Welcome to The Socrates Historical Society
Table of Contents
About Socrates- Introduction
"The Socratic method of teaching is based on
Socrates' theory that it is more important to enable students to think for
themselves than to merely fill their heads with "right" answers. Therefore, he
regularly engaged his pupils in dialogues by responding to their questions with
questions, instead of answers. This process encourages divergent thinking
rather than convergent thinking" (Adams).
Although Socrates (470-399 BCE) is the central figure of these dialogues, little
is actually known about him. He left no writings, and what is known is derived
largely from Plato and
Socrates was a stone cutter by trade, even though there is little evidence
that he did much to make a living. However, he did have enough money to own a
suit of armor when he was a
hoplite in the Athenian
military. Socrates' mother was a midwife. He was
married and had three sons.
Throughout his life he claimed to
hear voices which he
interpreted as signs from the gods.
It appears that Socrates spent much of his adult life in the
agora (or the marketplace)
conversing about ethical issues. He had a penchant for exposing ignorance,
hypocrisy, and conceit among among his fellow
Athenians, particularly in
regard to moral questions. In all probability, he was disliked by most of them.
However, Socrates did have a loyal following. He was very influential in the
lives of Plato, Euclid,
Alcibiades, and many others. As such, he was associated with the undemocratic
faction of Athens.
Although Socrates went to great lengths to distinguish himself from the
sophists, it is unlikely
that his fellow Athenians
made such a distinction in their minds.
Socrates is admired by many philosophers for his willingness to explore an
argument wherever it would lead as well as having the moral courage to follow
Socrates and the Socratic Principals are a
Major part of the Educational Programs
of the European Union
This is supposed to be of Socrates,
but it was made after he had already been dead for some time,
by someone who did not know what Socrates looked like.
Socrates was the first of the three great Athenian
philosophers (the other two are
Aristotle). Socrates was born in Athens in 469
BC, so he lived
through the time of
Pericles and the Athenian Empire, though he was too young to
Salamis. He was not from a rich family. His father was probably a
stone-carver, and Socrates also worked in
especially as a not-very-good
sculptor. Socrates' mother was a
Peloponnesian War began, Socrates fought bravely for Athens. We do
not have any surviving pictures of Socrates that were made while he was
alive, or by anyone who ever saw him, but he is supposed to have been
But when Socrates was in his forties or so, he began
to feel an urge to think about the world around him, and try to answer
some difficult questions. He asked, "What is wisdom?" and "What is
beauty?" and "What is the right thing to do?" He knew that these
questions were hard to answer, and he thought it would be better to have
a lot of people discuss the answers together, so that they might come up
with more ideas. So he began to go around Athens asking people he met
these questions, "What is wisdom?" , "What is piety?", and so forth.
Sometimes the people just said they were busy, but sometimes they would
try to answer him. Then Socrates would try to teach them to think better
by asking them more questions which showed them the problems in their
logic. Often this made people angry. Sometimes they even tried to beat
This is what is left of the Painted Stoa, or Porch,
where Socrates used to teach, in Athens.
Socrates soon had a group of young men who listened
to him and learned from him how to think.
Plato was one of these young men. Socrates never charged them any
money. But in 399
BC, some of the
Athenians got mad at Socrates for what he was teaching the young men.
They charged him in court with impiety (not respecting the gods) and
corrupting the youth (teaching young men bad things). People thought he
democracy, and he probably was - he thought the
smartest people should make the decisions for everyone. The
Athenians couldn't charge him with being against democracy, because they
had promised not to take revenge on anyone after the
Peloponnesian War. So they had to use these vague religious charges
Socrates had a big
trial in front of an Athenian jury. He was convicted of these
charges and sentenced to death, and he died soon afterwards, when the
guards gave him a cup of hemlock (a poisonous plant) to drink.
Socrates never wrote down any of his ideas while he
was alive. But after he died, his student, Plato, did
write down some of what Socrates had said. You can read
Plato's version of what Socrates said
or you can buy copies of these conversations as a book (it's only like
"The unexamined life is not worth
Click on a link below to find a
The Socratic method of teaching
is based on Socrates' theory that it is more important to enable students to
think for themselves than to merely fill their heads with "right" answers.
