Wrapping my mind around the Socratic Method

Posted on 09.24.2013


I’ve always struggled with using (and participating in) the Socratic Method.  It’s alluring because it relies on inquiry and discussion where the people participating must use question and answer to get at ideas and critically examine thoughts.  These are really great skills and tools in any environment.  Inquiry, critical thinking, discussion.  All area aspects to a robust and constructive Project Based Environment.  Trying to figure out when to use this method in a PBL (Project Based Learning) environment is harder for me because of how I’ve come to understand some of the other aspects to it.  Specifically, what it’s purpose classically has been, why it’s been used and how it is usually implemented.

The Socratic Method of question and answer is a negative form of eliminating ideas.  It’s basically question and answer to shoot holes in a hypothesis with the hopes that a better answer or idea will emerge through the questions and answers.  In the best sense, it could be a process of refining an idea.  However, I mostly remember it in philosophy classes as someone asking questions trying to trip someone up.  The purpose, is to reduce and refine an idea or theory – to narrow the scope of someone’s beliefs and thoughts.

In a PBL environment you have to wonder: when should the socratic method be employed if you consider that it uses inquiry, critical thinking and discussion to narrow the scope of someone’s beliefs or thoughts?  At one point in the scaffolding of doing a project, of delivering curriculum should the socratic method be used?

I always wondered at why people resorted to this type of questioning and answer – it always felt like the interlocutor or philosopher would stumble upon some “know it all” and continue to pose questions until the two reached a completely different conclusion.  The message is clear: the “know it all” really hadn’t thought it through their idea all the way and they have to be taken down a few notches.  When it’s over the interlocutor is thanked for showing the true nature of the “know it all’s idea”.

I wonder what this means for students in a PBL environment, especially if we want students to gain confidence in experimenting with an idea in an authentic way.  Sophists, who came before Socrates saw it as a party trick or a job to impress and persuade an audience.  This doesn’t feel much different.  This feels like ‘one-up man-ship’; something that is done in law school to the first year students to ‘put them in their place’.  I wonder how we can use the Socratic Method so that it helps all students build their self esteem and encourages them to take risks in a PBL environment.

On the face of it, the Socratic Method should be collaborative: It is exciting to see two people engage in a process of cross-examining, of refuting, of testing and scrutinizing the details of an idea.  I wonder how this is done with students to promote them to work together to refine and hone an idea instead of one person trying to find weaknesses to the idea and the two people ending up in opposition to each other.  I wonder how to scaffold the class period so it’s not one person showing off what they can do with questions or how one person can come with an answer to any question.  I wonder how this can be done productively.

I’ve never enjoyed participating in Socratic Seminars because I always feel like someone has to lose; and maybe that’s life.  But it shouldn’t have to be.  I hate using them because it always feels like it’s a show or someone is being grilled or put on trial for their ideas.  Honestly, I always end up having to take too big a role in it.  That’s probably my fault and I really want to get better at running a Socratic Seminar.

Breaking down a project is key for students so it’s important to think about when it’s appropriate to use a Socratic Seminar or this Method of Inquiry, Critical Thinking and Discussion.  To me, it doesn’t quite feel right to use it in the beginning of a project when thinking about a problem or issue.  Nor while students are conducting research and gaining more knowledge about the topic that interests them.  I don’t want to stifle their creativity as they think about the product they want to produce either.  It’s during their refining and peer editing process that this makes the most sense to me.  It never occurred to me that much of the scaffolding needed to teach students how to peer edit is already embedded in the Socratic Method.

I’m still not completely sold on the Socratic Method and these Socratic Seminars; I look forward to hearing more ideas about them and also to observing teachers implementing them in their classrooms for the future.  Ultimately, they require students to practice some pretty good skills; the rub is in how/when these methods of inquiry, collaboration and discussion are used.