Socratic Method: The Lost Art of Education


Anyone who has participated in the American public school system can testify that the percentage of requirements for memorizing material and developing skills far outweighs a student’s requirement to think deeply and critically. Of course, there are units of study that promote and explore critical thinking skills, but this is often done on a superficial scale, mostly in literary and philosophical units. How can students think in great depth about something that is of no real importance to them? For one to achieve high levels of thinking there needs to be some form of connection for them. This is where students truly learn how to think.  When they care, they think harder, and when they feel challenged to think for themselves and allowed an opinion, they work harder to find it and will eventually learn to defend it.

This type of learning has long been known as the Socratic Method, yet so few seem to be familiar with it.  It is where students learn primarily through reading, writing and discussing.  There is nothing complicated nor fancy about it. On the contrary, it brings education down to its simplest form.

I have used the Socratic Method for more than seven years and have found that students are far more engaged and willing to work hard when dealing with more substantive issues from history and current events.  As a matter of fact, without fail, every student has commented that despite the challenging workload it is their favorite class.  This is not because I am a great teacher, nor is it because the material is riveting, sometimes it is anything but that, but it is because the students are challenged to think on a different level than has ever been expected of them in the past.  They leave with a higher sense of achievement and fulfillment than they have found in the now traditional standards-based education system.

To give a better basis of understanding, Mortimer Adler, a former law professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the Great Books Foundation, in his book How to Read a Book describes the four levels of reading as summarized:

1) Elementary. This form of reading is passive in nature and is the level at which children first learn to read the words on the page. This stage is typically reached in the early years of education.

2) Inspectional. This, too, is a more passive form of reading and is the level at which most K-12 and college undergraduate students read. At this stage, students are reading primarily for information.

3) Analytical. This level of reading is more active in that students begin to make assessments, draw conclusions, challenge the author, think and investigate beyond the author’s words, etc. While some high school and college students will work at this level, it is typically reserved for English courses that include units in literary analysis. Even so, students are often forced into the box of right v. wrong and allowed little latitude to think freely beyond the scope of the text.

4) Syntopical. This is the highest reading level. When students work at this level they are reading multiple sources and, in its highest form, questions are defined, investigated and answered, often creating a new work greater than that in any of the original sources. This level of reading is typically not practiced or attained until graduate school and beyond.

The importance to understanding these four levels is to put into context what it means to develop real critical thinking skills through the Socratic Method. Teaching students through discussion and writing helps to move them up into the higher reading levels and gives them the opportunity to question and investigate, thereby leading them down a path in which they can formulate and defend opinions.

This type of learning should not be delayed.  In fact, such learning can and should begin at an early age simply by posing questions while reading to the students and encouraging them to think beyond the words. For instance, in reading The Giving Tree, the students might be asked, “When we are given something do we owe the giver? Why or why not?” The students, even at young ages, can begin to evaluate and even defend responses to questions like this, albeit in elementary form. In practice, as students learn to expect questions, they begin to look deeper into the text which sets them on the path to analytical reading. Likewise, students can learn about events in history where the same analytical tactics can be utilized and, as students progress through the grades, they will be better prepared to deal with more penetrating questions that require in-depth analyses through discussion and writing.

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