Therefore, he regularly engaged his pupils in dialogues by responding to their
questions with questions, instead of answers. This process encourages divergent
thinking rather than convergent.
Students are given
opportunities to "examine" a common piece of text, whether it is in the form of
a novel, poem, art print, or piece of music. After "reading" the common text
"like a love letter", open-ended questions are posed.
Open-ended questions allow
students to think critically, analyze multiple meanings in text, and express
ideas with clarity and confidence. After all, a certain degree of emotional
safety is felt by participants when they understand that this format is based on
dialogue and not discussion/debate.
Dialogue is exploratory and
involves the suspension of biases and prejudices. Discussion/debate is a
transfer of information designed to win an argument and bring closure. Americans
are great at discussion/debate. We do not dialogue well. However, once teachers
and students learn to dialogue, they find that the ability to ask meaningful
questions that stimulate thoughtful interchanges of ideas is more important than
Participants in a Socratic
Seminar respond to one another with respect by carefully listening instead of
interrupting. Students are encouraged to "paraphrase" essential elements of
another's ideas before responding, either in support of or in disagreement.
Members of the dialogue look each other in the "eyes" and use each other names.
This simple act of socialization reinforces appropriate behaviors and promotes
Before you come to a Socratic Seminar
class, please read the assigned text (novel section, poem, essay, article,
etc.) and write at least one question in each of the following categories:
WORLD CONNECTION QUESTION:
Write a question
connecting the text to the real world.
Example: If you
were given only 24 hours to pack your most precious
belongings in a back pack and to get ready to leave your home town, what
might you pack? (After reading the first 30 pages of NIGHT).
Write a question
about the text that will help everyone in the
class come to an agreement about events or characters in the text. This
question usually has a "correct" answer.
happened to Hester Pyrnne's husband that she was
left alone in Boston without family? (after the first 4 chapters of THE
Write an insightful question about the text that will require proof
and group discussion and "construction of logic" to discover or explore the
answer to the question.
Example: Why did
Gene hesitate to reveal the truth about the
accident to Finny that first day in the infirmary? (after mid-point of A
UNIVERSAL THEME/ CORE
Write a question
dealing with a theme(s) of the text that will
encourage group discussion about the universality of the text.
reading John Gardner's GRENDEL, can you pick out its existential elements?
LITERARY ANALYSIS QUESTION: Write a question dealing with HOW an author
chose to compose a literary piece. How did the author manipulate point of
view, characterization, poetic form, archetypal hero patterns, for example?
Example: In MAMA
FLORA'S FAMILY, why is it important that the
story is told through flashback?
Guidelines for Participants in a
Refer to the text when needed during the discussion. A seminar is not a
test of memory. You are not "learning a subject"; your goal is to understand the
ideas, issues, and values reflected in the text.
It's OK to "pass" when asked to contribute.
Do not participate if you are not prepared. A seminar should not be a
Do not stay confused; ask for clarification.
Stick to the point currently under discussion; make notes about ideas you
want to come back to.
Don't raise hands; take turns speaking.
8. Speak up so that all can hear
9. Talk to each other, not just to the leader or teacher.
10. Discuss ideas rather than each other's opinions.
11. You are responsible for the seminar, even if you don't know it or admit it.
Participants in a Socratic Seminar
When I am evaluating your Socratic
Seminar participation, I ask the following questions about participants. Did
Speak loudly and clearly?
Cite reasons and evidence for their statements?
Use the text to find support?
Listen to others respectfully?
Stick with the subject?
Talk to each other, not just to the leader?
Ask for help to clear up confusion?
Support each other?
Avoid hostile exchanges?
Question others in a civil manner?
What is the difference between dialogue and
- Dialogue is collaborative:
multiple sides work toward shared understanding.
Debate is oppositional: two opposing sides try to prove each other wrong.
- In dialogue, one listens
to understand, to make meaning, and to find common ground.
