to clarify.
For example, when teaching a group of students the mathematical skill of addition, a teacher might place three examples before the students:
| 2 | 3 | 4
| +2 | +1 | +0
| 4 | 4 | 4
After asking the students to contemplate the examples, she might hear that single-digit addition always equals four. This, of course, is incorrect. So how might the teacher correct this error? She could present more examples, such as three and three make six, and five and two make seven.
Teaching mimetically in the Maieutic Stage invites the student to re-enter into a state of harmony with the truth he or she is attempting to perceive.
THE MAIN THREAD
One of the challenges of Socratic teaching is maintaining the main thread of the conversation—of keeping the focus of the dialogue on the Truth or logos being contemplated. Think of the main thread as the trail Socrates and his interlocutor are traveling along. As they journey, they may take side trails (known to some of us as rabbit trails, of course) to consider various other ideas, but these ideas typically connect back to the main trail. They become temporary investigations that serve to inform the main investigation of the dialogue.
In the Meno for instance: Meno originally asked Socrates whether virtue can be taught. Socrates, however, takes Meno down an extended rabbit trail in which they seek to first define virtue. The rabbit trail is necessary, for how can one determine whether virtue can be taught if one doesn’t know what virtue is? They then continue down other rabbit trails, but Socrates is always attentive to the main trail—the main thread—of the conversation.
Indeed if we consider Socratic teaching as just “asking questions,” we can end up without a main thread at all, particularly if we are asking questions for the sake of asking questions. In group discussions, students may not be aware of a main thread and if they are, they may not all agree that it should be the main thread and some students may attempt to transform their own preferred rabbit trails into the main trail. As any teacher knows, this can lead to confusion and chaos. Students won’t always be interested in the same threads, or they may not want to approach a thread from the same perspective. As the plurality of students pulls the thread in opposite directions, it can easily be lost. Whatever ultimate idea was being pursued may be lost in a multitude of ideas, none of which become the focus of the conversation.
But the strength of the one-on-one dialogue is that it allows teachers to overcome this kind of chaos through orderly contemplation. Through it, Socrates can maintain the focus of the conversation on the main thread, pulling it through until truth is discovered.
THE OPPOSITION, PAST AND PRESENT
Remember those four Truth-based principles at the heart of the Socratic mode? The Sophists, Socrates’ intellectual adversaries, denied each of these convictions. Truth doesn’t actually exist, they argued; and even if it does, you can’t know it; and even if you could, you can’t communicate it to someone else. Consequently, according to the Sophists, there is no principle of harmony (no logos) to guide inquiry.
The late nineteenth century saw the widespread triumph of Sophistry in the American school. Whereas Socrates tried to deconstruct a student’s thoughts in order to bring healing, the modern Sophist moves in a very different direction. Socrates sought to expose contradictions. The Sophist seeks to debunk. Socrates sought to bring healing by remediating his disciples’ ignorance. The Sophist seeks to condition. For when there is no truth to seek, all a teacher can do is influence students. Debunking and conditioning are not stages of education that encourage the pursuit of truth.
That’s why, for classical educators who seek to cultivate wisdom and virtue in students, Socratic teaching is a meaningful, useful, and even necessary approach. For only a student who learns to seek Truth relentlessly can be truly wise and virtuous. And only a teacher who seeks it can be anything other than a tyrant.
The teacher who is a Sophist cannot restore harmony in her student because she has no truth to turn to by which the student can be brought into harmony. However, any teacher who teaches in a truly Socratic fashion, can restore a student to a state of harmony. Once a student has acknowledged his own ignorance, student and teacher can work together in pursuit of the truth.
Most of these books are examples of Socratic teaching in action. It is more difficult to describe how to do Socratic teaching than it is to model it. Remember, Socratic teaching is not a method in that there are steps that tell you to do this, then this, then this, as much as it is stages wherein there is a goal: to perceive truth; and there is a means: dialectic thought. Any Socratic dialogues would serve as helpful examples of Socratic teaching, but here are a few worth beginning with:
Socratic dialogues by Plato:
Socratic dialogues by Peter Kreeft:
- Between Heaven and Hell
- The Best Things in Life
- Socrates Meets Jesus
- The Unaborted Socrates