Notes on the Socratic method

The Socratic Method

1.) Being a midwife to students’ ideas

Socrates in the Theaetetus speaks of being a “midwife” to the ideas of students. He sees the Socratic teacher as helping the student bring their idea to life and then once it is “birthed,” help them to determine whether the idea can live in the world or not. Socrates makes it clear that his role is not to put ideas into students’ minds but to help students “birth” them.

2.) Art of not having answers/ not seeking recognition 

The Socratic educator does not have answers. Socrates was famous for saying: “All I know is that I know nothing.” He did not seek credit for ideas, theories, inventions; his contribution was, again, to aid the “birthing process” in students. In the Socratic dialogues of Plato, readers are treated to a demonstration of how this birthing process works and how it benefits the student.

3.) Connection to parenting

A Socratic parent is someone who sees what their child is trying to say/solve and they help their child express it. In the Jewish tradition, this is seen in the Four Sons at the Passover Seder. The sons are tasked with each asking a question about the history of the seder and the basis of its customs. The youngest son does not yet have the language skills to ask a question entirely on his own. In that instance, the parent helps the child form the question by discovering what it is the child wants to know. This is one example of Socratic parenting.

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Can young children benefit from independent study in history?

Yesterday I had the privilege of guest teaching a course entitled “Historians, Communities and the Past” which is taught by my good friend Tim Compeau, PhD at Huron University College here in London.

Over the course of 90 minutes we engaged in a Socratic discussion about the question: “Is it responsible to allow grade school children the option of self-directed learning in the field of history?”

The conversation was very engaging in no small part because we reflected on whether one of the chief problems in educating children and young adults is that educators, policymakers, teachers and parents become focused upon names and disciplinary boundaries at the expense of allowing for interdisciplinary discovery, exploration and problem-driven learning. Or, to put it another way: at the expense of creativity.

Here is a scenario:

Imagine an 8 year old student who has become fascinated by schools; she is interested in the schools built by pioneers and how people in earlier times were educated -especially in rural and remote communities- in one room school houses. She decides that she wants to learn everything that she can about one room school houses. After talking with her teacher and her parents, she decides that she wants to undertake a project (independent study) to learn everything that she can about how one room school houses came to be; where they were pioneered; why they have persisted; how they work. She visits museum exhibits, watches movies, reads books and even talks with people who have knowledge of, or personal experience with, being educated in one room school house environments. She is then allowed to undertake her project.

To my mind, a series of questions arises from this hypothetical:

1.) If this project were a school project, what discipline would this child be studying? Do we simply call it social studies, or can we say it is history, sociology, education and economics?

2) Can this project be accommodated as a primary/elementary school classroom project?

3.) Is a teacher/student relationship required here?

4.) If we do not allow the child to undertake this study are we hindering her education?

5.) Is it inconceivable that an 8 year old child could do this or have a desire to do this?

6.) Is this student actually developing an interest in sociology, education and economics (as well as history) by her choice of this project? Does subject (academic discipline) in the conventional sense even matter in this case?

As you might imagine, this type of scenario prompted much discussion. I leave it to you to decide how you might answer these questions or think about this matter.