Socratic Practice: A Powerful Method for Learning
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth part of the four-part series on an ideal university education; the first part is here, the second part is here, and the third part is here.
Socratic Practice is a formidable discussion methodology that, when used properly, incorporates active listening at its best and nurtures reasoning skills and independence powerfully. Classrooms using Socratic practice are active learning environments—they are intellectually, socially, and physically engaging. By encouraging the learners to ask their own questions about what they are studying, the motivating power of individual interest is harnessed. Furthermore, because they are so engaging, Socratic practice discussions don’t tax attentional resources, making learning much easier and enjoyable; students often get into a flow state, forgetting how much time is passing because they are engaged.
I am referring to a very specific, carefully crafted methodology of teaching, which I will describe shortly. Some of you may have been to classes called Socratic seminars which are quite different from what I mean. In these, a teacher might ask a question like “What is justice?” and then proceed to tell students they’re wrong when they give an answer the teacher doesn’t want. However, Socratic questioning is meant to develop the student’s ability to think about a subject, not to test them and catch them when they are wrong or call them on the carpet for the right answer.
Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for themselves. But the truly excellent teacher aims at helping students learn how to find the right answer on their own.
Students often view school as the place to feed back the answer the teacher wants to hear, not learn new knowledge in order to figure out the truth with their own powers. Teachers who skillfully use Socratic Practice often have to spend time rehabilitating students after a lifetime of being told what to learn, what the “right” answer is—or that any answer is right because there is no standard of truth.
Consequently, in the beginning of a program using Socratic Practice, the teacher (often called “tutor,” i.e. a guide to learning) must work especially hard to shape the learning environment. Just as in any Montessori school, the prepared environment is a key to success in developing the thriving, independent-minded learner.
For the college level, these are the conditions that foster good discussion and develop excellent reasoning and social skills, as well as a strong sense of autonomy.
“The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice, consistently applied, increase cognitive skills is substantive.”
Physically, the environment must be quiet. All participants are required to respect the appointed time of discussion, with no phone calls, text messages, etc. They sit in a circle facing each other. Attention must be on the discussion, and all participants are expected to have read the assigned text.
Psychologically, the tutor shapes the environment by many principles. He or she requires a formal politeness among discussants, to encourage rational, civil discourse. Sometimes participants must address each other by title and last name (e.g., Ms. Smith and Mr. Murphy).
The tutor picks a text or work that has rich meaning and is well-made. It is most often a text but can be other things such as a painting, sculpture, building, or experiment. The Great Books classics are often used because they embody “the best that has been thought and said” and because they powerfully combine ideas and knowledge from multiple domains, aiding the work of integration. The right piece elicits many interesting thoughts and questions in the participants’ minds. This becomes the matter to explore in the discussion. The goal of the discussion is to reason together about the material, in order for each person to arrive at his or her own, independent judgment about the piece and the ideas and values discussed. Participants learn new ways to think about the work from the thoughts of others, but form their own conclusions independently. The tutor guides the discussion by evidence-based rules as follows:
- Ask questions of the text and of each other;
- Cite the text to give evidence for your ideas and interpretations;
- Try to make connections between the ideas in the text and what other participants say, and your life;
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; if you would like to change the direction of a discussion, please feel free to ask the other participants if they are okay with that; then if they are, proceed;
- Treat the other participants respectfully;
- References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion;
- Be concise; and
- In the discussion, reason is the only authority. This means no person is the authority on the text, but each must use logic and facts to support their opinions.
Unless a student starts the discussion, the tutor leads off with a thoughtful question about the reading—or a factual question if the material is mathematical or scientific, or if the meaning is unclear. Students recognize leading questions requiring prescribed answers—which cuts off the student’s own thinking. This is one reason the tutor always produce questions for which he or she genuinely wants to know the answer. This initiates a real inquiry.
Learning to reason objectively about complex material requires the willingness to entertain possibly incorrect ideas in order to examine them fully, to measure them against the facts, and to analyze their rational foundation.
The tutor skillfully encourages questions and comments evincing an earnest search for truth, while discouraging or disallowing talk in which the student is proving his knowledge or disingenuous agreement with the tutor.
For example, during a seminar on Aristotle’s Politics, the tutor might deflect a student who says “Richard McKeon says that Aristotle’s politics…” from lecturing about these details by a question such as “What does Aristotle say that makes you think that is true?” The tutor aims to bring the discussion back to the facts of the text studied, plus the student’s own experience and reasoning. In order for the discussion to be excellent, all participants should be able to judge the facts discussed firsthand. If a participant brings up many facts and claims that he alone knows, how can anyone else examine those claims firsthand? Instead, the tutor encourages observations of the facts known to all, generalizations closely derived from the facts, and conclusions reasoned from such facts, especially those in the work the class is studying together. Any outside material must be explained in general terms, understandable to general reasoning.
