Socrates: an imaginary observation

Dear Socrates,

Thank you for allowing me to observe your class on the nature of reality on Friday.  I very much enjoyed it.

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was clearly a high level of engagement in your classroom.  (I use this term loosely:  I applaud the choice you and your students have made to meet in open, public spaces and wish such intersections were a larger part of our educational system).  It is clear to me that your students will remember your words;  I was particularly pleased to see that Plato was paying attention.

I also appreciated the complex ideas you are asking your students to consider:  it is clear you have high expectations and are presenting them with cutting edge research rather than a textbook synthesis.  (I think it’s great, by the way, that you are teaching without a textbook.)

I do wonder, though, if Menon felt a bit put on the spot at certain points in the discussion.  Rather than being truly open-ended, it seemed that many of your questions were designed to lead him into a predictable answer, which you then showed to be wrong.  The danger of this approach, in my opinion, is that it can reinforce the idea that the “right” answer is impossible to get to without the teacher’s help and lead students to think less, rather than more.

I see that you write in your teaching philosophy that you make no pretense to knowledge and that the goal of your teaching is to lead students, by inviting them to think deeply, to draw their own conclusions.  I have to question, however, how much that is really happening in your classes.  I notice that, having asked a question, you frequently answer it without giving the students time to fully explore their own answers and that, when they do offer an answer of their own, you often move immediately to your next question or point without truly engaging–or inviting other students to engage–with their answer on its own merits.  I wonder if that approach really facilitates critical thinking or simply moves the vehicle of information delivery from lectures to questions.  A thought to consider!

These are not uncommon problems in classes drawing–as I believe you are here–on the Socratic seminar approach.  This approach can be powerful and electric in the classroom but, if not carefully implemented, questioning can be just as teacher-dominated and productive of passive learning as lectures.  To improve your technique, I suggest you watch some particularly thoughtful discussion leaders in action.  Here are a couple you might start with:  Jodi Rice and Trent Batson.  There are plenty of other great ones out there:  I’m learning a lot from them myself!

Just playing around.  This is what happens when you wake up too early on a Sunday morning and have time to lie around thinking.  What do you think?  Was Socrates a great teacher or not?


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About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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