The Socratic Method, Part 2

What happens if you answer the question?

There is an interesting little dynamic created within the classroom:
Everybody knows that the teacher already knows the answer, and the answer that the teacher knows is the right answer. The question (as question) is thereby subverted, transformed from an expression of relational dependence (asking for help) into an invitation to seek affirmation.

1. Even if Plato had a correct understanding of how knowledge and learning function, we are not Socrates, nor pupils of Socrates: the relationship dynamic we share between teacher and pupil is nothing like Socrates and his interlocutors. Plato is careful to present those who dialogue with Socrates as conceiving themselves as his intellectual equals, or as too frivolous to care – either way, there is no consideration of seeking affirmation in giving an answer to his questions. In our contemporary situations, the power balance has significantly shifted, creating a very different illocution (communicative act) out of a superficially similar locution (communicative form).

2. This change in the force of the question creates a whole host of resonances within the dynamics of the classroom:
students feel they are either need to have learned all the material before they come to class, or that they are a very poor students and incapable of class participation. They become involved in a very difficult attempt to already know what they are there to learn. They are placed in situations of ethical conflict within themselves, and in political conflict with each other – showing off, tall-poppy syndrome, all the rest.

At the end of the day though, what fascinates me about the Socratic Method is the way is the way in which it throws open for us the question of The Question – the way in which the kind of beings we think we are, and the kind of world we think we dwell in, resolves itself concretely into the types and lines of questions that we ask.

Socratic Pedagogy buys into an epistemology and anthropology that is incompatible with Christianity, and therefore results in classrooms that fail to be characterised by love, grace, and mutual dependence.
What difference does it make that we believe in a substantial, knowable creation – as well as an unseen eternal?
What difference does it make that we believe epistemic maturity consists in faith and dependence upon The Knower, rather than participation in It/Him?
What do we believe about the complex matrix of the teacher/student relationship? what is its goal? what is the effect of sin upon this? what is its redemption? how can it be conformed to the image of The Son?
For we have “one teacher, The Christ.” (Matt 23:10).

Having asked those questions, then what sort of questions would we ask?

The Socratic Method romances us with a vision of teacher and learner as partners in a quest for enlightenment. We are the happy few, the band of brothers standing before the walls of Harfleur or upon the field of Agincourt, ready together to storm the citadels of ignorance, to lay waste to the armies of incomprehension. The teacher is our general, our Alexander, marshalling the classroom forces for an expedition to extend the empire of The Known, even unto the Lands behind the rising of the Sun. Each probing question is a line upon our internal world-map, a trajectory for advance straight through the heart of darkness, through the twisted pictures of serpents, beyond the merely ‘uncharted’, and into the great Terra Incognita that spans the reverse of every chart.

Those Questions!

Isn’t it right that come the end, everyone stands on their desks and says, “captain, my captain”, while choking back sobs of gratitude for the privilege of taking part in such an educational experience?

[Actually, if there is anyone who could mount a challenge to Socrates as the most pervasive influence on the Imaginary of Education it would be John Keating (Robin Williams) in the film Dead Poets Society.
What teacher does not want to be loved like that? And what aspect of pedagogy is not directly affected by the need of a teacher to be loved? (There is a whole line of thought to be followed here, another time…)]

Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely something to be romantical about here. There is something wonderfully humble and wise about a teacher who asks questions. It is like a parent teaching their child to walk, gradually withdrawing support and setting greater challenges until the child is confident to progress on his or her own. In response to this skilful questioning, the students discover new dimensions and connections within their experience of the world and are helped to a greater sense of confidence in their ability to explore and learn outside the classroom. And further, the classroom becomes the site of free-flowing multiparty dialogue between the teacher and the students thus presenting opportunities for students to be challenged and provoked in their understanding, not only by the professional teacher, but also by their fellow students.
Still further, this loving questioning acknowledges something true: that there are kinds of knowing which are only given as experiences. There are no combinations of paragraphs or slides capable of communicating it.
The Question fires the imagination, and the imagination transports and orients us to the experience.
All Good. I think.

If it’s the right question.


3 thoughts on “The Socratic Method, Part 2

    1. Come on,
      that bit about 'subverting the question as question' was pretty cool. And the idea that the types of questions we ask can give an insight into the beings we think we are – that was interesting.
      There is a lot of guff though…


  1. "the question as question" has the ring of some of those Frenchies you and I read…

    Jesus seems to me to be an expert questioner. But is he to be imitated in this?


Comments are closed.