In debate, one listens to find flaws, to spot differences, and to counter
- Dialogue enlarges and
possibly changes a participant's point of view.
Debate defends assumptions as truth.
- Dialogue creates an
open-minded attitude: an openness to being wrong and an openness to change.
Debate creates a close-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
- In dialogue, one submits
one's best thinking, expecting that other people's reflections will help
improve it rather than threaten it.
In debate, one submits one's best thinking and defends it against challenge
to show that it is right.
- Dialogue calls for
temporarily suspending one's beliefs.
Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one's beliefs.
- In dialogue, one searches
for strengths in all positions.
In debate, one searches for weaknesses in the other position.
- Dialogue respects all the
other participants and seeks not to alienate or offend.
Debate rebuts contrary positions and may belittle or deprecate other
- Dialogue assumes that many
people have pieces of answers and that cooperation can lead to a greater
Debate assumes a single right answer that somebody already has.
- Dialogue remains
Debate demands a conclusion.
- suspending judgment
- examining our own work
- exposing our reasoning and
looking for limits to it
- communicating our
- exploring viewpoints more
broadly and deeply
- being open to
- approaching someone who
sees a problem differently not as an adversary, but as a colleague in common
pursuit of better solution.
A Level Participant
Participant offers enough
solid analysis, without prompting, to move the conversation forward
Participant, through her
comments, demonstrates a deep knowledge of the text and the question
come to the seminar prepared, with notes and
a marked/annotated text
Participant, through her
comments, shows that she is actively
listening to other participants
clarification and/or follow-up that extends
often refer back to specific parts of the text.
B Level Participant
Participant offers solid
analysis without prompting
participant demonstrates a good knowledge of the text and the question
come to the seminar prepared, with notes and
a marked/annotated text
that he/she is actively listening to others
and offers clarification and/or follow-up
C Level Participant
Participant offers some analysis, but needs prompting from the
participant demonstrates a general
knowledge of the text and question
Participant is less
prepared, with few notes and no
Participant is actively listening to others, but does not offer
clarification and/or follow-up to others’ comments
Participant relies more
upon his or her opinion, and less on the text to drive her comments
D or F Level Participant
Participant comes to the seminar
ill-prepared with little
understanding of the text and question
not listen to others, offers no commentary to
further the discussion
the group by interrupting other speakers or
by offering off topic questions and comments.
the discussion and its participants
Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling
by Rick Garlikov
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. The three other students' eyes were glazed over
from the very beginning, and they did not seem to be involved in the class at
all. The students' answers below are in capital letters.
The experiment was to see whether I could teach these
students binary arithmetic (arithmetic using only two numbers, 0 and 1) only
by asking them questions. None of them had been introduced to binary
arithmetic before. Though the ostensible subject matter was binary arithmetic,
my primary interest was to give a demonstration to the teacher of the power and
benefit of the Socratic method where it is applicable. That is my interest here
as well. I chose binary arithmetic as the vehicle for that because it is
something very difficult for children, or anyone, to understand when it is
taught normally; and I believe that a demonstration of a method that can teach
such a difficult subject easily to children and also capture their enthusiasm
about that subject is a very convincing demonstration of the value of the
method. (As you will see below, understanding binary arithmetic is also about
understanding "place-value" in general. For those who seek a much more detailed
explanation about place-value, visit the long paper on
The Concept and Teaching of
Place-Value.) This was to be the Socratic method in what I consider its
purest form, where questions (and only questions) are used to arouse curiosity
and at the same time serve as a logical, incremental, step-wise guide that
enables students to figure out about a complex topic or issue with their own
thinking and insights. In a less pure form, which is normally the way it occurs,
students tend to get stuck at some point and need a teacher's explanation of
some aspect, or the teacher gets stuck and cannot figure out a question that
will get the kind of answer or point desired, or it just becomes more efficient
to "tell" what you want to get across. If "telling" does occur, hopefully by
that time, the students have been aroused by the questions to a state of curious
receptivity to absorb an explanation that might otherwise have been meaningless
to them. Many of the questions are decided before the class; but depending on
what answers are given, some questions have to be thought up extemporaneously.