The tutor must walk a fine line, skillfully encouraging excellent reasoning while being careful not to discourage students from talking because they might have errors in their arguments. If a student is too fearful of looking foolish or feeling humiliated when caught in an error, he or she won’t explore complex ideas thoroughly enough to find out if they are true.
To help students be more consciously aware of how to reason well, both inductively (e.g., how to make an accurate generalization) and deductively (e.g., how to derive a conclusion from already formed generalizations) the tutor gives students explicit instruction in reasoning skills and logic. Sessions on logical fallacies are especially valuable in sharpening students’ awareness of common pitfalls in the reasoning process.
“Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for themselves.”
When Socratic Practice is implemented well, the group engages in excellent objective reasoning, learning from each other because each person brings their understanding and thoughtful interpretation of what the text and its implications mean. The tutor doesn’t aim at a “right interpretation,” yet it is common to see well-functioning groups reasoning together arrive at solid conclusions, conclusions an expert would reach, about the meaning of very difficult texts, whether Plato’s Meno, Einstein’s Relativity, or Mises’ Human Action.
An excellent seminar leader asks intriguing, deep questions respectfully, keeps discussion on important topics but lets students diverge from the set topic if it means exploring something important and meaningful to them. Clearly, much art and judgment is involved, which is why extensive training is necessary.
To be a good listener, a teacher must be a careful observer. As a scientist, Maria Montessori incorporated the scientific method into her teacher-training program. She urged her teachers to spend time every day sitting back and watching the students work, interact with each other, and deal with problems. In this way, teachers learn a great deal about each student, their interests, abilities, and difficulties, thus enabling the teacher to guide him or her well. Observe, empathize, respect—these are the basics of good teaching.
The only way teachers can learn these methods is by intensive questioning and self-reflective experience. Guidance by mentors with great knowledge and skill, plus plenty of experience, helps. Such training should be a key component of every teacher’s education—yet few university professors get any training in teaching at all. Good ones know their area of expertise, from philosophy to physics. But whether they know the subject of human learning and development is idiosyncratic.
Evidence of improved cognitive skills
The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice, consistently applied, increase cognitive skills is substantive. Michael Strong extensively discusses these methods in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
Strong established remarkable programs in four high schools around the country. He measured program outcomes with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a cognitive skills test correlated with performance on intelligence tests and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Administering this instrument before, during, and after a year at school, he found cognitive skill gains ranging, for example, from 30% to 84%. The mean score of one school’s 9th grade group moved from below the national 9th grade mean to above the 12th grade mean in one year, while one inner city student who scored at the 1st percentile on the initial test, scored at the 85th percentile by the end of four months. While more work is needed to fully validate his results, they were consistent from school to school. Any teacher would be proud to so deeply help students learn to think well.
Professor John Tomasi implemented this method in his hugely successful special program, The Political Theory Project at Brown University. He says: “Kids are sick and tired of being told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. They want to be challenged.”
Scott Buchanan, architect of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, voiced the ultimate goal: “Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise.”
The Delicacy of the Young Spirit
Achievement and success require the vision of the possible and the ability to weather the actual.
To navigate the stormy waters of life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the setbacks and the failures, students need cognitive skills and plenty of encouragement and emotional fuel. They need great examples of other human beings who have successfully dealt with many difficulties.
As the scientific findings of Positive Psychology have recently identified, knowledge and cognitive skills integrate with emotional habits and character traits. Healthy, successful, happy people tend to have cognitive habits that deeply influence their emotional tone in a positive direction.
Role models are particularly important as they provide concrete experience. A higher education program should always include instruction about human achievement and what makes it possible, both existentially and psychologically. Further, the teacher should embody the attributes:
1. Commitment to clearly knowing what he or she knows and doesn’t know (the first step on the path of objectivity);
2. Passion for learning new material and integrating it with other knowledge;
3. Commitment to modeling the highest virtues of the free person, including honesty, responsibility, and respect for the rights of others;
4. Commitment to the restless pursuit of personal improvement and growth; and
5. Willingness to submit to careful investigation and unbiased evaluation in order to improve.
Through modeling these virtues, the teacher inspires students to the highest ends of the free man and woman.
To prepare a young person for life as a free, autonomous individual, capable of making his or her own choices and putting them into action, an excellent curriculum should endeavor to educate the student in the full range of ideas, history, and knowledge. This means using the works of the Classics as well as modern science, and significant modern works, which should include the usually neglected works of the liberty movement. The curriculum should include the study of philosophy as the basis of all knowledge and self-understanding, but also take into consideration findings in scientific psychology and neuroscience. And the teachers and other staff should be available to help students in many aspects of their lives.
This way, students would come away from their University education armed with inspiring and invigorating knowledge, skills, experiences, and habits that help them achieve their goals.
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