How to Teach Like Socrates: A Guide to Philosophical Education

Marcello Bacciarelli's "Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates"
Marcello Bacciarelli’s “Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates”

Teaching methods in American schools have come a long way since the time of Socrates. In ancient Greece, teaching was much simpler, with students listening while teachers asked questions and provided instruction. This limited approach allowed teachers to develop their speaking and questioning skills.

From this simple setting, the Socratic method was born. This method relies on questioning, student responses, and teacher feedback to foster understanding and gauge student knowledge.

By asking questions, teachers challenge students and lead them to contradictory statements, which helps uncover complexities and stimulate critical thinking. Socrates himself was skeptical of teaching through written words, as he believed it would undermine the active student-teacher dynamic.

The Socratic method is highly personalized and requires constant adjustment to each student’s interests, limitations, and needs. When executed effectively, it is a powerful tool for promoting student engagement and deep understanding.

However, despite its effectiveness, the Socratic method is not commonly seen in classrooms. Many attempts at Socratic instruction end up feeling forced or ineffective because it is extremely challenging to execute well. The method demands deep knowledge of the subject, a repertoire of relevant analogies, mastery of potential dialogue paths, and the ability to play devil’s advocate. Additionally, addressing sensitive and emotional topics can be even more difficult and potentially career-threatening.

Mastering the Socratic method requires time and practice, both of which are scarce resources for teachers who are often pressed for time to cover the curriculum. Effective professional development can make a significant difference in equipping teachers with the necessary skills for Socratic dialogue. However, most teachers have not received adequate training in this area.

As a result, few teachers are capable of effectively utilizing Socratic dialogue, even though it could be the best approach for exploring challenging topics in schools. Attempting to implement the Socratic method without proper training and practice can lead to poor outcomes, especially when dealing with sensitive subjects. Teachers who improvise often end up caricaturing the views they seek to probe, or making regrettable assertions.

In the end, the success of the Socratic method, like any learning strategy, depends on the skill with which it is employed. The challenge lies in expecting every teacher to master numerous instructional practices. This burden can lead to disappointment, not because of inherent flaws in the method, but due to the constraints on educators trying to apply them effectively.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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