How to Use the Socratic
by Max Maxwell and Melete
"The unexamined life is not worth living." - Plato
I have engaged in research and experimentation focused on the Socratic method for more than thirty years. Since 2001, my understanding of this subject has also been influenced by my work in curriculum design. Below is my understanding on what it means to bring the Socratic method to life in the classroom.
Why Use the Socratic Method?
· Education is much more than force feeding information to students and measuring how well they regurgitate that information back to us on command. Education is more than teaching the art of complying with minimum requirements. Living is more than survival. The Socratic method is a powerful tool to inspire students to take a deep interest in their own enthusiastically willful education and thriving in life. This helps students become more attentive and thoughtful as a matter of their natural character. A high quality and persistence of attentiveness is the most fundamental difference between merely existing and expressing the art of living. Human attentiveness is absolutely essential for human survival, creativity and happiness. The absence of human attentiveness is the absence of human living. The persistence of high quality attentiveness through fair weather and foul is the road we must travel to lead an examined life worth living. The Socratic method, within its influence on the structure of communication and participation, inspires people to attentively embrace and express their own original thinking and creative doing as they enthusiastically participate in the art of living an examined life. (See Part I of "The Fundamentals of Education: The Art of Living: Hospitality to the Stranger" for an examination of the structure of human attentiveness and its relationship to interpretation, meaning, and to the first principle of any possible construction of a Socratic philosophy of education.)
· The human crisis of our time is immense. To meet this crisis, we need real thinkers and doers. We need people who are able to be persistent in asking good questions and willing to do the work needed to follow through, with great persistence, in seeking answers. We do not want everyone to merely be robots who only know how to memorize and regurgitate the popular talk of the day. We cannot afford to have millions of citizens who are too uninspired, unable or unaware to continue working persistently for the sake of their own understanding. We need to cultivate sapient beings capable of leading their lives with excellent and original thoughtfulness. Such people create original new talk and new doings that help all humanity create a future worth living.
· We cannot be content merely fostering the existence of good students, we also desperately need to cultivate the existence of excellent citizens. Character traits such as deep curiosity, fearless inquiry, and the unending passion to embrace a lifelong quest for understanding and self improvement are a natural result of the successful use of the Socratic method. When such character traits gain the ability to express themselves in peaceful and productive dialogue with other human beings, people are empowered to embrace the reality of citizenship with excellence. The habits of Socratic communication are the habits of good citizenship in creative dialogue. (See Part II of my essay "The Fundamentals of Education: The Malaise of Public Discourse and following for more info about the relationship between citizenship and Socratic dialogue)
These character traits are developed as students experience regular exposure to parents, guardians and teachers who are able to engage in a Socratic style of discourse. Such conversations help make better citizens. Socratic inquiry focuses vigorously on thinking about what it means to live well. It lavishes attention on important life questions that everybody needs to consider. The Socratic method, with its focus on critical thinking in the context of life's important questions, is foundational to human moral development. Vlastos and Graham offer an important insight into the value of the Socratic method:
"Why rank that method among the great achievements of humanity? Because it makes moral inquiry a common human enterprise, open to everyone. Its practice calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech. And this is as it should be, for how a human being should live is everyone's business." 
· The act of asking questions and seeking answers is fundamental to all human creativity and willful living. Experiences of inquiry fill our days no matter what job we have, where we live, or whether or not we have ever heard of the Socratic method. Inquiry richly colors the fabric of how our minds work. Inquiry is the workhorse of the sapience. The Socratic method directly addresses the need of students to exercise their experience and love of asking and answering questions. In the context of daily learning, Einstein said that we should have 'holy curiosity'. The Socratic method is a productive way to stoke the fertile fire that is human curiosity.
(See Part III of my essay on the fundamentals of education: The Fundamentals of the Human Condition: What does it mean to be Human? for a detailed examination of the fundamentality of questions and answers in human living, which is conducted through a look at the relationship between repetition, variation, complexity and meaning. The structure that is revealed illuminates the fundamentality of the Socratic method to all education and human living.)
· Teaching is so important that it is not enough to merely be good. The human crisis of our time demands that we cultivate generations of teachers who become great. We need true master teachers capable of lighting the fires of inspiration in the hearts and minds of students. Uninspired teaching is a murderous killer of human well-being. Teaching that functions with a vision to only see the paycheck, only focuses on the inert transmission of data, and only embraces the pragmatics of merely getting through the work day destroys much of the life potential of its students. This kind of teaching only informs students that the highest aspiration available through education is to merely do what is minimally needed to pass. This leaves us vulnerable to the natural effects of having whole populations of people growing up less inspired, less informed, and less thoughtful in their living. We need teachers capable of leading students to willfully embrace the great project of enthusiastically opening their eyes to the world and working to develop themselves for the rest of their lives. The Socratic method offers teachers a focus to raise their game by providing a way to exercise the best in a teacher so that they are much more than just a machine performing a function. Humanity desperately needs all teachers to be persons who possess unending vision and passion to live their own examined lives, and through the abundant fertility of their own journey, become a living inspiration in the classroom.
