Socratic Learning as Democratic Citizenship
When I first am introduced to a new class or begin working one-on-one with a student my initial concern is finding ways of helping him become a self-impelled learner. I believe this is achieved by initiating a conversation with the student about what intrigues him and by asking how he sees himself in relation to his world.
I look to discover two things: how a child learns and what motivates him to learn. I am of the opinion that the best type of curriculum is one that demonstrates flexibility toward student interests and group dynamics. The benefit of using interdisciplinary curricula is in its demonstration that every subject offers insight into the mysteries and problems of the world. I teach literature as a meditation on how human beings confront timeless (and historical) problems and I like to show how the arts often provide the most profound expression of the moral imagination. The Socratic Method’s appeal lies in its encouraging of an interdisciplinary approach to the curriculum by drawing from students their creative, rational and emotional responses.
A Socratic conversation offers students opportunities to test their individual gifts and abilities and indulge their interests and avidities by presenting them with the task of problem solving. I like to emphasize problem solving because I subscribe to John Dewey’s belief that people learn best when captivated by their tasks. If I understand Dewey properly I believe he was saying that education is a form of apprenticeship which trains students to become masters of the craft of their own learning process. I believe in the underlying democratic message of this form of education because it can help students develop confidence in their capacity to grow as learners, cultivate their reason and apply their emotional and moral insights to the pressing social and ecological problems in their communities.
My primary concern as a teacher is to avoid a managerial or hierarchical approach in my teaching. Far too often young people are led to believe that it is their duty to mimic the opinions of their teachers in order to merit high marks. I have seen this happen repeatedly just as I also have witnessed students who have attempted to be creative and original in their response to assignments and have their efforts subjected to withering (and irresponsible) criticism. This seems to me to be a gross injustice because it forecloses a valuable opportunity in the intellectual and emotional development of a young person to begin exploring their cognitive and creative depths. School should be a place where creative experimentation is encouraged and rewarded since it is a studio where students learn the various forms of communication, exposition and inquiry and are encouraged to apply to those forms their newly acquired skills.
In more than thirteen years of teaching I have found no better approach for encouraging creativity, debate and motivation in my students than the Socratic Method. In my personal life as a writer and student of the humanities I am constantly being reminded that writing, research and observation are creative processes that demand self-confidence, imagination, personal reflection and an exacting commitment to probity and integrity. Adolescence is a very delicate time when kids want to be taken seriously and explore their own emerging ideas, doubts and desires for greater independence while also looking to do so from a place of safety. I feel it is my duty to nurture my students by creating an environment where they will be taken seriously and feel that they are learning how to assume ownership of their education. Teachers and schools have been tasked with showing young women and men how to become conscientious contributors to their communities and demonstrating that by helping improve the lives of others they are realizing what their education is really for.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks