By Teachers, For Teachers
Have you ever walked into a classroom where students were engaged in serious on-topic discussion, debating ideas, and challenging each other to provide evidence of their statements? And when you looked around for the teacher, s/he was calmly sitting in the back, observing, taking it all in but not participating or actively using teaching stratgies? Chances are, you entered a classroom using teaching strategies known as Socratic Debate, aka Socratic Method, Socratic Circle, or Socratic Inquiry. Many teachers try these teaching strategies when they realize lecturing doesn't engage students anymore. Sure, class members can memorize facts, but too often the critical thinking required to analyze cause and effect -- say, how a specific river encouraged ancient trade -- eludes them unless the teacher spells it out, telling them the "Right" answer.
In a traditional classroom, asking and answering questions is stressful to many students who are afraid their answer will be wrong. This is where the student-directed, no-right-wrong-answer Socratic Method shines.
It all started with this (supposed) quote from the iconic Greek thinker, Socrates: "Let us examine the question together, my friend, and if you can contradict anything I say, do so and I will be persuaded."
This ancient form of give-and-take discourse is reportedly founded on Socrates’ belief that lecture was not an effective way to teach all students. The Socratic Method requires cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, asking and answering questions that stimulate critical thinking, and draw out underlying presumptions. Students prepare by closely reading/researching the text or topic. On the day of the Socratic seminar, they listen to classmates, challenge what they hear by building an argument based on what they have read and heard, and in so doing, critically think about not only their opinions but those of classmates. This encourages listening, thinking, reading, speaking critically, and feeling a sense of wonder about the world's knowledge. Students quickly figure out that to succeed in the Socratic Method, they must arrive prepared to share and listen and reflect.
Through this process, with subtle guidance from the instructor, students learn to teach themselves. Their goal is to analyze facts, not find the perfect answer. The Socratic Method is not passive. Students don't consume; they create, participate, and gain a deeper understanding of the topic. The goal has nothing to do with who wins the argument but how evidence and ideas are presented.
One of the biggest reasons for the Socratic Method's popularity is that it encourages and rewards higher-order thinking skills like evaluating, analyzing, and applying. These mindsets help students learn independently and develop them into lifelong learners.
But it's not only about sharing ideas. It's about honing listening skills -- deep listening. Students begin to love learning because it comes from themselves and peers. Students develop an understanding of the difference between arguing and discussing: The former is emotional; the latter while still impassioned, is respectful.
For Common Core schools, the Socratic Method prods students to:
The Socratic Method wants teachers and students to follow a conversation where it goes. There isn't a map with an X that the class gradually meanders toward. If the discussion goes far afield, so it does. It is well-suited to open-ended conversations such as, "If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a noise?" As a result, and with a nod toward the constraints of curriculum and lesson plan goals, many teachers adapt the event and provide guidance in reaching the day's Big Idea.
Second, it relies heavily on the understanding and knowledge of the group. If the students misunderstand a concept (like a Socratic Seminar I watched on "What is Capitalism?"), then the conversation has little chance to arrive at the truth behind the questions.
Third, this approach works particularly well when students are learning about ethics, the philosophy behind an event, or the morals of a situation. Students must dig into their background to determine the motivations and assumptions behind their beliefs and then use that evidence to defend their thoughts. If/when that becomes impossible, likely the student adapts to a new reality.
Fourth, this approach is not quick. It relies on interaction between individuals, analyzing evidence, questioning everything, and being ready to change ideas.
Finally, this approach is not well-suited to webinars, a flipped classroom, or any other teaching method where students view resources without the opportunity to question them.
Though questioning beliefs can be a painful process, the Socratic Method includes two tools that make it effective: An open mind and respect for those around you. To provide this sort of gathering to students is a gift, arguably rarely seen since the amphitheaters of ancient Greece.
Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor/author of more than 100 ed-tech resources, including a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in ed-tech, CSG Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on ed-tech topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. You can find her resources at Structured Learning. Read Jacqui’s debut tech thriller, To Hunt a Sub.