May 19, 2009

Learning and Education With The 'Socratic Method'

In the dialogue ‘Meno’ Socrates shows that even an uneducated peasant can understand advanced geometry(extract below). Simply by asking questions that allowed the person to deduce what the answers were from their own understanding and experience. This method has become known as the ‘Socratic Method’ and I think Plato's dialogue 'Meno' is our first written demonstration of this method.

Contrasting this method to the one used in modern schools you might notice that a student is told what is right and what isn’t. He/she is taught a formula and then told to solve equation. This approach assumes that the student doesn’t know, cannot infer and must be stuffed with knowledge/information.

This process of ‘stuffing’ a student makes a student believe that they have learn’t something(random facts) and creates an illusion that they know.

Education comes from the word educare which means to “draw forth”

'Education' is known to have several root words. It is popularly known to be derived from the Latin root 'educo' meaning to 'educe'- to draw out. It also has root words, 'educare' and 'educere'. "educare' means to 'rear or to bring up' and it refers to child rearing, whereas, 'educere' which is derived from two roots 'e' and 'ducere' means to 'draw out from within' or to 'lead forth'.

Abraham Lincoln, Galileo, Leanardo da Vinci were all self taught and became some of the greatest men of our history. There are only two possibilities for this. Either genius cannot be encouraged in the masses of kids but just pops up out of the blue in a few rare individuals OR the school system doesn’t work as an ‘educational’ medium.

The most effective model of learning we know of comes from the word –educare – or education which is applied and developed through the Socratic Method used by the ancient Greeks. This method was used in the streets of ancient Greece and produced some of the biggest innovations known to man. They transformed our perception of the world around us with breakthroughs of knowledge in philosophy, math, science and politics.

The renaissance of Europe also had individuals who applied the Socratic method to their studies(through curiosity) and once more our knowledge was transformed with breakthroughs in logic, astronomy and technology, which led to the Industrial Revolution changing the world forever.

Why do we have so few 'geniuses'? The answer to this conundrum is simple. Schools have a system of teaching that assumes that a child is like an empty vase that has to filled. This is the opposite of the Socratic method of teaching. This argument is not a new on.

You have already seen how history is reduced to facts to memorize. This format is exactly of the attitude that the students lacks information and must be filled (kind robotic don’t you think?). If you take this method of filling students and apply it to a large scale population, we are teaching whole generations of students not to rely on themselves but on what they are told because their only experience of learning is through prescribed textbooks.

The following is a picture I took of a table that compares the Socratic Method with the Scientific Method from here.

Notice how similar they are. We have major breakthroughs with the scientific method and have technology that we couldn't even have dreamed of 400 years ago. In the same way that the scientific method helps with discovery, the socratic method helps with learning.

The following is a transcript of a teaching experiment, using the Socratic method, with a regular third grade class in a suburban elementary school. I present my perspective and views on the session, and on the Socratic method as a teaching tool, following the transcript. The class was conducted on a Friday afternoon beginning at 1:30, late in May, with about two weeks left in the school year. This time was purposely chosen as one of the most difficult times to entice and hold these children's concentration about a somewhat complex intellectual matter. The point was to demonstrate the power of the Socratic method for both teaching and also for getting students involved and excited about the material being taught. There were 22 students in the class. I was told ahead of time by two different teachers (not the classroom teacher) that only a couple of students would be able to understand and follow what I would be presenting. When the class period ended, I and the classroom teacher believed that at least 19 of the 22 students had fully and excitedly participated and absorbed the entire material. (read more)

Extract from 'Meno' by Plato:

Soc. Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.

Men. I will.

Soc. Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?

Boy. I do.

Soc. And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc. And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. A square may be of any size?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc. And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet?

Boy. There are.

Soc. Then the square is of twice two feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.

Boy. Four, Socrates.

Soc. And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like this the lines equal?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And of how many feet will that be?

Boy. Of eight feet.

Soc. And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the side of that double square: this is two feet-what will that be?

Boy. Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

Soc. Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does he not?

Men. Yes.

Soc. And does he really know?

Men. Certainly not.

Soc. He only guesses that because the square is double, the line is double.

Men. True.

Soc. Observe him while he recalls the steps in regular order. (To the Boy.) Tell me, boy, do you assert that a double space comes from a double line? Remember that I am not speaking of an oblong, but of a figure equal every way, and twice the size of this-that is to say of eight feet; and I want to know whether you still say that a double square comes from double line?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. But does not this line become doubled if we add another such line here?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc. And four such lines will make a space containing eight feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. Let us describe such a figure: Would you not say that this is the figure of eight feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And are there not these four divisions in the figure, each of which is equal to the figure of four feet?

Boy. True.

Soc. And is not that four times four?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc. And four times is not double?

Boy. No, indeed.

Soc. But how much?

Boy. Four times as much.

Soc. Therefore the double line, boy, has given a space, not twice, but four times as much.

