Socratic Teaching Method is Ideal in Theory or Reality?

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It seems to me that the most simple conception of learning by a student of a Socratic teacher deals with the teacher coaching the students to do something he or she already knows how to do, much like how a midwife simply coaches the mother-to-be through something she already has the ability to do. Just the same, the form used, at least by Socrates and Meno, was one that used a dialogue between the two of them (and later a servant boy).

Although I feel that on some level, today’s public schools do try to support Socratic learning and teaching, I feel that in reality they do more to prevent it than further it. Today’s public school system has gotten away from the Socratic method, and even though some teachers may try to practice Socratic teaching, the system as a whole seems encourage the exact opposite. When applied correctly, it has the profoundly amazing effect of not only teaching the student new truths, but new ways of arriving at those truths; however, to be used effectively, certain conditions must be met.

First of all, I think that the setup of the public school classroom in which there is one teacher for a number of students that can vary from 15-30 is already an obstacle to successful Socratic teaching. The example of Socratic teaching that took place in Meno between Socrates and Meno involved a very rigorous and engaging conversation of questioning and answering. It was very one-on-one and focused on one particular subject or topic. The process is thus: The teacher or instructor may pretend to be ignorant about a particular topic in order to evaluate the student’s knowledge of that topic. During the discussion, the teacher questions the student and also makes points that are contradictory to the student’s knowledge or current position. In turn, the student will recognize these contradictions, and thus realize that his/her knowledge may not be as abundant or his/her position may not be as thought-out he/she had previously thought.

Because during this process, there’s usually a teacher and a student who are intensely involved in their dialogue, this would be practically impossible to fully and successfully replicate inside of a public school setting. To truly reap the benefits of Socratic learning, a student would need to be completely and solely engaged with their teacher for only one lesson. If there are, for example, twenty students in one classroom with only one teacher and each student were to receive ample time for a one-on-one Socratic dialogue with their teacher, it would take an unpractical amount of time to complete a lesson. If by some chance, every single student only needed one hour to engage in this dialogue and learn the lesson successfully, that’s still twenty hours taken up for the lesson to be successfully taught. In today’s public schools, that’s simply not feasible. In the grades of junior high and high school, students are generally in one class under one teacher for about 45 minutes to an hour, and in elementary school, if the kids stay in the same classroom with the same teacher all day, that’s still eight hours of school (not including the time taken away by lunch time and breaks). There are literally not enough hours in the day, nor days in the semester for this to happen.

Besides the time factor, the Socratic teaching/learning method simply doesn’t sit well with the usual ‘this is how things work’ dogmatic methods presented in texts generally used in public schools. Instead, the Socratic method teaches students how to question and explore on their own, which is a good skill to have. Unfortunately, most public schools are ill-prepared for this type of student; they tend to get pigeonholed as ‘troublemakers’ because they upset the status quo (just as Socrates may have been rumored to be like).

In Plato’s’ Meno, Socrates assessed Meno through more questioning and through Meno’s answers (as read at the end of the text). In the public school system, there are governmentally enforced standardized testing (although they may differ from state to state). In my own experience from being subjected Kentucky’s standardized testing, I found that it could only really measure how much information I could recall and regurgitate. The other form of testing use, such as open-response questions and on-demand writing also measured much I could recall, and occasionally gave students the chance to prove that they are able to apply information that they previously learned to a situation to prove higher order thinking. Unfortunately, many students get to this point at the end of the school year where they have to prove that they can perform up to the standards set, yet during the school year, they weren’t able to benefit from Socratic teaching and learning. The ability to benefit from Socratic teaching lies in large part on being able to synthesize information from a far broader base of knowledge than is taught today. Civics, American Literature and American History are all aspects of the same grand panorama of the American experience. Most students will never be taught about these connections, if indeed they are taught that these connections exist at all. Having said this, I’m not criticizing the teachers. In fact, I think that the teachers are doing what they can for the most part. I feel that standardizing testing is largely responsible simply because many teachers spend the whole school teaching to the test and not to the students. If the students don’t perform on the tests as well as expected, the teachers could lose their jobs. Again, there’s the lack of time to use on the Socratic method.

To stay true to Socratic teaching and learning, the process of learning is just as important at the end result. In Plato’s Meno, a lot of emphasis was placed up how Meno came to learn and believe what he believed, not simply that he got there. Just the same, Socrates didn’t give Meno a grade or mark to show how well he got to that end result. In the public school system, there’s a lot of emphasis placed upon grades. In the public school system, grades are used to help determine whether or not a student retakes a class, whether or not they receive a diploma, whether or not one goes on to high education, whether or not one receives a scholarship, whether or not one can join a certain club or other extracurricular activity, etc.

There’s also the possibility that some teachers may simply not be able to execute the Socratic method effectively. Maybe some could, maybe some couldn’t. I would assume that Socratic teaching is not easy. The ability to formulate questions to lead a student to a correct conclusion is a real skill. Sadly, many (not all) teachers may lack the temperament and knowledge to be effective as anything other than animate textbook readers. Teachers that can will not be allowed to do so to protect the balance.

Some may argue that Socratic teaching may be interjected into the public school system through tutoring programs or in-class teacher’s aides assigned to certain students. On that level, I would agree that these one-on-one interactions in these situations could very well being using the Socratic method. Having said that, I would argue that this would not be the typical American public school experience. Not every public school has a tutoring program. Not every classroom has teacher’s aides who help out students one-on-one. Although these situations may occur, it’s still not the basic experience of today’s public schools, especially ones that may be overcrowded.

Generally, I do believe that the public school system should lean more towards using the Socratic teaching and learning method, at least more than it does. In theory, I think that that’s what an ideal school system would do. Why? Simply because I feel that students today lack the ability to question things on their own or apply what they know. According to tests, they only need to learn (which translates into bare memorization) and then spit it back out to prove they know it. They don’t all have the ability to question themselves and work their way through problems, and just like Meno, once they think they know something, they may think they know everything. After all, if they can recall information and perform well on a state test, isn’t that proof that they know enough? At least I think that’s the common attitude of today’s public school students.

I also think that a lot of them lack the knowledge of what they need to learn and why. I admit that I’m not yet a teacher, but in my experiences as a student-teacher (in language arts), I come across many, many students who don’t see the importance of writing, or even reading for that matter. As you can guess, these same students generally aren’t able to read or write well, and when it comes to the standardized tests, they definitely don’t perform satisfactory. These students aren’t usually very engaged during class when the teachers tries her best to involve each of them in a class discussion. There are always a handful of students that are well-spoken, but then there’s always the group that hides behind the activeness others and gets nothing from the discussion. I can’t help but wonder that if they had someone to sit down with and have an engaging conversation with them one-on-one using Socratic questioning, if they would learn more or learn differently, or even feel more successful. I think that when a student is engaged in the Socratic method, he/she may not even know that they’re learning. In Plato’s Meno, Meno was so involved in answering and working through the problem that he at first didn’t realize how much he was learning. His engagement at the time was what was important.

Although the Socratic method is ideal, in reality, it could also be a problem simply because of the work it would take for the whole system to change. As anyone knows, every decision carries consequences. The fact of the matter is that there simply aren’t enough teachers, let alone great ones, who are able to take on this role. I guess it’s a matter of ‘should’ versus ‘can’, as in whether or not it should happen versus whether or not it can happen.

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