It is not enough to pass on the memory of the facts that are presented to us through our past. We need to cultivate our powers of reason and creativity that we may expend the energies of our living and learning in service to building a future that is worth living. The power we need to travel on this journey is the strength that comes when we submit our willful living to knowledge. When fear and ignorance are replaced with understanding, the human species has always insisted on rising up to recreate itself again and again. In the light of the knowledge and understanding that our ancestors worked their entire lives to create, we have moved on to do more than recreate the past. We have created new futures that were previously impossible.
Now, more than ever before, we need creators, doers, and thinkers who thrive in the quest to better themselves and our various civilizations. We need more than lists of facts and arrangements of data in our heads, we also need the wisdom to live out the implications of our knowledge, the temperance to submit our willful living to understanding, and the courage to creatively face a world that will continue to challenge us unto death.
"It is the function of education to facilitate the development of human character. This development leads people to the enthusiasm of heart, the quality of mind, and the virtue of character to persist in a never ending quest to establish their willful living with knowledge and understanding."
(from page 2 of my essay "The fundamentals of Education: The art of Living: Hospitality to the Stranger")
The art of living, not just for the Socratic method but as an art of all willful living, can be expressed as the art of asking and answering questions and then committing ourselves to live out the best of our understanding. In order to live well, there must be an art of living. Education that does not inspire and empower people to embrace the art of living is not fit for human consumption. The Socratic method of conversation, when properly conducted, strengthens that which is fundamental to all expressions of inquiry and creativity no matter what culture calls us her sons and daughters, no matter what historical time adorns us in the fabric of our living, no matter what purpose of questioning is pressing upon our hearts. The Socratic method is the king of exercises for keeping the beating heart of the human will to education alive and well.
What is the Socratic Method?
Defining the Socratic method has a similar outcome to Socrates' own attempts to seek definitions of justice and virtue that always managed to fail upon further examination.
Here is the opening line about definitions from my introductory essay:
"What is the Socratic method? A single, consistent definition of the Socratic method is not possible due to the diversity with which "the method" has been used in history. There are many styles of question oriented dialogue that claim the name of the Socratic method. However, just asking a lot of questions does not automatically constitute a use of the Socratic method. Even in the dialogues of Plato, which are the most significant and detailed historical references to Socrates, there is not just one Socratic method."
Although seeking a comprehensive definition of the Socratic method that covers all examples without contradiction is fruitless, we have a way forward. There are easily identifiable patterns of expression characteristic of the dialogues of Plato that, when used in the proper Socratic spirit, dramatically increases the fertility of learning and the human aspiration to seek understanding.
The Socratic method, as seen in the early dialogues of Plato, is similar in structure to the Scientific method. The structure in common between the Socratic and scientific method is fundamental to human living:
The Socratic Method
1. Ask a question
The heart of the Socratic method beats to the same rhythm as all scientific inquiry and human innovation. Living in wonder and asking questions, posing tentative answers, testing our answers, evaluating the results, and living them is a basic pattern of human thriving that is just as valid in the ancient Athens of Socrates as it is in our science laden 21st century. This is something for which we are natural born adepts. Curiosity, asking questions and testing things are part of our natural character.
A great distinction separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to remain persistent in asking questions. Many species spend a great deal of time working out the how, what, when, where and who questions dealing with their survival. It is a centrally important distinction in the human species that we spend so much time beyond the needs of our immediate survival asking why and press on to ask more whys about our whys. Pertaining to our identity and role on this planet Melete, coauthor of most of the written material on this site, said “Ours is not just to do or die, ours is to ask the reason why.” (italic emphasis mine). A Socratic philosophy of education seeks to preserve and develop the natural born character of every human being.
There are two main patterns in the use of the Socratic method:
The Classic Socratic Method and The Modern Socratic Method
The Classic Socratic Method is distinguished from the Modern Socratic Method by the nature of its questions. The Classic Socratic Method pursues the big questions about justice, virtue and other basic qualities of human character and living. Here, the answers are not known by the Socratic facilitator. The Modern Socratic Method asks questions about topics that have known, expected, and verifiable answers, such as the answers sought in the geometry experiment in Plato's Meno (see the section below on the modern method for more info on that text).
The Classic Socratic Method is distinguished from the Modern Socratic Method by the nature of its questions. The Classic Socratic Method pursues the big questions about justice, virtue and other basic qualities of human character and living. Here, the answers are not known by the Socratic facilitator. The Modern Socratic Method asks questions about topics that have known, expected, and verifiable answers, such as the answers sought in the geometry experiment in Plato's Meno (see the section below on the modern method for more info on that text).
Socratic inquiry is moral inquiry to the extent that it centers around how we should live. Socrates sought to develop good character through the subordination of the will to knowledge. Seeking good living through good character was the holy grail of Socrates' quest. In light of this distinction I can say that the so called Classic Socratic Method is more "Socratic" to the extent that it focuses on the big questions about life and living well. Living as a just and virtuous citizen was at the heart of Socrates' interest in gaining knowledge and understanding. The Modern Socratic Method, which centers around the art of asking thoughtfully designed leading questions, has more of the flavor of Plato's interpretation of Socrates than anything genuinely "Socratic". In the modern method, leading a student to infer the correct answer for the question "What is 1 + 1?", or some other equally measurable fact or procedure is the focus. This is not to say that the modern style of asking leading questions to obtain knowable results can never have a bearing on morality. The modern style moves away from moral inquiry simply because it is much more often used in conjunction with non-moral data.
