Socrates was one of the few teachers who died for his craft, executed by the Athenian authorities for supposedly corrupting the youth. That in itself has earned him eternal fame. Most learning professionals will have heard of him through their acquaintance with the ‘Socratic method’ but few will know that he never wrote a single word describing this method, fewer still will know that the method is not what it is commonly represented to be.
How many have read the Socratic dialogues? How many know what he meant by his method and how he practised his approach?
Socrates, in fact, wrote absolutely nothing. It was Plato and Xenophon who recorded his thoughts and methods through the lens of their own beliefs. We must remember, therefore, that Socrates is in fact a mouthpiece for the views of others. In fact the two pictures painted of Socrates by these two commentators differ somewhat. In the Platonic Dialogues he is witty, playful and a great philosophical theorist, in Xenophon he is a dull moraliser.
That the teacher should be an intellectual midwife to the student’s own thoughts is his great educational principle. His mother was indeed a midwife and he was among the first to recognise that, in terms of learning, ideas are best generated from the cognitive effort of the learner in terms of understanding, realisation and retention. Education is not a cramming in, but a drawing out.
He would claim that he taught nothing as he had nothing to teach and his lasting influence is the useful idea, that for certain types of learning, questioning and dialogue allows the learner to generate their own ideas and conclusions, rather than be spoon-fed.
What is less well known is the negative side of the Socratic method. He loved to pick intellectual fights and the method was not so much a gentle teasing out of ideas, more the brutal exposure of falsehoods. He was also roundly ridiculed in public drama, notably by his contemporary Aristophanes in Clouds, where he uses the Socratic method to explore idiotic ideas using petty, hair-splitting logic.
Socratic philosophy of education
Beyond the famous Socratic method, he did have a philosophy of education that included several principles.
Knowledge and learning were seen by him as a valuable pursuit, with a ruthless pursuit of questioning even basic assumptions. This was achieved socially through dialogue, not by lecturing or the transfer of knowledge from teacher to learner. The aim of learning was to pursue, with a ruthless intellectual honesty, answers to difficult questions. Ultimately, and this was almost always Socrates main aim, was to get the learner to realise that they didn’t know as much as they thought they knew, the realisation of our own ignorance.
Socrates concerns himself largely with high-end, critical thought. His legacy in not so much in his method as being used by a model, by Plato, of the free and open thinker, unafraid to question the most basic suppositions. It is this spirit of inquiry, seen in Greek thought, most intensely by Socrates, that fueled education for the next two Millenia.
The Socratic method has transformed itself into the idea of discovery learning, but there have been severe doubts expressed about taking this method too far. We wouldn’t want our children to discover how to cross the road by pushing them out between parked cars! In practice, it is most often no more than a teacher using open or inductive questions. In fact, when used crudely it can frustrate learners, especially when not combined with genuine dialogue and feedback. To ask open questions about facts can be pointless and result in those awful classroom sessions where the teacher asks a question, hands shoot up and the few who already know the answers, answer the question, while the rest feel foolish. When used well, however, especially in subjects such deal with abstract thought and for uncovering conceptual clarity, it has lots to offer.
There is still a great deal of discussion and controversy around whether learning should be a process of exploration and discovery, as opposed to direct instruction. There are extremes on both sides. Discovery learning was taken up with enthusiasm in the modern age, while Universities in particular have stuck rigidly to direct instruction through lectures as their primary pedagogy. In practice, depending upon the age of the learners, type of learning and context both have their place.
Interestingly, the Socratic approach is also often to be found in online learning. Roger Schank has taken the method forward into online designs based on questions which access indexed content, especially videos. One could also argue that search based inquiry through Google and other online resources allows the learner to apply this questioning approach to their own learning, Socratic learning without a Socratic teacher. Chatbots, which now support and deliver learning are now being used to emulate the Socratic model and deliver personalized support, tutoring and even mentoring to learners. Adaptive learning systems, truly account for where the learner has come from, where they are going and what they need to get there. Sophisticated online learning allows us to realise the potential of a scalable Socratic approach without the need for face-to-face teaching. Interestingly, it is only in the last few decades, through the use of technology-based tools that allow search, questioning and now chatbots and adaptive learning, that Socratic learning can be truly realised on scale.
As someone who abhorred didactic, talk and chalk teaching and learning, Socrates would be appalled at current education and training. He was not an institutional figure, practiced his teaching in the public space of the Agora and thought that experts were normally fooling themselves by believing they had immutable knowledge to impart to their students. The unexamined life may not be worth living but neither is a life of absolute certainty.
Of course, if we were to behave like Socrates in the modern school, college, university or training room, we’d be in front of several tribunals for bullying, not sticking to the curriculum and failing to prepare students for their exams. Not to mention his pederasty. We can perhaps put this to one side as a feature of the age!
Hamilton, E., Cairns, H. and Cooper, L., 1961. The collected dialogues of Plato. Princeton University Press.
Tarrant, H. ed., 2003. The last days of Socrates. Penguin.
Mackendrick, P., 1974. Aristophanes. Lysistrata. The Acharnians. The Clouds. Trans. AH Sommerstein.(Penguin Classics.) Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1973. Pp. 255. 40P. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 94, pp.185-186.
Ferguson, J., 1970. Socrates: a source book.
Woodbridge, F.J.E., 1934. The Son of Apollo (Boston and New York, 1929)