Sometimes this is very difficult to do, depending on how far from what is
anticipated or expected some of the students' answers are. This particular
attempt went better than my best possible expectation, and I had much higher
expectations than any of the teachers I discussed it with prior to doing it.
I had one prior relationship with this class. About two weeks earlier
I had shown three of the third grade classes together how to throw a boomerang
and had let each student try it once. They had really enjoyed that. One girl and
one boy from the 65 to 70 students had each actually caught their returning
boomerang on their throws. That seemed to add to everyone's enjoyment. I had
therefore already established a certain rapport with the students, rapport being
something that I feel is important for getting them to comfortably and
enthusiastically participate in an intellectually uninhibited manner in class
and without being psychologically paralyzed by fear of "messing up".
When I got to the classroom for the binary math experiment, students
were giving reports on famous people and were dressed up like the people they
were describing. The student I came in on was reporting on John Glenn, but he
had not mentioned the dramatic and scary problem of that first American trip in
orbit. I asked whether anyone knew what really scary thing had happened on John
Glenn's flight, and whether they knew what the flight was. Many said a trip to
the moon, one thought Mars. I told them it was the first full earth orbit in
space for an American. Then someone remembered hearing about something wrong
with the heat shield, but didn't remember what. By now they were listening
intently. I explained about how a light had come on that indicated the heat
shield was loose or defective and that if so, Glenn would be incinerated coming
back to earth. But he could not stay up there alive forever and they had nothing
to send up to get him with. The engineers finally determined, or hoped, the
problem was not with the heat shield, but with the warning light. They thought
it was what was defective. Glenn came down. The shield was ok; it had been just
the light. They thought that was neat.
"But what I am really here for today is to try an experiment with
you. I am the subject of the experiment, not you. I want to see whether I can
teach you a whole new kind of arithmetic only by asking you questions. I won't
be allowed to tell you anything about it, just ask you things. When you think
you know an answer, just call it out. You won't need to raise your hands and
wait for me to call on you; that takes too long." [This took them a while to
adapt to. They kept raising their hands; though after a while they simply called
out the answers while raising their hands.] Here we go.
1) "How many is this?" [I held up ten fingers.]
2) "Who can write that on the board?" [virtually all hands up; I toss the
chalk to one kid and indicate for her to come up and do it]. She writes
3) Who can write ten another way? [They hesitate than some hands go up. I
toss the chalk to another kid.]
4) Another way?
5) Another way?
2 x 5 [inspired by the last
6) That's very good, but there are lots of things that equal ten,
right? [student nods agreement], so I'd rather not get into combinations that
equal ten, but just things that represent or sort of mean ten. That will
keep us from having a whole bunch of the same kind of thing. Anybody else?
7) One more?
8) [I point to the word "ten"]. What is this?
THE WORD TEN
9) What are written words made up of?
10) How many letters are there in the English alphabet?
11) How many words can you make out of them?
12) [Pointing to the number "10"] What is this way of writing numbers made
13) How many numerals are there?
NINE / TEN
14) Which, nine or ten?
15) Starting with zero, what are they? [They call out, I write them in the
16) How many numbers can you make out of these numerals?
MEGA-ZILLIONS, INFINITE, LOTS
17) How come we have ten numerals? Could it be because we have 10 fingers?
18) What if we were aliens with only two fingers? How many numerals might
19) How many numbers could we write out of 2 numerals?
NOT MANY /
[one kid:] THERE WOULD BE A
20) What problem?
THEY COULDN'T DO THIS [he holds
up seven fingers]
21) [This strikes me as a very quick, intelligent insight I did not expect
so suddenly.] But how can you do fifty five?
[he flashes five fingers for
an instant and then flashes them again]
22) How does someone know that is not ten? [I am not really happy with my
question here but I don't want to get side-tracked by how to logically try to
sign numbers without an established convention. I like that he sees the problem
and has announced it, though he did it with fingers instead of words, which
complicates the issue in a way. When he ponders my question for a second with a
"hmmm", I think he sees the problem and I move on,
23) Well, let's see what they could do. Here's the numerals you wrote down
[pointing to the column from 0 to 9] for our ten numerals. If we only have two
numerals and do it like this, what numerals would we have.