There is an interesting correlation between knowable results and morality. To the extent we have the capacity to verify knowledge, humanity tends to drift from a moral focus. It is the consensus on the methods for the verification of knowledge that produces this result. Nobody considers the moral implications of getting a correct answer in mathematics. It is simply a matter of technique or of avoiding mistakes. The agreement on methods for verifying knowledge in mathematics allows us to avoid all flavors of moral impact within the scope of the math itself. Nobody gets into a conundrum about the length of an object if they know how to measure it. There are no arguments about the nature of something if that nature can be scientifically determined. However, our long history of trying to determine the correct answers for questions about the nature of human justice and virtue is both a quagmire of stumbling in our ignorance and is also at the heart of human efforts towards achieving moral development. To the extent that we are profoundly ignorant of the means to verify knowledge, the flavors of morality more often assert themselves in our thinking. In this correlation, human ignorance and human morality have a fundamental relationship within the bounds of our epistemological limitations. With regard to the nature of justice and virtue, everyone can have an opinion, yet nobody can articulate the methods for verifying the knowledge of such things with the same defining consensus as we possess for mathematics. Here, humanity tumbles into arguments and disagreements of frightening proportions. For Socrates, our ignorance is always the ground in which our wrongdoing has its deepest root.
The primary implication I see in the relationship between verifiable knowledge and morality is that the Socratic method is better used to lead students to positive experiences of the complexity and uncertainty of issues (Classic Socratic Method) than it is to elicit specifically knowable facts (Modern Socratic Method). The focus of the Classic Socratic Method is better suited to teach students to embrace the ambiguities of important issues and questions with practiced confidence, sustainable enthusiasm, and cooperative social grace. Students are encouraged through positive experience to build the character traits needed to embrace the task of seeking knowledge and self improvement in the most attentively fertile manner. When people are comfortable in confronting their own ignorance with a deeply personal quest for knowledge, they will be much more effective at digging into issues with sustainable confidence and an enhanced vigor of attentiveness. The Socratic method, in its most fertile form, helps people learn about and build their own human character in the quest for understanding.
1) The Classic Socratic Method:
A definition from the introductory essay:
"The Classic Socratic Method uses creative questioning to dismantle and discard preexisting ideas and thereby allows the respondent to rethink the primary question under discussion (such as 'What is virtue?'). This deconstructive style of the Socratic method is ‘Socratic’ precisely to the extent that the weight of the actual deconstruction of a definition rests in the respondent’s own answers to more questions, which refute the respondent's previously stated answer to the primary question. The result of the Classic Socratic method is, by definition, a failure to find a satisfactory answer to the primary question in a conversation. This failure produces a realization of ignorance in the respondent (Socratic Effect) which can, it is hoped, inspire the respondent to dig deep and think about the question with a new freedom that is obtained from discarding a previously held belief. If a satisfactory answer is found, this represents a transition to the ‘Modern Socratic method."
This pattern, in which ideas/definitions (hypotheses) are tested and often refuted, is the most widely recognized portrait of Socrates and his method. It is also the more difficult pattern to use. It tends to be applied towards very fundamental ideas such as definitions of justice, virtue, beauty, friendship, morality, courage, piety, temperance, etc. The primary question this generates in the dialogues of Plato come in the form of "What is 'X'?". Questions such as, "What is Justice?", "What is virtue?", "What is Beauty?" were a powerful focus for Socrates as presented in the early, and some latter, dialogues of Plato. Political and religious world leaders, philosophers, artists, and humans beings from all walks of life have pondered such questions for as long as there has been the spare time to think. Yet, after thousands of years in the development of our various civilizations, we are in short supply of any comprehensive understanding.
I have pondered such questions in my own living for decades and, if the world depended on my ability to give final knowledge of such things, we would be doomed. I can say right now, that you will not be leading students to any final knowledge about such questions through a short Socratic style Q&A session jammed in between other curriculum. However, you may guide your students to experiences of discovering the joy of asking good questions that inspires them to be more thoughtful about important questions for the rest of their lives. When a human being learns to love to ask questions and be persistent in seeking answers, they become the creators of new possibilities for the future of humanity. The type of questions the classic form of the Socratic method attends to are very different from the information most often addressed in the Modern Socratic Method. Examples in the application of the classic form are below under the subtitle "Applying the Classic Socratic Method".
2) The Modern Socratic Method:
My own research is focused on making the Classic Socratic Method easy to use. There is an important measure to which the so called Modern Socratic Method is not really "Socratic". Even Plato's use of this style (see example below) tends to favor Plato's agenda than that which is most recognizably Socratic. In this case, Plato's interest in the structure of human knowledge and remembering is less Socratic to the extent that it is an exercise in epistemological experimentation and not a moral inquiry. However, the modern method it is part of the tradition of interpreting the Socratic method and is currently the most widely used pattern. This art of questioning has value with and without Socrates. The modern method can be applied to any form of data, which has a structure amenable to human inference, that the teacher wishes to elicit in the minds of their students. This style of questioning is easy to learn and apply for your own purposes. It presupposes that you have a knowledge of the subject and a goal that is measurable, and verifiable. (not like asking "What is virtue?")
