Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

What Socrates Can Teach Us About K-12 Instruction Today

Done well, the method is a powerful way to promote engagement and deep understanding
By Rick Hess — October 30, 2023 2 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teaching hasn’t always been organized the way it currently is in American schools. Back when Socrates was doing his thing in ancient Greece, teaching was a simple proposition. Students sat and listened. Teachers talked and asked questions. That was it. It was pretty darn limited. It also meant that teachers had a chance to get very good at talking and asking questions.

From this setting, the Socratic method was born—with its reliance on questioning, student response, and teacher feedback. It’s the most basic approach imaginable for cultivating understanding and gauging what students know.

By asking questions, the teacher challenges students in ways that upend assumptions and illuminate ideas. The technique is often used to lead a student into contradictory statements, so as to surface complexities. Indeed, Socrates was skeptical about teaching via the written word precisely because he feared it would undermine this active student-teacher dynamic.

The Socratic method is intensely personalized. Done well, it involves constantly adjusting to the interests, limitations, and needs of each student at a given moment. In the hands of a skilled instructor, it’s the most powerful model I’ve ever seen for promoting student engagement and deep understanding.

So, if we’ve got such an effective tool, why don’t we see it used more often in classrooms? And why does so much “Socratic” instruction wind up looking rote or ineffectual?

It’s not complicated: The Socratic method is really hard to do well. Lots of teachers may attempt it but miss the mark—engaging in something that’s more akin to a stilted question-and-answer session. The Socratic method requires that a teacher have deep knowledge of the specific topic, a library of relevant analogies, a mastery of the avenues the dialogue may take, and the ability to play devil’s advocate. (This last one can be extraordinarily challenging, or even career-threatening, when it comes to sensitive, emotional topics.)

Doing all of this well requires time and practice, both of which are in short supply for teachers racing to cover the curriculum. This is one of those instances where professional development—if properly designed, delivered, and targeted—can make a big difference. Today, of course, hardly any teachers have received even a smidge of such training.

That’s why few teachers are equipped to make good use of Socratic dialogue, even though it may be the best way to explore some of the crucial topics that schools struggle to address today. In fact, trying to employ the Socratic method without training or practice can yield dismal results and can prove harmful when it comes to sensitive subjects. I’ve observed well-meaning teachers trying to make it up on the fly wind up caricaturing the very views they mean to probe or make groan-inducing assertions that they sorely regret.

Ultimately, the Socratic method, like every “learning strategy,” depends on the skill with which it’s employed. This is the problem with asking every teacher to be a harried jack-of-all-trades. It means that even potentially powerful instructional practices are destined to disappoint—not because of intrinsic flaws but rather the burdens on the educators trying to apply them.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Opinion How to Kill Student Curiosity in 5 Steps (and What to Do Instead)
In countless classrooms across the nation, I’ve observed well-intentioned teachers and administrators slowly stifle student creativity.
Olivia Odileke
5 min read
A field of lightbulbs, only a couple are lit. Concept idea of light bulb, creative, thinking, motivation, success, and thinking, surreal conceptual art, 3d illustration, painting artwork.
Jorm Sangsorn/iStock + Education Week
Teaching Cute Visuals Can Distract Students From a Lesson: 3 Tips for Teachers
Playful visuals may make a lesson more fun, but they can also get in the way of learning.
4 min read
Teaching Opinion How to Ace Your First Year of Teaching
A veteran teacher offers 9 tips for how to make your classroom calm and productive right from the start.
Gary Kowalski
5 min read
School Setting Superimposed on Modern Community Head Profile Icons combined with an Abstract Geometric Pattern. Classroom management, early career teacher professional development.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + DigitalVision Vectors + Anastasiia Neibauer/iStock
Teaching Opinion Teacher Strategies for Making Learning More Relevant to Students
Once you understand what makes your students tick, you are better equipped to develop meaningful lessons.
10 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."