24) Okay, what can we write as we count? [I write as they call out
25) Is that it? What do we do on this planet when we run out of numerals
WRITE DOWN "ONE,
[almost in unison] I DON'T KNOW; THAT'S JUST
THE WAY YOU WRITE "TEN"
27) You have more than one numeral here and you have already used these
numerals; how can you use them again?
WE PUT THE 1 IN A DIFFERENT
28) What do you call that column you put it in?
29) Why do you call it that?
30) Well, what does this 1 and this 0 mean when written in these columns?
1 TEN AND NO ONES
31) But why is this a ten? Why is this [pointing] the ten's column?
DON'T KNOW; IT JUST IS!
32) I'll bet there's a reason. What was the first number that needed a new
column for you to be able to write it?
33) Could that be why it is called the ten's column?! What is the first
number that needs the next column?
34) And what column is that?
35) After you write 19, what do you have to change to write down 20?
a 0 and 1 to a 2
36) Meaning then 2 tens and no ones, right, because 2 tens are ___?
37) First number that needs a fourth column?
38) What column is that?
39) Okay, let's go back to our two-fingered aliens arithmetic. We have
What would we do to write "two" if we did the same thing we do over here
[tens] to write the next number after you run out of numerals?
START ANOTHER COLUMN
40) What should we call it?
41) Right! Because the first number we need it for is ___?
42) So what do we put in the two's column? How many two's are there in
43) And how many one's extra?
44) So then two looks like this: [pointing to "10"], right?
RIGHT, BUT THAT SURE LOOKS LIKE
45) No, only to you guys, because you were taught it wrong [grin] -- to
the aliens it is two. They learn it that way in pre-school just as you learn to
call one, zero [pointing to "10"] "ten". But it's not really ten, right? It's
two -- if you only had two fingers. How long does it take a little kid in
pre-school to learn to read numbers, especially numbers with more than one
numeral or column?
TAKES A WHILE
46) Is there anything obvious about calling "one, zero" "ten" or do you
have to be taught to call it "ten" instead of "one, zero"?
HAVE TO BE TAUGHT IT
47) Ok, I'm teaching you different. What is "1, 0" here?
48) Hard to see it that way, though, right?
49) Try to get used to it; the alien children do. What number comes next?
50) How do we write it with our numerals?
We need one
"TWO" and a "ONE"
[I write down 11 for them] So we have
51) Uh oh, now we're out of numerals again. How do we get to four?
START A NEW COLUMN!
52) Call it what?
THE FOUR'S COLUMN
53) Call it out to me; what do I write?
ONE, ZERO, ZERO
[I write "100
under the other numbers]
ONE, ZERO, ONE
I write "101
55) Now let's add one more to it to get six. But be careful. [I point to
the 1 in the one's column and ask] If we add 1 to 1, we can't write "2", we can
only write zero in this column, so we need to carry ____?
56) And we get?
ONE, ONE, ZERO
57) Why is this six? What is it made of? [I point to columns, which I had
been labeling at the top with the word "one", "two", and "four" as they had
called out the names of them.]
a "FOUR" and a "TWO"
58) Which is ____?
59) Next? Seven?
ONE, ONE, ONE
60) Out of numerals again. Eight?
NEW COLUMN; ONE, ZERO, ZERO,
I write "1000
[We do a couple more and I continue to write them one under the other with
the word next to each number, so we have:]
61) So now, how many numbers do you think you can write with a one and a
ALL OF THEM
62) Now, let's look at something. [Point to Roman numeral X that one kid
had written on the board.] Could you easily multiply Roman numerals? Like MCXVII
63) Let's see what happens if we try to multiply in alien here. Let's try
two times three and you multiply just like you do in tens [in the "traditional"
American style of writing out multiplication].
