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Pedagogical Pointers from the Past

Socrates: The Great Teacher-Learner part I


I have never been a fan of the ‘teaching’ versus ‘learning’ dichotomy. ‘They learn more when we do less’ is another motto I have often sighed at. I think it is a false one and not particularly helpful. It makes an assumption about the definition of teaching and also about learning in a way that makes both concepts seem diametrically opposed. It assumes that:

  • Teaching is merely about transmission, simply about telling students what to learn, what to do, and how to do it.

  • Learning is not simply about soaking up info given by the teacher. Pupils must be allowed to learn for themselves.

  • For a start, teaching is not simply about standing there and lecturing. There is a place for setting out subject knowledge details. One could throw the Latin gerundive at pupils and say, ‘figure it out’, but I feel that the ensuing screams would not be worth it. Secondly, learning is both taking in information and learning in the sense of building one’s own skills testing, reasoning for oneself, and this might sound cliched, but in essence, learning how to learn. You explain the grammar point, perhaps testing first whether they can figure out its purpose with a collective activity. Then you give them some exercises and allow them to see if they can apply the rules. With such an exercise they are employing far more than simply your set of rules for the Latin gerundive (or whatever it may be). How do they approach the task? What questions are they asking themselves if they become stuck? Do they need a little assistance, or have they solved the problem themselves? This is what I would be looking at in independent exercise time.

So, two sides of teaching, two aspects of learning. Both valid, both important. Subject matter is specific. Learning as personal growth, is common to all subjects. This is an extremely important part of education. If anything, it is the point of education. One might say that topics and subjects are the means of achieving that personal growth. This aspect of learning is not about ‘yes, you’re right that ending is accusative’. It is about drawing out a pupil’s own potential and talents, helping them to do so confidently, and supporting that process and development, which is rarely a breeze. The word ‘education’ itself comes from the Latin ‘to draw out’ (educo, educere, eduxi, eductus).

So, how is this to be achieved? The teacher is essential to it, but as an ‘enabler’ not a lecturer. The good teacher will:

  • Prompt a pupil in difficulty with a question.

  • This encourages them to realise that they can make the links for themselves, work out a process that leads to a solution, and test that by having another go.

  • Ask them to take them through their thought process.

  • Offer a little guidance if needed.

  • Encourage the pupil to reflect on their approach and why it worked or not.

Questions draw out human logic, independent thinking, and ultimately confidence. And no, this is not new. It is called the SOCRATIC method.

By a rigorous process of questioning that encouraged (even forced) his interlocutors to put their confident assertions of knowledge through logical and rational questioning, under the critical microscope. For example (made up by me after the Socratic pattern):

QUESTIONER: okay, so rescuing a friend is courage, facing your fears is courage, standing by an unpopular opinion is courage. But what makes them all courage? These are examples of courage. But what is courage at its core? What in essence is it?

INTERLOCUTOR: Well, facing something you have to do that you fear, and doing it anyway.

QUESTIONER: So, facing something dangerous with a sense of duty, because you have to?


QUESTIONER: What about climbing a high mountain, a daunting challenge surely?

INTERLOCUTOR: Most certainly.

QUESTIONER: And if you accomplish your mission and reach the peak, is that not courage?


QUESTIONER: Why? It is a task you fear, but you do it anyway.

INTERLOCUTOR: Yes, but it is courage if you are going for a purpose, rescuing a friend, retrieving something important. If you’re doing it just to prove you can or for a dare, I would call that recklessness.

QUESTIONER: An excellent answer.

Few of Socrates’ dialogues end so positively. But think the little dialogue above shows that questioning, asking for justification and reflection promotes the kind of self-learning and self-growth that is so important in education.

Socrates gave us the blueprint. Let’s use it!

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