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Gerardo Castillo Ceballos, Professor Emeritus of the School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra.

Validity of the Socratic method

Tue, 02 Feb 2016 10:55:00 +0000 Published in Diari de Tarragona

The PISA reports continue to criticize the figure of the teacher as a simple transmitter of knowledge and the abuse of the expository lesson. This diagnosis invites us to devise a didactic method that avoids such reductionisms of the teaching. In my opinion, the desired method was invented 25 centuries ago; it is Socrates' maieutics , which meant the passage from teaching to dialogue and from instruction to self-directed learning. With his dialogues Socrates sought the truth as a reaction against the relativism of the sophists.

Does it make sense to resort to such an old method? Old" is not necessarily old-fashioned - is the music of Bach or Mozart old-fashioned? Many professionals today (doctors, lawyers, counselors, salesmen, etc.) use effective methods derived from Socratic maieutics, even if they are unaware of its origin. It is also used in prestigious universities to deepen the contents of both Philosophy and other subjects and to exercise the critical and argumentative capacity of the students. 

Maieutics puts the student interviewee on status to draw on what he/she already knows or thinks he/she knows to answer new questions. This connection makes their learning meaningful, meaningful. How does it differ from rote, mechanical or rote learning? In that the latter has no meaning for student. Asubel (1986) states that "the most important factor influencing learning is what the student already knows. Find this out and teach it accordingly".

The internship of mayeutics has shown that what is reasoned is better learned than what is merely memorized. That is why the main function of professor is not to give answers to students, but to arouse in them concerns and doubts. 

In a passage from Plato's Theaetetus, Socrates confesses that he practices an art similar to that of his mother, Phenaretes, who was a midwife. "My maieutic art has the same characteristics as the art of midwives. But it differs from it in that it makes men and not women give birth, and in that it watches over souls, and not bodies, in their work of childbirth. The best thing about the art I practice is, however, that it enables one to know whether what the young man's reflection engenders is a deceptive appearance or a true fruit."

In the Socratic method, the teacher does not inculcate the student the knowledge, considering that his mind is not an empty drawer in which external data can be deposited; on the contrary, it is the student who extracts from himself the knowledge. By means of successive questions, the interviewer asks financial aid him/her to bring out the knowledge. The first questions are intended to make the interviewee aware of his ignorance, so that he will be ready to learn. A humorous cartoon has put it this way:

-Socrates: The time has come for our dialogue. Are you ready?

-Students: Yessssssss....

-An observer of the scene comments to a companion: now is when Socrates asks them questions and makes them look like imbeciles. This is the part of the dialogue that I like the most.

The student is invited to discover and express the truth that potentially lies within through a four-step effort of reflection and reasoning:

1-The teacher poses a question. For example, what is virtue; 2-The student (or group reduced of students) gives a first answer based on his short experience, which is immediately refuted by the teacher, thus creating a necessary state of confusion; 3- Discussion of the topic; 4.- The student (or students) gets the precise knowledge of the investigated reality.

It is surprising that the Socratic method is not currently being applied at teaching secondary schools, where dialogue classes would have contributed to preventing the demotivation of adolescent students and school failure. It has been objected that this would delay the development of the content of the programs; it has also been argued that too many students would prevent it. I do not agree with these arguments for three reasons: 

1-Developing the entire program does not require explaining all the topics; many informative classes could be advantageously supplemented with directed programs of study . 2-The individualized teaching was born precisely to teach in large groups-3-The teacher's dialogue can be carried out both in a personalized way (for example in the time allotted to the tutorial) and with a small group of students.

I suggest that today's schools engrave the same phrase of Socrates that was engraved on the pediment of the temple of Delphi: "Know thyself". It is a challenge that should be posed to each of the students; it is that they strive in the finding of the inner truth in intimate and sincere dialogue with their teachers.