27 November 2010

On the Socratic method

I came across this quotation while marking over the summer:
“...the Socratic approach where you do not need to tell students anything, just ask them the right questions so that they will find out for themselves...”  (Reece and Walker, 2006: 118)
At least the referencing was punctilious. I must be missing something, I thought, because the quotation is a gross distortion of the "Socratic method" (if indeed there is such a thing).

And then I thought--I'm pretty sure this student has not read Plato*, because otherwise s/he would not have had to refer to one of the standard textbooks to explain what the "method" is.

But (I merely raise the question--the answer may be a clear "yes!" [in the original Greek]) have R and W (standing simply as proxies for many other writers in the field) actually read any Plato?

I suspect a process of "Chinese whispers" (I'm sure that is non-PC.) Many years ago I read a fascinating account in the now sadly defunct magazine New Society about the reporting of Watson's (and Rayner's--her role as researcher was one of the first casualties of the whisper cascade) classic 1920 "little Albert" experiment and how details and even important findings had changed in generations of standard psychology textbooks, as authors had clearly drawn not on the original, but on reports of accounts of reviews... of the original.

I ask because I can't find the much-vaunted "Socratic method" in Plato's Socratic dialogues. Far from the claimed dispassionate search for truth through skilful question and answer, they are case-studies in loaded and leading questioning, closed questions, manipulation and one-upmanship. The "Socratic" brand is claimed by teachers, but frankly it is pretty poor lousy practice.

And that is after the dialogues have been "spun" by Plato.

The classic exemplar of a Socratic dialogue is probably the Meno.
New readers start here:  Meno asks Socrates "whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?" Socrates proceeds to tie his "mark" (I use the jargon of con-artists provocatively!) up in knots, to force assent to the notion that the defining feature of virtue is the extent to which it shares the qualities of an ideal of VIRTUE which transcends individual instances. To demonstrate this, S. asserts that "learning" is merely "recollection" of knowledge of such ideal forms, and in evidence takes a servant (slave) of Meno's through a geometrical proof to show that he (S.) has not taught the boy anything new, but simply prompted him to recall what he (Boy) knew already, but didn't know he knew. (This was millenia before Rumsfeld, but...)
There are two levels in this dialogue, aren't there? There is the Socrates/Meno discussion about the nature of virtue, and then nested within it there is the Socrates/Boy demonstration of the geometrical proof... (and the Boy is after all, a slave)

Not quite. There is a third level, which is the construction of the dialogue itself as a literary artefact. It's a great essay but Plato wrote it to make a point. It is clearly didactic and contrived rather than a narrative (there is no context given, for example), intended not so much to demonstrate a method as to reinforce the Platonic notion of forms (the essence of--in this case--virtue existing outside of the normal realm of everyday experience).

So Socrates doesn't "draw out" hidden understanding from a naive inerlocutor. He bullies and manipulates acceptable answers from a hapless victim, who is largely reduced to responding, "Yes, Socrates" to a series of leading questions. I doubt whether one can claim that either Meno or the Boy actually "learn" much other than that Socrates is a slippery character.

Not only is there no evidence that the "Socratic method" works, but it appears that Socrates was not very good at it himself, so why do educationalists make such a big deal of a method which is both difficult and ineffective?

As one proponent of the method comments:
Finally, it doesn't always work.  Socrates used to tick off people doing this; they thought he was mocking them by asking them stupid questions or tricking them into being confused because he was clever.  They brought him to trial, convicted him, and executed him.  While execution is not as much a potential problem today, the method still really irritates people when you (as it seems to them) "show them up" in subjects they think they are expert.  Illogical people do NOT like this method used "on" them; and they cannot see it as a method that is being used "with" them in order to help them.
(Having said that, Roger Neighbour's exposition of how to use the Socratic method in the context of supervisory support for GP registrars does show its potential. And I must get hold of Bettany Hughes' new book and see whether I have got it completely wrong!)

*  Socrates never wrote anything. In fact he distrusted writing. Speaking through Plato in the Phaedrus he is supposed to have said;
"If men learn this [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows."
And of course here lies the rub. We have independent corroboration of the life of Socrates, but very little evidence of his ideas, other than as channeled by his disciple, Plato. And it is a very moot point how reliable Plato was... So when we claim "Socrates argued..." --was it Socrates? or Plato?

Hughes B (2010) The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life London; Jonathan Cape

Neighbour R (1992) The Inner Apprentice Plymouth UK; Petroc Press


  1. Good point James – I can hear the wounded sacred cow baying away in the background!

    However, I’m not so sure that I wholly agree about the method not working. But then perhaps we need first to agree on what the “method” actually is. If it were a case of “ask them the right questions so that they will find out for themselves” it seems to me to be a great way to teach, particularly circumstances that ask the student to make a leap of faith of some kind.

    No one likes being wrong, but it's bloody hard to be told you're wrong when you think you're right, especially by someone who makes you feel like a fool for being so misguided. And even if they don't intend to make you feel stupid it's remarkably easy to form such an impression because being wrong rarely feels like anything other than failure and the more you've invested in your error, the worse it feels. No wonder Socrates was so unpopular. 

    For this reason, as a teacher, when it comes to difficult or unfamiliar ideas, it's often far better to find a way to intimate the truth so that people feel like they've discovered it on their own rather than foisting it upon them. Indeed, as a teacher, you might not even know the ‘truth’ yourself. You might only know the general direction where it might be sought, and you can use your intuition and experience to guide the discussion to a realisation for both the student and yourself. This is what I gather the “Socratic Method” has come to mean, but you’re absolutely right to point out that Socrates didn’t actually seem to be very good at it himself or even to use it for the same reasons as we might. But perhaps we need to separate the method from the man. The important thing to remember about Socrates is how extraordinarily much we’ve learned from him, even though he hasn’t taught us anything:

    “If Socrates thought we’d learned something he would still not have thought he’d taught us. […] …at the core of what we think education probably is - to discuss with people in this open minded, open ended way that allows them to reflect on what they think and us to reflect on what we think without telling, without dogma, without insistence and without imperative to ask people to think about what they really think. And what that asks them to do is, if you like, to be true to themselves, asks them to be sincere about their beliefs and asks them to be honest about how their beliefs fit together. It also asks for the interlocutor to have some respect for the person they’re talking to and I think, perhaps, that’s a lesson that we do rightly learn from Socrates.” -MM McCabe ( http://tinyurl.com/36asm8m )

  2. Very well done with the post. I am so glad that you decided to share the same with your readers.

  3. Amanda7:17 am

    This is the danger of not reading primary sources.


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