They call out the "one, zero" for just below the line, and "one, zero,
zero" for just below that and so I write:
64) Ok, look on the list of numbers, up here [pointing to the "chart"
where I have written down the numbers in numeral and word form] what is 110?
65) And how much is two times three in real life?
66) So alien arithmetic works just as well as your arithmetic, huh?
LOOKS LIKE IT
67) Even easier, right, because you just have to multiply or add zeroes
and ones, which is easy, right?
68) There, now you know how to do it. Of course, until you get used to
reading numbers this way, you need your chart, because it is hard to read
something like "10011001011" in alien, right?
69) So who uses this stuff?
70) No, I think you guys use this stuff every day. When do you use it?
NO WE DON'T
71) Yes you do. Any ideas where?
72) [I walk over to the light switch and, pointing to it, ask:] What is
73) [I flip it off and on a few times.] How many positions does it have?
74) What could you call these positions?
ON AND OFF/ UP
75) If you were going to give them numbers what would you call them?
ONE AND TWO/
OH!! ZERO AND ONE!
[other kids then:] OH,
76) You got that right. I am going to end my experiment part here and just
tell you this last part.
Computers and calculators have lots of circuits through essentially on/off
switches, where one way represents 0 and the other way, 1. Electricity can go
through these switches really fast and flip them on or off, depending on the
calculation you are doing. Then, at the end, it translates the strings of zeroes
and ones back into numbers or letters, so we humans, who can't read long strings
of zeroes and ones very well can know what the answers are.
[at this point one of the kid's in the back yelled out,
I don't know exactly how these circuits work; so if your teacher ever gets
some electronics engineer to come into talk to you, I want you to ask him what
kind of circuit makes multiplication or alphabetical order, and so on. And I
want you to invite me to sit in on the class with you.
Now, I have to tell you guys, I think you were leading me on about not
knowing any of this stuff. You knew it all before we started, because I didn't
tell you anything about this -- which by the way is called "binary arithmetic",
"bi" meaning two like in "bicycle". I just asked you questions and you knew all
the answers. You've studied this before, haven't you?
NO, WE HAVEN'T. REALLY.
Then how did you do this? You must be amazing. By the way, some of you may
want to try it with other sets of numerals. You might try three numerals 0, 1,
and 2. Or five numerals. Or you might even try twelve 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,
9, ~, and ^ -- see, you have to make up two new numerals to do twelve, because
we are used to only ten. Then you can check your system by doing multiplication
or addition, etc. Good luck.
After the part about John Glenn, the whole class took only 25 minutes.
Their teacher told me later that after I left the children talked about it
until it was time to go home.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My Views About This Whole Episode
Students do not get bored or lose concentration if they are
actively participating. Almost all of these children participated the whole
time; often calling out in unison or one after another. If necessary, I could
have asked if anyone thought some answer might be wrong, or if anyone agreed
with a particular answer. You get extra mileage out of a given question that
way. I did not have to do that here. Their answers were almost all immediate and
very good. If necessary, you can also call on particular students; if they don't
know, other students will bail them out. Calling on someone in a non-threatening
way tends to activate others who might otherwise remain silent. That was not a
problem with these kids. Remember, this was not a "gifted" class. It was a
normal suburban third grade of whom two teachers had said only a few students
would be able to understand the ideas.
The topic was "twos", but I think they learned just as much about
the "tens" they had been using and not really understanding.
This method takes a lot of energy and concentration when you are
doing it fast, the way I like to do it when beginning a new topic. A teacher
cannot do this for every topic or all day long, at least not the first time one
teaches particular topics this way. It takes a lot of preparation, and a lot of
thought. When it goes well, as this did, it is so exciting for both the students
and the teacher that it is difficult to stay at that peak and pace or to change
gears or topics. When it does not go as well, it is very taxing trying to figure
out what you need to modify or what you need to say. I practiced this particular
sequence of questioning a little bit one time with a first grade teacher. I
found a flaw in my sequence of questions. I had to figure out how to correct
that. I had time to prepare this particular lesson; I am not a teacher but a
volunteer; and I am not a mathematician. I came to the school just to do this
topic that one period.