Here is part of the definition material from the introductory essay:
"The Modern Socratic method is a process of questioning used to successfully lead a person to knowledge through small steps. This knowledge can be specific data, training in approaches to problem solving, or leading one to embrace a specific fact/belief. The type of knowledge is not as important as the fact that, with the Modern Socratic method, the knowledge gained is specifically anticipated by the Socratic questioner. This stands in contrast to the Classic Socratic method in which the actual outcomes are unknown by all parties."
EXAMPLES OF THE MODERN PATTERN:
1.) The Geometry Experiement in Plato's Meno: The oldest example of this style of questioning is in Plato's dialogue Meno. Meno, after it opens with the question "What is virtue?", then proceeds to demonstrate the idea of teaching a fact of geometry through asking questions.
You can review a sample of questioning from Plato's Meno with the link below:
This pattern is not unfamiliar to you. Asking leading questions that connect a person to a capacity to make simple inferences exists with and without Socrates. The important thing to realize is that the method is not about getting a right answer as much as it is about cultivating the human character of students to experience an enhanced comfort and interest in asking questions and doing their own original thinking. This is because any implementation of the Socratic method that makes students less comfortable asking and answering questions is worthless, regardless of how many right answers may come out of that particular setting. If right answers are more important than stimulating the curiosity of the students and empowering their psychology to persist in seeking answers to their questions, a lifetime of a student's quality of thinking could be compromised by the quest to obtain the right answer of the moment.
2.) The Garlikov Example: The article by Rick Garlikov (see link below) is an important example of what must be done in order to advance our knowledge and use of the Socratic method. To use the Socratic method requires that we experiment on our own. The thoughtfulness of Garlikov in this real world test of Socratic questioning is an excellent example for all of us. Garlikov's article documents a useful experiment on using the Socratic method to teach the concept of "binary math" in a third grade classroom.
"The Socratic Method: Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling".
Commenting on his expectations of this experiment, philosopher Richard Garlikov wrote,"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." Garlikov gives us a transcript (the link above) of his experience introducing a 'new' kind of arithmetic (binary math) to students in the third grade using only questions. The subject of binary math was chosen precisely because it is more difficult than what third graders are normally exposed to in the classroom.
Garlikov was told by two of the elementary school's teachers that only a few of the students in the third grade class would be able to understand the ideas. In a complete subversion of the low expectations of those teachers, he reports that by using the Socratic method, 19 out of 22 students fully understood the topic. Although the time of day was chosen specifically because it is the worst time of day for concentration (Friday afternoon, two weeks before summer vacation), none of the students were bored or could not focus. Garlikov reports that this style of teaching through questions: allows for continuous feedback regarding student understanding through the student's response to questions, is excellent for maintaining interest and participation, allows students with different abilities to go at the same pace without anyone getting bored, and focuses on student understanding instead of teacher presentation.
Garlikov says that, in order to be effective, questions must be: 1) Interesting, 2) Incremental, 3) Logical (moving from the student's prior knowledge towards a goal), and 4) Designed to illuminate particular points. In order to be effectively leading, questions must be specifically structured in a manner that is very different from the Classic Socratic Method. In the classic form, there is only one primary question, such as "What is justice?" or "What is virtue?". In the classic form, the respondent can offer literally ANYTHING as a definition of justice or virtue and there is no way to guarantee the verification of those definitions. Dealing with that kind of unpredictable variation has a different structure than the modern method's need to keep on a more precisely defined and incrementally related set of questions. In the modern method, the scope of the questions must be smaller and more sequentially linear in order for the logic of the focus to successfully lead students to expected and measurable outcomes. This is a very different reality from the Socratic teacher who has no idea (Socratic irony) about the "correct answer" to "What is 'X'?" type questions about justice, virtue and beauty.
Most importantly, although the rigors of one's teaching agenda may relegate this to a side benefit, Garlikov reports that two interesting "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 passive." In these benefits, both the classic and modern form of the method share an identity. His comments on the work that needs to be done when a teacher wants to design a Socratic process for their classroom is valuable for anyone wanting to try this for their own subjects and classes.
Read the above link to Garlikov's full explanation. Be sure to read the whole thing. Some of his best comments are at the bottom in a section called "My View About this whole episode". If you desire to read more of his comments and explanations read the following link after reading the primary article above: "Using the Socratic Method" by Rick Garlikov".
Comparing Garlikov and Plato:
Plato thought that his geometry focus in the dialogue Meno demonstrated that the so called "Modern Socratic Method" was proved his idea that we already know everything and just need help 'remembering'. Garlikov's experience demonstrates that it is not platonic anamnesis, but the straightforward act of using the students' previous knowledge as a basis for guiding the students with carefully designed, logically leading not psychologically leading, questions that help them make simple inferences. The chain of observations and inferences elicited in a Socratic process leads the students to be able to come to the information/ideas/conclusions that the teacher desires to hear from the students, through their own capacity for reason because the teacher only asks questions.
