Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – What about Socrates?

The best education encourages students to ask questions rather than to accept someone else’s answers in a mechanical transfer of assumed ‘knowledge’. Questioning steers intellectual curiosity and active learning. It’s especially effective in adult education in engaging students as partners with their tutors and with other students in shared learning processes. It should be integral to the WEA’s practice as we aim to, ‘challenge and inspire individuals, communities and society’. Do you agree?

medmo-einstein-explain-questioning

Many questions lead to more questions. They develop threads of learning that continue to play out and lead to a more considered understanding of subjects. Learning through discovery is a much deeper process than the simple acquisition of information. The art of critical inquiry is a precious skill in all aspects of life as we try to make sense of the world around us, especially in an ‘information age’ where we are spoon-fed ‘facts’ via mass media. Questioning trains our minds to engage with and to analyse information, to check facts, to consider other viewpoints and to become more inventive and adaptable when we try to deal with new challenges.

Socrates and Socratic questioning
Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was born in Athens around 470 BC and sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 BC after a trial on charges of ‘corrupting the youth’ and ‘impiety’. His alleged crimes had been the posing of philosophical questions about Athenians’ commonly acknowledged gods.

Socrates

Socrates

He accepted his fate with dignity and was said to have been humble about his own perceived lack of knowledge.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates

His students, most notably Plato, wrote about his life and work including the concept of Socratic questioning. The Socratic method still forms a sound basis for an inquiry-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment and Socrates’ ideas have influenced many subsequent educational theories, including Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. They support the notion of teachers as intellectuals who continue to learn and of students who are active, critical thinkers.

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think – rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.

John Dewey

There’s more detail on ‘The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching and Learning’ on the Critical Thinking Community’s website at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-role-of-socratic-questioning-in-thinking-teaching-learning/52 and more on Socratic Dialogue at: http://www.socraticdialogue.be/socrates.html.

I can also recommend the Critical Thinking Community’s ‘Begin here” pages at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-where-to-begin/796

What do you think about integrating Socratic questioning in teaching, learning, assessment and in everyday life? What are the pros and cons?

Any other good resources, examples, ideas or comments to share?

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About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/1GI0QK1

8 Responses to Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – What about Socrates?

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I think the Socratic method is valuable and should play a central role in the way we engage with students in the classroom, as described here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/2012/aug/14/philisophical-teaching-students

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks for sharing the link to your Guardian article, which is very well worth reading. I’ve shared your link via Twitter and am pleased that you drew my attention to it. It’s been retweeted a couple of times already and favourited.

      There has been some reaction to this blog on Twitter with people tweeting a range of opinions about Socrates, including strong agreement with the viewpoints that I expressed, links to another blog about Socrates at http://tothereal.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/are-we-slaves-to-socrates/ and a tweet of disagreement from @websofsubstance (Harry Webb).

      Thanks again for taking the time to add to the discussion.

  2. Kay says:

    This really chimes with me, Ann. As information is (literally) at our fingertips these days, the acquisition of knowledge doesn’t require a teacher filling up empty vessels, to coin a phrase. Being able to think critically and challenge the status quo is of prime importance in my view. Since becoming a community philosophy practitioner (techniques based on Socratic questioning) I have found that my own critical thinking has improved, as well as being better able to engage others in creative, problematising and collaborative discussions in my teaching. As Saul Alinksy wrote, ‘…the question mark is an inverted plough, breaking up the hard soil of old beliefs, and preparing for new growth.’

  3. Ann Walker says:

    Thanks for your comment Kay. I hadn’t heard that particular Alinsky quote but I really like it.

  4. marymyatt says:

    Socratic questioning and what follows, Socratic dialogue, creates the conditions for discernment and discrimination to negotiate the ‘information at our fingertips’. Great post, to the point.

  5. Ann Walker says:

    Beautifully expressed Mary.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  6. marymyatt says:

    Robin Alexander’s work on dialogic teaching exemplary http://www.robinalexander.org.uk/index.php/dialogic-teaching/

    • Ann Walker says:

      Mary, being led to other resources is my favourite aspect of blogging and I’m grateful for all the comments here that draw attention to relevant links.

      Robin Alexander’s website is well worth a visit and I’m grateful that you shared the reference.

      Thank you.

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