Mention the Socratic method of teaching and you’re likely to conjure up two images: toga-wearing, Greek philosophers prodding their prodigies to dig into existential truths and authoritarian law school professors interrogating their pupils to test their resolve.
Neither scenario seems like a place that would be appropriate for young students.
While some argue that it’s not suited to children before middle school, Socratic discussion has been touted as a critical thinking tool that can even engage younger children (preschool and elementary school-aged). Below, we’ll discuss how you can adapt this ancient approach to a contemporary homeschool routine for kids of all ages.
Named for Plato’s teacher, Socrates, a Socratic dialogue looks like a series of questions meant to help students arrive at their own conclusions. But if we return to its Greek origins, we can underscore the fact that its original goal was not education in general, but moral education.
Scholars have suggested a Socratic questioner’s job is not just to inspire discussion. They must also keep it on point, maintain its intellectual rigor, and engage as many students as possible. In addition, the facilitator is expected to keep tabs on the discussion by updating students on what has and has not been resolved.
Today, as the idea of the Socratic method has broadened, we tend to think of it in terms of the question-based approach: Instead of a teacher who dispenses wisdom to receptive pupils, students are empowered to ask and answer questions that are meaningful to them.
By pressing students to challenge their presuppositions through open-ended questions, the Socratic questioner does not lead them to a “correct answer,” but instead helps them develop critical thinking skills that encourage the learner to continue pursuing an issue until they themselves are satisfied with the conclusion. At the same time, because it is a group practice, the Socratic method helps students develop tolerance around diverse, conflicting ideas, as they witness their peers come to conclusions of their own that might be dramatically different.
With its close association to aggressive law school tactics, the Socratic method has a negative reputation in some circles. But, as with all pedagogical approaches, the impact depends on how you apply it. Here are some ways we recommend incorporating elements of the Socratic method in your routine.
The foundation of the Socratic method is the idea that learning is student-driven, which means a teacher is not lecturing but rather facilitating conversations. Their job is to inject the right questions into the discussion at the right moment, particularly if it stagnates because students are too quick to come to a consensus. At Prisma we prepare our coaches with a list of potential questions to spur conversation, not a required set of answers learners need to regurgitate — and then encourage them to react spontaneously to whatever unfolds.
When you ask a profound question, students might respond instinctively with whatever pops into their head, but after a few well-designed followups, it will naturally get harder to just dash off a reply.
Sitting in silence can be hard for people of all ages, but all the more so for young people who may feel the impulse to fill an unsettling pause with giggles or jokes.
A facilitator can help build up this comfort over the course of the school year by interjecting occasional observations like, “Let’s all think for a moment,” or validating comments like, “It’s okay if this takes a while.” If students feel disapproval or impatience, they won’t feel safe to do the deep thinking that makes this approach so impactful.
Socratic facilitators should model the idea that there’s no right or wrong answer, as long as learners stay within respectful boundaries when responding to each other’s ideas. Kids should feel encouraged to think more deeply about topics and to find evidence to justify their opinions, while feeling safe enough to let go of a previously held belief when they are no longer convinced of its accuracy. A facilitator who shows themselves open to changing their mind in the face of compelling evidence will be more likely to have their students learn to do the same.
One of the jobs of the Socratic questioner is to include as many kids as possible in the discussion, which will likely require both reigning in the over-eager kids and coaxing the shy ones out of their shell. In order to make the process more comfortable (and less like law school for elementary students), you should explain ahead of time that you will be calling on all students to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
For shy students, you might give them a head’s up and let them know you’ll be checking in with them in a few minutes; you might invite them to write their answers down in advance or, in an online environment, allow them to contribute via chat. Start small and praise their effort: One comment per class is a great starting point to work up from.
For extra-excited students who can’t seem to contain themselves, you can encourage them to continue developing their answers after class in written or video form, or in your office hours, so that all their enthusiasm can be channeled into something that feels good to them and they leave room for other students to contribute.
If you’re interested in taking the best of the Socratic approach and including it in your day-to-day homeschooling or teaching, here are some ways it supports our curriculum at Prisma:
Done in a spirit of inclusivity and discovery, this age-old method can provide kids a solid foundation to grow into critical thinkers and life-long learners.
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