“Is questioning an educational process, Ischomachus? I’m asking because I’ve just understood your method of questioning me. You take me through points that I know, you show me that these points are no different from points I’d been thinking that I didn’t know, and thus you convince me, I think, that I do know the latter points too.”
Xenophon’s Socrates in The Estate Manager
Many have heard of the Socratic method of teaching and know that it centers on asking questions. It can seem rather suspect. How for instance can a person give a good answer if he has not already learned the point in question?
I recall once a professor was unimpressed with a seminar session he observed that consisted exclusively in a teacher asking questions and eliciting discussion. The professor mused that the same result might have been accomplished in a much shorter time frame. That is, the teacher could have simply explained the ‘answers’ and thus saved time, and presumably ‘covered’ more material.
This raises important pedagogical questions, especially: just what is a teacher trying to accomplish at any given time? How we answer this question will make a significant difference in how we think about the art of teaching, and its various applications. For an art it is, and as such its end or ends will determine its practice.
This deserves careful consideration. Here I want to offer one observation.
The context of the quotation above is Ischomachus ‘teaching’ Socrates about the art of agriculture. Socrates’s ‘learning’ takes the form of coming to an explicit realization of certain things that had already been ‘given’ to him in some sense. The artfully posed questions of the teacher somehow brought out something latent in the student. In this case, Ischomachus’s questions empowered Socrates to ‘learn’ something (how to propagate olive trees) from his (Socrates’s) own experience—something he otherwise would not have seen.
The greater experience and knowledge of the teacher was essential—as it grounded just what line of questioning to pursue–yet the student’s coming-to-see happened in a very organic way. There is a marked difference between this coming-to-see and what happens when one is simply ‘told.’
What then is the point? Is there never a time simply to ‘tell’ a student about various things? Of course, there is such a time. There is also a time—as is clear from the life and teaching of Socrates, and many who have sought to imitate him over the centuries—to discern and pose the right questions. Parents, mentors, and teachers all can learn much from Socrates in this vein.
If nothing else, we might stand before the art of teaching—something in which we all should be apprentices—with a renewed humility, awe, and sense of purpose.
~ ~ ~
On an unrelated but seasonal note…
Join the Community.
Become a LifeCraft Member and gain access to our online courses and exclusive content. It's FREE of charge. Period.
If you join as a contributing member, you will help make this content available to an increasing audience and enable me to spend more time in this work. I thank you in advance.
Join the LifeCraft community today and get access to:
- Man of the Household (Course)
- Woman of the Household (Course)
- Concepts Made Clear (Mini-course)
- Dinner at Home (Mini-course)
“We must also remember that no metamorphosis since pre-historic times is in any way comparable to the metamorphosis that we are now undergoing.” “[Man is] a creature which is not only capable of gratuitous acts but of which it can be said that such acts are this...
“The beloved is said to be in the lover… [even] in the absence of the beloved, because of the lover’s longing towards…the good he wills to the beloved with a love of friendship.” Thomas Aquinas One thing my marriage has taught me is that really ‘being-present’ to...
“And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way?” Socrates, Plato’s Republic We seldom reflect on a stark...
Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.