I did this fast. I personally like to do new topics fast
originally and then re-visit them periodically at a more leisurely pace as you
get to other ideas or circumstances that apply to, or make use of, them. As you
re-visit, you fine tune.
The chief benefits of this method are that it excites students'
curiosity and arouses their thinking, rather than stifling it. It also makes
teaching more interesting, because most of the time, you learn more from the
students -- or by what they make you think of -- than what you knew going into
the class. Each group of students is just enough different, that it makes it
stimulating. It is a very efficient teaching method, because the first time
through tends to cover the topic very thoroughly, in terms of their
understanding it. It is more efficient for their learning then lecturing to them
is, though, of course, a teacher can lecture in less time.
It gives constant feed-back and thus allows monitoring of the
students' understanding as you go. So you know what problems and
misunderstandings or lack of understandings you need to address as you are
presenting the material. You do not need to wait to give a quiz or exam; the
whole thing is one big quiz as you go, though a quiz whose point is teaching,
not grading. Though, to repeat, this is teaching by stimulating students'
thinking in certain focused areas, in order to draw ideas out of them; it is not
"teaching" by pushing ideas into students that they may or may not be able to
absorb or assimilate. Further, by quizzing and monitoring their understanding as
you go along, you have the time and opportunity to correct misunderstandings or
someone's being lost at the immediate time, not at the end of six weeks when it
is usually too late to try to "go back" over the material. And in some cases
their ideas will jump ahead to new material so that you can meaningfully talk
about some of it "out of (your!) order" (but in an order relevant to them). Or
you can tell them you will get to exactly that in a little while, and will
answer their question then. Or suggest they might want to think about it between
now and then to see whether they can figure it out for themselves first. There
are all kinds of options, but at least you know the material is "live" for them,
which it is not always when you are lecturing or just telling them things or
they are passively and dutifully reading or doing worksheets or listening
If you can get the right questions in the right sequence, kids in
the whole intellectual spectrum in a normal class can go at about the same pace
without being bored; and they can "feed off" each others' answers. Gifted kids
may have additional insights they may or may not share at the time, but will
tend to reflect on later. This brings up the issue of teacher expectations. From
what I have read about the supposed sin of tracking, one of the main complaints
is that the students who are not in the "top" group have lower expectations of
themselves and they get teachers who expect little of them, and who teach them
in boring ways because of it. So tracking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy
about a kid's educability; it becomes dooming. That is a problem, not with
tracking as such, but with teacher expectations of students (and their ability
to teach). These kids were not tracked, and yet they would never have been
exposed to anything like this by most of the teachers in that school, because
most felt the way the two did whose expectations I reported. Most felt the kids
would not be capable enough and certainly not in the afternoon, on a Friday near
the end of the school year yet. One of the problems with not tracking is that
many teachers have almost as low expectations of, and plans for, students
grouped heterogeneously as they do with non-high-end tracked students. The point
is to try to stimulate and challenge all students as much as possible. The
Socratic method is an excellent way to do that. It works for any topics or any
parts of topics that have any logical natures at all. It does not work for
unrelated facts or for explaining conventions, such as the sounds of letters or
the capitals of states whose capitals are more the result of historical accident
than logical selection.
Of course, you will notice these questions are very specific, and
as logically leading as possible. That is part of the point of the method. Not
just any question will do, particularly not broad, very open ended questions,
like "What is arithmetic?" or "How would you design an arithmetic with only two
numbers?" (or if you are trying to teach them about why tall trees do not fall
over when the wind blows "what is a tree?"). Students have nothing in particular
to focus on when you ask such questions, and few come up with any sort of
And it forces the teacher to think about the logic of a topic,
and how to make it most easily assimilated. In tandem with that, the teacher has
to try to understand at what level the students are, and what prior knowledge
they may have that will help them assimilate what the teacher wants them to
learn. It emphasizes student understanding, rather than teacher presentation;
student intake, interpretation, and "construction", rather than teacher output.
