The Socratic Method: Turning the Tables

A professor in Utah recently got in trouble because his students lodged complaints about him. The complaints all came back to the same thing: He didn’t just stand in front of them and drop an info dump on them. He asked questions, engaged the class…and these college students resented being asked to think.

The Socratic Method, as its name might imply, is one of the oldest teaching methods. In it, the teacher becomes a facilitator, asking a series of probing and guiding questions to direct the learner to discover the material and develop their own thought-out understanding of it. (Hmm…where have we heard that before?) In this day and age, it’s hard to do a truly Socratic class because of the constraints placed on both class time and curriculum scope, but there are teachers who have found ways to do it.

Others, like me, modify the method to fit within our own teaching situation. For example, I teach in a mastery-based learning center. A full-blown Socratic Method is well beyond what I can do with the program, but I don’t think twice about using questions to help my students see the relationships between what they worked on last month and what they’re working on right then. When the student asks a process question that we’ve already discussed, I turn the question back on the student. If they’ve just met me (or if they’re one of my more whiny teenagers), they whine and they balk. But through questioning and thinking it out, they figure out the part of the process they forgot, and then it becomes, “How do I- Wait. No. I can do this. Just…don’t say anything.” And they do. Students who’ve been working with me for a while will ask a question, and then roll their eyes and say, “Don’t ask me. I’ll figure it out.” And they do. And they do a little dance because they didn’t need me to do anything other than grin mischievously.

The Socratic Method is great for helping students develop reasoning skills, self-reliance, and self-confidence…all while knowing the teacher is right there to help when things get beyond them. It’s also an awesome way to torture teens and tweens. I highly recommend it!


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