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Socrates: The Great Teacher-Learner part II


‘As a rule, a great teacher will also be a great learner.’

Is this true? I think there is truth in it. A teacher who is passionate about their subject and who enjoys enthusing others about it, is rarely contented to sit back satisfied that they know enough. This may not necessarily be to do with their subject. I remember that a colleague of mine who taught history, but was always reading something new on a variety of different subjects, which he would bring into his teaching or recommend to curious students. His subject knowledge was extremely impressive and he was a favourite among the students for his great enthusiasm that he passed on. And all without flashy PowerPoints and iPads.

This is not to say that all great teachers have to be learners, but I think there is an advantage. It cannot be a bad thing for students who are learning to see their teacher showing their own love of learning. It helps foster and fire their own love of learning. It also helps communicate the very important message that learning is lifelong, not just in terms of learning new and interesting things, but also in terms of engaging with the world around us and remaining open-minded.

And this is where Socrates comes in.

'The Delphic oracle said that I am the wisest of men, because I know that I know nothing.’

Surely, no teacher would say that? But Socrates is not talking about knowledge in the sense of 'he knows that the oracle is in Delphi’. He knew that Homer wrote the Iliad (as they believed in the fifth-century. In fact, references throughout Plato’s works if these were genuine Socratic quotations, suggest that he was really quite a well-read man. When Socrates said he knew that he knew nothing, he meant that he possessed an understanding that wisdom was something one constantly strove for, you did not pay your fee in return for some handouts which contain the answers, or an assertive, unreflective facts reeled off by an overconfident sophist. This was why Socrates sought to distance himself from these so-called teachers.

Following the Delphic oracle’s declaration, Socrates began his quest, as he sets out in the Apology. His famous elenchus, i.e., his style of critical questioning, did not go down too well. He soon demolished many claims to knowledge. 'The un-examined life is not worth living’, he said. If one does not seek to learn and strive to make the most of one’s skills and discover what it truly means to be human, but lives in uncritical acceptance of what one has been 'told’, for Socrates, that is not life.

Teaching is about equipping the young, yes with subject knowledge, but also the confidence to explore, learn, understand, and reflect. This way, a richer life can be achieved, a richer understanding, and with that, one can communicate a richer learning experience. They might have feared Socrates’ approach. Now, we must be grateful he was willing to stick his neck out.

He was a learner and an enabler. And thus, a great teacher. Let us embrace the Socratic method.

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