“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.

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On an unrelated but seasonal note…


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