3.) The Chess Example: Teaching Chess with the Socratic Method
In this example of the pattern of the modern method, I teach a beginner chess player two ideas about positional chess. Instead of just telling the student the ideas, I get the student to come up with and explain the ideas to me as I limit myself to only asking questions. Here, the student becomes the teacher. Although this example is limited to be just enough for illustration purposes, the whole of positional chess play can be taught with the Socratic method. You will not need to know how to play chess to read this as the answers are illustrated on the chess board in a way that non-chess players can understand.
COMMENT ABOUT THE EXAMPLES:
The three examples of the Modern Socratic Method above all presuppose the existence of a common visual reference. Plato's Socrates drew geometry figures on the ground for everyone to see, Garlikov and students wrote on the board, and my chess example uses a chessboard and pieces as a basis of observation and thinking. Although it is true that many subjects can use questions to teach without visual references, this tends to be more appropriate for older and more developed students. If you can provide visual references, or even base your questions entirely on something they can see, the visual references will help keep students focused and thinking. Visual references create a shared space for thought and questions that is constantly present no matter who is talking.
If you have read all three examples, you should have some idea that you can do this. Garlikov wrote that there is no 'magic trick' to running a Socratic process in the classroom. It will take significant planning and practice to adapt this style of teaching into your subjects. Due to the severe limitations that your job as a teacher imposes on your focus and time, you may only be able to run a Socratic process in the classroom for select occasions. It is the goal of the research on this site to articulate a basic grounding in principle for using both the classic and modern form of the Socratic method. The theoretical ideal is to empower a teacher, who has sufficient practice, to be able to spontaneously adapt a Socratic process on the fly. When this level of fluency is achieved, the teacher can adapt a Socratic process into their work environment in spite of time and resource limitations. The key insight on this "grounding in principle" is to allow for the individual teacher/facilitator to design her own Socratic process and to express her own unique capacities as a Socratic teacher. Teaching with the Socratic method works best when it is part of the art of your own living.
How to Use the Socratic method of Questioning
The Socratic Temperament
The first thing to consider in the use of the Socratic method is the fundamental importance of the functioning human character of the teacher or Socratic facilitator. The character of the Socratic questioner plays a critical role in making sure the process is conducted in the most encouraging spirit.
There are four traits the Socratic teacher/facilitator must be aware of within her own character and living:
a) The Socratic Teacher loves to discover her own errors.
b) The Socratic Teacher is in touch with her own ignorance.
c) The Socratic Teacher models the joy of hard work in the quest for knowledge.
d) The Socratic Teacher experiences deep curiosity and the desire for self-
Read my essay "The Socratic Temperament" for a more detailed treatment of the four traits of the Socratic teacher. The purpose of living such a temperament before your students is to give them the ability to discover their own Socratic temperament. Below is an excerpt from the essay The Socratic Temperament that addresses the cultivation of this character in students:
"The most fundamental and powerful contribution to education by the Socratic Method is not as a method to communicate specific facts. It is in the demonstration and communication of the Socratic Temperament to the students. To cultivate the Socratic Temperament in the students is to lay the ultimate foundation for the development of superior critical thinking later in life. Deep curiosity, fearless questioning, productive critical thinking and a lifelong quest for self-improvement are the fruits of the Socratic Temperament. The opportunity to develop their own Socratic Temperament is the finest gift you can give to your students. This is done best by teachers who are living the Socratic Temperament in the classroom. It is absolutely necessary to develop the Socratic Temperament in students. The fear of having their own beliefs and assumptions challenged must be replaced with joy. Students must learn to take joy at questioning everything, especially their own ideas. If students remain uncomfortable in questioning their own ideas, they will be emotionally handicapped with regard to the development of their capacity for critical thinking and their ability to face the uncertainties of life in a productive and reasoned manner. As Plato wrote, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
In the absence of emotional/psychological comfort with questioning herself, a student's ability to face the uncertainties of life in a productive and reasoned manner can be compromised for the rest of her life. The cultivation of a Socratic temperament in students brings forth a valuable gift that will last a lifetime. A student's self interest and self confidence to question the world, and herself, is foundational to all successful education. This is described at the end of my essay, Introduction to the Socratic method and its Effect on Critical Thinking:
"Learning to love the experience of questioning gives psychological strength to our will to question. Learning to love the experience of having our own beliefs and ideas questioned and even discarded gives us an inspired vision of our power to work for our own improvement. If we see questioning as a sacred activity that is vital to our own safety (by safeguarding our integrity and growth), we are less afraid to question the world. If we develop a preference for questioning our own preferences we find a true Socratic spirit within ourselves that will empower our critical thinking for life. The successful use of the Socratic method gifts those who experience it with the living heart of critical thinking."
This Socratic method is used best by a teacher with experience in her own joyful self examination.
Finding Your Own Socratic Style
1. Self Discovery:
If you have read this far, I am sure that the Socratic method is sounding like something wonderful. However, we are still left with the question of how to DO the Socratic method in a real conversation. As mentioned above, the first area of learning the Socratic method is in the discovery of your own Socratic temperament. Who you are as a human being, your passion to better yourself, your love of understanding, your willingness to work for knowledge, and your endless curiosity are already in your own style. I have said a number of times in the writings on this site that the Socratic method is less about teaching specific facts and more about inspiring students to embrace the great project of living an examined life. It is about harnessing the students' personal enthusiasm to explore their power to ask and answer questions because they are interested in their own being in life. My favorite false Socrates quote sums it up nicely,
"Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel."
