For some teachers and administrators, just asking a lot of questions in class is considered Socratic method. However, the term is more specifically applied to an array of teaching methods that developed over the last century. The Socratic method, when applied to reach specific goals and objectives, can be called teacher-directed, or curriculum-directed. In the student-centered, or seminar method, the teacher must give up the didactic role of know-all lecturer and transition toward becoming an equal participant in a conversation. Even when teachers are able to use seminars on a regular basis, many issues arise, such as meeting state standards while still giving students intellectual and academic freedom.
Keywords Dialogues; Dialogic Instruction; Fishbowl Dialogue; (Junior) Great Books Seminar; Harkness Table; Literature Circles; Paideia Seminar; Plato; Seminar; Socrates; Socratic Circles; Socratic Seminar
Teaching Methods: The Socratic Method
As Moeller and Moeller (2002) indicated, there is not an official definition of Socratic method. The term is derived from Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, who was made famous in Plato's Dialogues for asking questions, and especially for answering questions with more questions. The Socratic method was not passed down from ancient Athens across continents and millennia (Schneider, 2013). It is traditionally seen as an experiential learner-centred pedagogy that values creativity and intellectual independence (Gorry, 2011). On a simple level, the term refers to constantly asking questions in order to further investigate core issues and ideas. The Socratic method can be used for all ages, although some, like, Strong (1997) suggested different frequency and length for various ages.
For some teachers and administrators, just asking a lot of questions in class is considered Socratic method. However, the term is more specifically applied to an array of teaching methods that developed over the last century. According to Strong (1997) the term "Socratic Seminars" was first coined by Scott Buchanan in 1937 and has evolved ever since through St. John's College, the University of Chicago, the Great Books Foundation, and the Paideia program. In particular, authors like Strong (1997), Copeland (2005) and Tredway (1995) trace much of the proliferation of the Socratic method to Mortimer Adler's 1982 Paideia Proposal.
Questioning for Deeper Investigation
Questions are central to any application of the Socratic method, but crucial differences emerge when considerations such as how the questions are asked and under what circumstances they are being asked are taken into account. These differences become clear when the applications and purposes are examined. A brief look at Plato's Dialogues can reveal the idea that Socrates, despite asking questions, was actually steering his students toward a pre-determined goal. Whether this was the case or not, teachers wishing to use the Socratic method face a crucial fork in the road: Are the students being guided by the questions to a specific destination or are they free to explore their own interests?
This distinction is best illustrated by the difference between dialogue or conversation on one hand, and discussion on the other. Dialogue and conversation are meant to be free flowing and may or may not lead to any resolution. In this sense, they can be considered student-centered, since the students themselves follow what interests them. Discussions are meant to arrive at specific answers, and, therefore, can be considered teacher-directed or curriculum-directed. Copeland (2005) considered dialogue an inductive process that produced more questions and ideas, whereas discussion was a deductive process that led to fewer questions and ideas.
Traditional Teacher-Directed (Discussion) Method
The Socratic method, when applied to reach specific goals and objectives, can be called teacher-directed, or curriculum-directed. In this situation, the students are guided by the questions the teacher asks in order to reach pre-determined destinations. The students are not free to explore in the sense that there is a specific point to be made or a lesson to be learned by the conversation. The teacher knows most or all of the answers to the questions he or she poses in this application, creating or perpetuating the teacher-knows-all dynamic.
In the teacher-directed application, the teacher retains intellectual authority over the classroom and the material, even when asking questions. In other words, the students view the teacher as the dispenser of knowledge who has the final say in conversation. These teachers often endorse and encourage certain answers and ask leading questions where the answer is embedded in the question. Moeller and Moeller (2002) referred to these teachers as pseudo-Socratic teachers who actually practice nothing more than disguised lectures.
There are benefits to the teacher-directed application. Teachers who want to break away from straightforward lecturing may find asking questions more interesting, not only for themselves but for the students as well. After all, questions invite dialogue and encourage new ideas. Teachers may be pleasantly surprised to hear what their students are actually thinking, rather than hearing a steady stream of regurgitated information. Students may find the experience more engaging since their ideas are being voiced.
The real benefit of Socratic method comes in a seminar format, when the students are empowered to explore what they feel is important, when they are taught how to think, not what to think.
Student-Centered (Socratic Seminar) Method
Most of these applications of Socratic method are student-centered. Hence, the term "seminar" will be used in this paper to generically refer to the many variations of the student-centered approach. These include, but aren't limited to:
• Touchstones™ Seminars,
• Junior Great Books™ Seminars,
• Paideia Seminars,
• Harkness Table,
• Socratic Seminars,
• Socratic Circles,
• Literature Circles, and
• The fishbowl method.
Although each has its own set of specific rules, they all share similar ideas.
In the student-centered, or seminar method, the teacher must give up the didactic role of know-all lecturer and transition toward becoming an equal participant in a conversation. This can be a difficult process for some teachers. The dialogue in such seminars is not driven to resolution by the teacher or by the curriculum, but instead is steered by the students and their interests in an open-ended way. From the students' perspective, seeing the teacher as a learner as well can be extremely beneficial. Since the teacher doesn't have all of the answers, as not all issues have resolution, learning appears as more a process than a product.
Because the structure of a student-centered Socratic method encourages students to do the work of thinking and analysis in a cooperative manner, there are a large number of benefits. Strong (1997) and Copeland (2005) list many of the typical virtues of Socratic method:
• Increased critical thinking and reading skills
• Increased speaking and listening skills
• Greater teamwork and politenes
• Increased honesty and integrity
• More willingness to accept criticism
In addition, Tredway (1995) indicated that Socratic seminars also build self-esteem, since students are engaged in significant work. The emphasis for many seminars, then, is skills, rather than content.
Although there is not yet a lot of specific research on Socratic method, Strong (1997), for one, has shown that the students in two separate schools made significant gains in critical thinking skills as measured by the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal.
Teachers wishing to start a student-centered version of the Socratic method, or seminar, should first establish classroom expectations and procedures for having conversations. This includes general things, like being polite and courteous, and specific recommendations, such as disagreeing with ideas rather than people. Many seminar programs, like those from Touchstones and Junior Great Books, have clear and useful recommendations.
At first, teachers may need to take measures for creating artificial dialogue by using talking sticks, raising hands, and taking turns around in circles. However, seminar practitioners like Strong (1997) and Copeland (2005) have suggested shedding the constraints as soon as possible, to create more natural conversation. Two strangers meeting on a sidewalk, after all, will not raise their hands to speak to each other.
Participants, including the teacher, should be arranged in a circle, so that all may see one another. In the case of large classes, an inner and outer circle can be formed. Ball and Brewer (2000) have suggested a horseshoe shape for the outer circle, so that there are no students seated behind the teacher. There are several techniques, such as the fishbowl and Socratic Circles, for engaging the inner and outer circles. Copeland (2005) has also suggested changing the lighting in the classroom, in order to help students transition into dialogue mode.
There are six basic components of a seminar conversation:
• The pre-seminar activity,
• The text,
• The opening question,
• The facilitator,
• The students involved, and
• The post-seminar activity.
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