Hail, Socrates

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Many teachers assume that they are the most important part of the learning process. They dispense knowledge, and students receive it. Take my high school American literature teacher, Mr. Prosser. He began most lessons by stating the objective--"By the end of this class, you will be able to identify the characteristics of the 'code hero' in Hemingway"--and then, anticipating the so-what looks on our faces, explained the relevance of this knowledge: "Hemingway's concept of the 'code hero' will give you standards by which to judge your own ideas of heroism."

The class proceeded as a lecture. Mr. Prosser knew what a code hero was, and he was going to tell us, tell us that he told us, and then ask us to tell him what he had told us. Our job as students was to "pay attention," that is, to be receptive and passive and to take careful, detailed notes. We were not to interrupt his lecture with comments; however, we were allowed to ask questions for elementary clarification. For example, "What do you mean by pragmatic?" or "Who is James L. Roberts?" or "Why do you call this stuff literary criticism?" His authority was supreme, his answers all we needed to know on those subjects. After all, he had a master's degree.

Our job as students was to 'pay attention,' that is, to be receptive and passive and to take careful, detailed notes.

His lessons concluded with an objective test. "I am the tester, and you are the testees," he would say, and never would we break from those roles. However, "to be fair"--another of his pet phrases--he entertained questions before the test. If we had none, Mr. Prosser judged his lesson a success. In the end, we were to trust that Mr. Prosser knew best even when we did not know what he was talking about. "Someday you will understand, and all will be clear," he would reassure us.

What I eventually came to understand, thanks to my college contemporary literature professor, Kenelm Basil, was that there is a better way to teach. Mr. Basil was a Socratic teacher if ever there was one. He did not tell us what we were going to learn; he was not certain that we would learn anything, although that was, of course, his fondest hope. Rather, he began each lesson by posing a problem about the meaning of the day's assigned reading. He would write it, in the form of a question, on the board and then ask us to write our answers on scrap paper. For example, "According to Vonnegut's story 'Harrison Bergeron,' is the desire to excel as strong as the tendency to be mediocre?" Mr. Basil himself was uncertain of the answer. Because he kept his own opinions quiet-he was not a participant but the leader-and asked only follow-up questions to our comments, Mr. Basil convinced us over time that he really did not have a single correct answer in mind. Indeed, the class soon realized that elements of the story could be interpreted to support more than one answer.

As students, we had to support our comments with evidence, challenge the assertions of others, discuss conflicting points, and listen to opinions. Learning in Mr. Basil's classroom was not about receiving ideas but about wrestling with them. The test of truth was reason and evidence, not teacher authority. Since questions are quests for answers, each lesson concluded with a resolution activity. Mr. Basil asked us to review our original responses and write a one-page essay stating our comprehensive answer to the question. He strove not for group consensus or truth by vote but individual understanding.

Liberation at last! I no longer had to sit dutifully silent while someone told me something I could just as easily have read for myself. I no longer had to parrot the teacher's thoughts. More important, Mr. Basil challenged me to become responsible for my own ideas. And I derived joy and personal satisfaction from arriving at insights. I had learned how to learn.

Do not misunderstand. Most so-called Socratic teachers do not know how to conduct discussions the way Mr. Basil did. Many have not mastered the art of fostering reflective, independent thinking. For these teachers, classroom discussion is often little more than a bull session in which every opinion is given equal weight, each idea is as good as another. Such teachers confuse the right to express an opinion with the notion that any opinion can be right. Tolerating any and all ideas becomes the goal, and brainstorming-that pathetic analogy-gets enthroned as the method.

A colleague once told me, 'My students cannot be trusted to think for themselves. They keep coming up with silly answers.'

Others, the pseudo-Socratic teachers, offer little more than a disguised lecture. These teachers pretend to conduct open discussions but have specific answers in mind. They tip their hands in several ways. They ask leading questions, allow opinions they agree with to go unchallenged, and develop a single side of an issue. They also inject their own opinions into the discussion--"I believe that you have all overlooked important information on page six"; comment on students' answers--"That's very good, James," or "Maria, I think you are missing something"; and attempt to arrive at group consensus--"I'd like to see a show of hands on how many think the desire to excel is as strong as the tendency to be mediocre."

A colleague once told me, "My students cannot be trusted to think for themselves. They keep coming up with silly answers." But isn't that the point? The lecturing teacher fails to understand that wrong answers are a necessary part of the learning process when real thinking takes place. The authentic Socratic teacher knows that mistakes and "silly" answers are inevitable when students have the freedom to be wrong-and right.

The fundamental difference between Mr. Prosser and Mr. Basil comes down to who is finally responsible for learning. Mr. Prosser's approach implies that the teacher is, while Mr. Basil's suggests that students should be.

Not long ago, I heard James Howard of the Council for Basic Education state on National Public Radio that "education is what you have left after you have forgotten everything you learned in school." I wonder what Mr. Prosser would make of that statement. I know what Mr. Basil would do with it.

Vol. 10, Issue 8, Page 62

Published in Print: May 1, 1999, as Hail, Socrates
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