(This may be variation of Plutarch or a comment by Benjamin Jowett)
Your human character is extraordinarily important. Your personal enthusiasm for learning and your dedication to lifelong self improvement, effectively expressed in the classroom, will have more power to inspire and improve your students than all the dialectical Socratic shenanigans of all the philosophy geeks in history put together. Getting in touch with your own passion for self discovery, which is not separate from the discovery of the universe, is the living heart of your power to bring forth the benefits of Socratic dialogue (or any other kind of dialogue) in the classroom.
Some may wonder about the extent to which their lack of a Socratic temperament may affect their teaching relative to using the Socratic method. I address this in The Socratic Temperament:
"When a teacher uses methods that have the power to bring the process of learning alive in the minds of her students, this very important awakening must be conducted with humility and grace. If you always need to be the one who is right, always think of yourself in terms of what you know and have achieved, are lazy about the acquisition of new knowledge in your own life, have no curiosity and no desire for self-improvement, then you will never be able to use the Socratic Method for even 1/100th of what it is worth. The first step in learning the Socratic Method is to open yourself to the task of developing your own Socratic Temperament."
Life is a journey of self discovery. It is the first lesson of being human that we must discover ourselves. Below is a quote from the largest block of writing on this website, "The Fundamentals of Education: A Socratic perspective on the cultivation of humanity."
"Enthusiasm for self discovery is the first step in any Socratic philosophy of education. To cultivate this enthusiasm, we must work to make sure students know how amazing they are in so many ways. Melete said, "We are not just a meat-suit. We are made from the stars and all that went into stars." One human mind is more complex and fertile than all the computers in the world put together. We are masterworks of art capable of wondrous things and able to rise far beyond our imaginations. The cultivation of every human being's self-interest is extremely important."
Kindling into full life the flame that is a student's self interest and curiosity is an essential structure that is the cornerstone of human aspiration and sits at the foundation of all successful education. A quote from Part I of my essay "The Fundamentals of education":
"Igniting a lifetime of persistent enthusiasm to develop ourselves is of the greatest importance to every human being and to the future of our species. People who can remain enthusiastic about thriving towards their aspirations no matter what will be happier in their failures than people who never fail because they do not have aspirations."
The teacher who cannot bring into the classroom the kindling fire from their own experience is severely limited in their ability to embrace Socratic teaching. It is very important to learn how to be more richly expressive about your devotion to seeking knowledge and self discovery in front of your students in a way that inspires and encourages them to embrace their own self interest, curiosity, and their lifelong journey of seeking knowledge and self discovery.
2. Linking Your Self Discovery to the Classroom:
Even if you are richly endowed with a beautifully developed Socratic temperament, using the Socratic method in the classroom requires some understanding of the primary social dynamic that gives the Socratic method wings. This section describes that dynamic and also looks at how subjects force style choices on the use of the Socratic method.
Hospitality in Hosting a Safe and Creative Space
The Socratic method directly engages the most fertile creative space in the history of the planet. This is the space that is created in open and free dialogue where people, who love to examine their own ideas, feel welcomed to freely express themselves in conversation. Part II of my essay "The Fundamentals of Education: A Socratic perspective on the cultivation of humanity" articulates a Socratic philosophy of conversation that benefits reasoned discourse by focusing on the fundamental social environment required to free students to fully participate in the examination of ideas. It is extremely important that the Socratic teacher maintain a proper social environment for the Socratic method to have its full effect.
The first principle of a Socratic philosophy of education, which is part of the foundation of Part II was developed in Part I of the essay. In Part I of "The Fundamentals of Education", I lay down the first principle of any Socratic philosophy of education through an examination of the differences and commonalities between academic talk and artistic doing. This was done as I constructed a critical reading of George Steiner's Real Presences through four years of artistic performance experiments involving my interpretive performance of a Rachmaninoff composition and my unusual obsession with a Beethoven piano sonata. Steiner's solution to the weaknesses in the academic study of the art is to emphasis a human social posture of courtesy and hospitality to "the other", whom/which we meet in our experience of art.
In Part II, "Socratic Talk: The art of cultivating citizens", I extend this concept of hospitality to "the other" from the other we meet in art to the other we face in dialogue. The principle from Part I is that learning to be hospitable to another human being has its first lesson in our learning to be hospitable to all that wants to thrive within ourselves. Learning to be hospitable to the strangers within our own minds teaches us the necessary virtues of character that are needed to manifest hospitality to other people in conversation. This means we must first be open and courteously attentive to our own diversity and must be comfortable questioning our own ideas independently of our perceived level of comfort in talking with others. The value of constructing and maintaining a "fertile creative space" in the classroom is illustrated in Nouwen's description of the creative importance of hospitality. I follow up this quote with its following paragraph from Part II:
" 'Hospitality...means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit... The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and find themselves free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations.' 