Boy. True.

Soc. Four times four are sixteen-are they not?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. What line would give you a space of right feet, as this gives one of sixteen feet;-do you see?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And the space of four feet is made from this half line?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. Good; and is not a space of eight feet twice the size of this, and half the size of the other?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc. Such a space, then, will be made out of a line greater than this one, and less than that one?

Boy. Yes; I think so.

Soc. Very good; I like to hear you say what you think. And now tell me, is not this a line of two feet and that of four?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. Then the line which forms the side of eight feet ought to be more than this line of two feet, and less than the other of four feet?

Boy. It ought.

Soc. Try and see if you can tell me how much it will be.

Boy. Three feet.

Soc. Then if we add a half to this line of two, that will be the line of three. Here are two and there is one; and on the other side, here are two also and there is one: and that makes the figure of which you speak?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. But if there are three feet this way and three feet that way, the whole space will be three times three feet?

Boy. That is evident.

Soc. And how much are three times three feet?

Boy. Nine.

Soc. And how much is the double of four?

Boy. Eight.

Soc. Then the figure of eight is not made out of a of three?

Boy. No.

Soc. But from what line?-tell me exactly; and if you would rather not reckon, try and show me the line.

Boy. Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.

Soc. Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is the side of a figure of eight feet: but then he thought that he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has a difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows.

Men. True.

Soc. Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?

Men. I think that he is.

Soc. If we have made him doubt, and given him the "torpedo's shock," have we done him any harm?

Men. I think not.

Soc. We have certainly, as would seem, assisted him in some degree to the discovery of the truth; and now he will wish to remedy his ignorance, but then he would have been ready to tell all the world again and again that the double space should have a double side.

Men. True.

Soc. But do you suppose that he would ever have enquired into or learned what he fancied that he knew, though he was really ignorant of it, until he had fallen into perplexity under the idea that he did not know, and had desired to know?

Men. I think not, Socrates.

Soc. Then he was the better for the torpedo's touch?

Men. I think so.

Soc. Mark now the farther development. I shall only ask him, and not teach him, and he shall share the enquiry with me: and do you watch and see if you find me telling or explaining anything to him, instead of eliciting his opinion. Tell me, boy, is not this a square of four feet which I have drawn?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And now I add another square equal to the former one?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And a third, which is equal to either of them?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. Suppose that we fill up the vacant corner?

Boy. Very good.

Soc. Here, then, there are four equal spaces?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And how many times larger is this space than this other?

Boy. Four times.

Soc. But it ought to have been twice only, as you will remember.

Boy. True.

Soc. And does not this line, reaching from corner to corner, bisect each of these spaces?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And are there not here four equal lines which contain this space?

Boy. There are.

Soc. Look and see how much this space is.

Boy. I do not understand.

Soc. Has not each interior line cut off half of the four spaces?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And how many spaces are there in this section?

Boy. Four.

Soc. And how many in this?

Boy. Two.

Soc. And four is how many times two?

Boy. Twice.

Soc. And this space is of how many feet?

Boy. Of eight feet.

Soc. And from what line do you get this figure?

Boy. From this.

Soc. That is, from the line which extends from corner to corner of the figure of four feet?

Boy. Yes.

Soc. And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno's slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?

Boy. Certainly, Socrates.

Soc. What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Men. Yes, they were all his own.

Soc. And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?

Men. True.

Soc. But still he had in him those notions of his-had he not?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?

Men. He has.

Soc. And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in different forms, he would know as well as any one at last?

Men. I dare say.

Soc. Without any one teaching him he will recover his knowledge for himself, if he is only asked questions?

Men. Yes.

Soc. And this spontaneous recovery of knowledge in him is recollection?

Men. True.

Soc. And this knowledge which he now has must he not either have acquired or always possessed?

Men. Yes.

Soc. But if he always possessed this knowledge he would always have known; or if he has acquired the knowledge he could not have acquired it in this life, unless he has been taught geometry; for he may be made to do the same with all geometry and every other branch of knowledge. Now, has any one ever taught him all this? You must know about him, if, as you say, he was born and bred in your house.

Men. And I am certain that no one ever did teach him.

Soc. And yet he has the knowledge?

Men. The fact, Socrates, is undeniable.

More about this sort of learning and teaching with Win Wenger;

o   Preface:  Einstein and Socrates
Two historically powerful systems of thought combined
 How to Teach Smarter, Not Harder!
One of the outstanding features of the Project Renaissance forms of modern Socratic Method is their simplicity and ease...
 Feeding the Loop
A new theory of human development, learning, creativity and genius.
A writing brainstorm in some context can bring up a wealth of insights you didn't think you knew.

 Borrowed Genius
How to build skills by borrowing from a true genius.

 Mutual Listening
For miracles in the classroom.

 Socratic Method
More than just a great technique for learning and understanding, here's the core of Win's new book in the making.

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