And the point of education is that the students are helped most efficiently to
learn by a teacher, not that a teacher make the finest apparent presentation,
regardless of what students might be learning, or not learning. I was fortunate
in this class that students already understood the difference between numbers
and numerals, or I would have had to teach that by questions also. And it was an
added help that they had already learned Roman numerals. It was also most
fortunate that these students did not take very many, if any, wrong turns or
have any firmly entrenched erroneous ideas that would have taken much effort to
show to be mistaken.
I took a shortcut in question 15 although I did not have to; but
I did it because I thought their answers to questions 13 and 14 showed an
understanding that "0" was a numeral, and I didn't want to spend time in this
particular lesson trying to get them to see where "0" best fit with regard to
order. If they had said there were only nine numerals and said they were 1-9,
then you could ask how they could write ten numerically using only those nine,
and they would quickly come to see they needed to add "0" to their list of
These are the four critical points about the questions: 1) they
must be interesting or intriguing to the students; they must lead by 2)
incremental and 3) logical steps (from the students' prior knowledge or
understanding) in order to be readily answered and, at some point, seen to be
evidence toward a conclusion, not just individual, isolated points; and 4) they
must be designed to get the student to see particular points. You are
essentially trying to get students to use their own logic and therefore see, by
their own reflections on your questions, either the good new ideas or the
obviously erroneous ideas that are the consequences of their established ideas,
knowledge, or beliefs. Therefore you have to know or to be able to find out what
the students' ideas and beliefs are. You cannot ask just any question or start
It is crucial to understand the difference between "logically"
leading questions and "psychologically" leading questions. Logically leading
questions require understanding of the concepts and principles involved in order
to be answered correctly; psychologically leading questions can be answered by
students' keying in on clues other than the logic of the content. Question 39
above is psychologically leading, since I did not want to cover in this
lesson the concept of value-representation but just wanted to use
"columnar-place" value, so I psychologically led them into saying "Start another
column" rather than getting them to see the reasoning behind columnar-place as
merely one form of value representation. I wanted them to see how to use
columnar-place value logically without trying here to get them to totally
understand its logic. (A common form of value-representation that is not
"place" value is color value in poker chips, where colors determine the value of
the individual chips in ways similar to how columnar place does it in writing.
For example if white chips are worth "one" unit and blue chips are worth "ten"
units, 4 blue chips and 3 white chips is the same value as a "4" written in the
"tens" column and a "3" written in the "ones" column for almost the same
For the Socratic method to work as a teaching tool and not just as
a magic trick to get kids to give right answers with no real understanding, it
is crucial that the important questions in the sequence must be logically
leading rather than psychologically leading. There is no magic formula for doing
this, but one of the tests for determining whether you have likely done it is to
try to see whether leaving out some key steps still allows people to give
correct answers to things they are not likely to really understand. Further, in
the case of binary numbers, I found that when you used this sequence of
questions with impatient or math-phobic adults who didn't want to have to think
but just wanted you to "get to the point", they could not correctly answer very
far into even the above sequence. That leads me to believe that answering most
of these questions correctly, requires understandingof the topic rather than
picking up some "external" sorts of clues in order to just guess correctly.
Plus, generally when one uses the Socratic method, it tends to become pretty
clear when people get lost and are either mistaken or just guessing. Their
demeanor tends to change when they are guessing, and they answer with a
questioning tone in their voice. Further, when they are logically understanding
as they go, they tend to say out loud insights they have or reasons they have
for their answers. When they are just guessing, they tend to just give short
answers with almost no comment or enthusiasm. They don't tend to want to sustain
Finally, two of the interesting, perhaps side, benefits of using
the Socratic method are that it gives the students a chance to experience the
attendant joy and excitement of discovering (often complex) ideas on their own.
And it gives teachers a chance to learn how much more inventive and bright a
great many more students are than usually appear to be when they are primarily
[Some additional comments about the Socratic method of teaching are in a
letter, "Using the
[For a more general approach to teaching, of which the Socratic Method is
just one specific
form, see "Teaching
Effectively: Helping Students Absorb and Assimilate Material"]