Hospitality does not create a cluttered space that is filled with our own preoccupations about winning or controlling. It is not a space filled with the dominance of our own ideas and theories. The essence of sharing a space with the other is to make room for them to enter and be themselves. To use a Buddhist image, hospitality, in relation to the concerns of creative dialogue, functions as an act of emptying our cup of tea that is already full. We cannot know something new, we cannot fully acknowledge the other, if our minds are filled with preoccupations about the preservation of our own ideas and with trying to win over the other who shares our space. We must pour out our needs to be right, let go of our concerns to preserve our cherished perspectives, and release our desires to win over and contain the other. We empty the cup of our conversational minds in an act of hospitality that creates an empty shared space that makes room for the other. It is the emptiness of the shared space, which hospitality provides, that gives the other the freedom to join us upon common ground and to express their authentic selves."
(note: regarding the phrase "join us upon common ground", the idea of 'common ground' was first introduced in Part I on page 7 as I engaged Steiner's idea of emphasizing the primacy of artistic experience as expressed in Real Presences through my experience of interpreting a Rachmaninoff composition on the piano. This idea was a result of comparing the commonalities between academic and artistic 'talk'. The idea of 'common ground' is important to my construction of this Socratic philosophy of education. To get the full context read pages 2-7 of Part I.)
The Socratic teacher, who is able to able to maintain a proper social environment for Socratic dialogue, is able to create a fertile and friendly shared space for her students in the classroom. The Socratic teacher is able to do so only to the extent that she has participated in the examination of herself and found herself worthy of such hospitality within her own mind. It is the habits of your own Socratic hospitality to your own being that will enable you to make a creative space out of such hospitality in the classroom. The relationship between your own Socratic temperament and the social environment you maintain in the classroom is inextricably linked. Embracing the capacity to joyfully criticize one's own ideas in front of other people is not a skill that is best learned in an inhospitable social environment. It is best modeled to students by a teacher with experience.
The importance of creating a hospitable environment is that it helps students learn to question themselves with confidence. One of the great potentials for failure in education is that we fill students' heads with facts and procedures, but fail to empower them to question themselves with confidence. The problem with being unable to question our own ideas and beliefs is described in my introductory essay from the home page:
"Convictions, when held too tightly, blind us in a way that traps us within our own opinions. Although this protects us from uncomfortable ambiguities and troublesome contradictions, it also makes us comfortable with stagnation and blocks the path to improved understanding. In other words, without the capacity to question ourselves the possibility of real thinking ceases. If people are not able to question their own ideas they cannot be thoughtful at all. When unacknowledged or unquestioned assumptions dominate the mind, thoughtfulness becomes a danger and the human aspiration to improve and grow in understanding becomes a slave to fear. The goal of the Classic Socratic method is to help people by freeing their desire for understanding from the harmful limitations that come through clinging to the false securities of their current knowing. People who experience the effect, which arises from being a recipient of the first phase of the Socratic method are freed from the shackles of confidence in their knowing. This affords them the optional freedom of thinking about an issue with a greater quality of thoughtfulness."
Using the Socratic method to free students in the manner described above must be done with grace, humility, and skill by a teacher who is experienced at questioning themselves. Being comfortable, yet assertively questioning, in the face of ambiguity, doubts, and the various social pressures that push us to back away from questioning is a centrally important ability for the task of living well. Finding your own style of using the Socratic method is less about learning the heuristics of dialectical engagements and more about living out your own version of a Socratic lifestyle that prioritizes seeking your own self improvement through improved understanding. Your love of self improvement and knowledge, along with your persistence in expressing that love is what will make you able to bring the Socratic method to life in your classroom.
The Impact of Subject Matter on Style
The subject of your teaching, or conversation, greatly determines some of the stylistic limits you must embrace. A classroom environment that is allowed to ask questions such as "What is Justice?" is going to have more room for the Classic Socratic Method than a classroom whose broadest question is "What is a hydrogen bond?" or "What are the steps for simplifying an algebra equation?". There are many, many subjects, but they all fall into two categories relevant for considering your application of the Socratic method. This is based on the fact that there are two types of questions involved. Questions will either have a known answer to the teacher, or it is known that the question has no sure answer. "What is '4 + 4'?" is an example of the former, which makes for an application whose style will resemble the Modern Socratic Method. "What is virtue?" is an example of the latter, which is a question suited for the Classic Socratic Method.
Applying the Classic Socratic Method
As mentioned above, the Classic Socratic method, with its willingness to bite into questions as challenging as the meaning of life, is more unwieldy to use than the modern method, which anticipates a readily knowable answer. When asking big questions on such topics as justice, virtue, morality, happiness, or the meaning of life, you cannot anticipate every answer. You cannot have a list of canned Socratic responses ready to be pulled out of your pocket and applied in a mechanical fashion. My strategy in dealing with this is to seek ways to dramatically simplify the process.
The problem of dealing with the complexities and unpredictability of student response is illustrated with a quote from my essay "The Semantic Independence of Socratic Focus":
"In the late 1980's I was doing research on the Socratic Method and conducted a survey that asked people the question, “What is justice?” A lawyer gave the following definition of justice, “Justice is the restoration of actual human behavior according to the expectations of natural law.” Leave it to a lawyer to come up with that one. This response illustrates why the classic form of the Socratic method is almost never used. What kind of follow up questions do you use to move the Socratic process forward in response to such a wordy and conceptually dense definition? What does he mean by actual human behavior? What is natural law? What are its expectations? Which historical source will have more weight in our understanding of natural law? Will it be Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas? Perhaps we will lean towards Thomas Hobbes? What of the Islamic understanding of natural law? The lawyer’s definition of justice contains enough debatable complexity to keep the conversation spinning in non-Socratic circles for quite some time."
Yikes! How does one engage in an act of Socratic questioning in response to that definition? The answer is...very simply. It does not matter if you have a preference for Hobbes over Aquinas, never heard of Islamic natural law, or could not recite the expectations of any version of natural law. If you know the difference between a noun and a verb, you can question this definition of Justice in a Socratic manner. One of the useful things in the Socratic method is that the so called "Socratic irony" (teacher's claim of ignorance) is not just a rhetorical posture to facilitate the process. The Socratic method can coexist with the Socratic teacher's/facilitator's actual ignorance to create a useful focus.
My essay "The Semantic Independence of Socratic Focus" is a proof of concept piece that demonstrates how to address responses to the big questions without having to have a knowledge of the answers or the students responses to the question. The process of the Socratic method gains some semantic independence from natural language, and from the history of ideas, through a tidy focus on the formal aspects of language (grammar). Here, being able to find the verb in a sentence is all you need to focus your questions on the attorney's response. The reason this is effective is that the verbs always need to link their actions to some field of knowledge when willful living is expressing itself.
The link between verbs and knowledge is part of why Socrates was always talking about cobblers, doctors, farmers, and other trades/sciences of the day. The pattern of linking verbs to knowledge that is expressed in "The Semantic Independence of Socratic Focus" can be applied to a broad range of issues. An example of this application is my Socratic dialogue "The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith". In this dialogue, the claim that religious faith alone is the basis of morality must face the reality that any action, moral or otherwise, must link to secular knowledge in order to be effective.
This dialogue also illustrates another principle in the application of the Classic Socratic Method. The "one example principle" in the Classic Socratic Method is the ability to let a respondent’s definition or idea stand or fall on the basis of finding one illustrating example. In the dialogues of Plato, a definition was often refuted by finding an example that contradicted the definition. The opposite is useful also. Here, Socrates (I stole him from Plato) will let an definition or idea stand if we can find one successful expression of that idea. "The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith" expresses this principle in a written dialogue that was created out of my experience of asking Socratic questions about morality in live conversations.
A key to interpreting this dialogue is to notice the common sense appeal to how simple knowledge relates to everything we morally do in a way that faith does not. Above Vlastos and Graham wrote that a great virtue of the Socratic method is that it does not need technical vocabulary and specialized technique, but simply calls to our common sense and common speech. This principle is illustrated in "The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith". Theologians tend to have their own abstractions of specialized vocabulary and structure of ideas. This dialogue moves out of the extraordinary complexities of theology and towards a basis in the common sense appeal of such simple ideas as "If we become moral we should be able to actually do moral things." and "If we can successfully interpret a moral principle, we should be able to be accountable to explain how we did that.". The whole dialogue rests on the simplest, most common sense form of verification in the form of questions of the type, "Can you give me one example to illustrate what you are talking about?". The result is that the respondent cannot.
Applying the Modern Socratic Method
This section will be added with the material below.
NOTE: This summary of my research is approximately half completed. The remainder will be posted on this page soon. I put some information about some of the coming material below:
This part of the SMRP research summary will focus on the structure of Socratic process in the classroom, who's dynamics also govern one on one dialogue. This will be designed to simplify the act of knowing the structure of the process as well as interpreting the live conversation demands of your Socratic process. Once you are comfortable and practiced with this, you will be able to express the Socratic method in your own style.
Some of the subsections will be:
The Structure of Socratic Dialogue
The structure of Socratic process will be discussed in its most broadly applicable terms, which will allow for diversity in interpreting the method's application to your setting. This will be done with a view to simplifying the interpretation of the real time conversation demands that arise during your Socratic process. Simplification is key. Remember the Vlastos and Graham quote above. It said that the practice of the Socratic method "calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech".
This truth will be expressed in a focus on reducing the complexity of conducting a Socratic process through the principle of reducing the need to depend on the semantics of natural language, offering principles for optimizing the structure of your questions, and demonstrating how you can take an example of a specific technique and apply it to a much broader range of topics and experiences. The goal here is not to learn some overly technically predefined "Socratic method" that is applied in a mechanical or static manner, but to become able to be a Socratic facilitator extemporaneously in a freestyle fashion that is shaped by your own ability to design and create. Those who excel at this task deepen their living mastery of the art of teaching.
A Principled Foundation for Creating Innovative Socratic Method Exercises
An examination of what is needed to create innovative Socratic exercises will be presented with a view to allowing teachers/facilitators to construct, in their own style, Socratic experiences that have significant beneficial impact on student participation, enthusiasm, and learning. Examples and the principles that underlie them will be discussed with a view to applying those principles to your own Socratic innovations.
Using the Socratic Method in Written Form
Examples of Socratic Writing will be discussed with a view to distilling some basic principles of Socratic writing.
Toward a Formal Socratic method
Research implications for developing a formal system capable of conducting a Socratic process are discussed. A primary dilemma is the need to free the process from the semantics of natural language. A demonstration of the ability to reduce the Socratic facilitator's full dependence on natural language can be currently read in my essay "The Semantic Independence of Socratic Focus".