Using the Socratic Method with High Schoolers
Using the Socratic Method to teach high schoolers may be uncommon, but it deserves a place in every student’s education. You’ll find it in universities around the world but rarely in a high school classroom. That’s a shame, because it teaches students how to think, not what to think. Students need to learn how to think so they can maintain a healthy worldview before they get into a world that will challenge it. There are reasons why the method isn’t already used in high school (those reasons are scanty), reasons why it should be used in high school (those reasons are valid), and easy ways to apply the method in nearly any high school classroom.
Why the Socratic Method isn’t Used to Teach High Schoolers
In 1957, the Space Race between the US and the USSR changed the way students were taught, placing the emphasis on measurable outcomes instead of the thinking process. Nearly 100% of the new format was based on short-term teaching methods (i.e., true-false, multiple choice, short essay assignments). But the problem with the new approach is that short-term thinking has only short-term impact, and declining test scores since 1957 prove it.
Why the Socratic Method Should be used to Teach High Schoolers
Neuroscientists tell us that short-term memory recall is the lowest form of thought. While we can’t change modern education, we can equip our kids to think their way through it. We want to enable our students to reason through and retain what they study.
Here’s what the Socratic Method can do for high school students:
- Helps them organize knowledge
- Helps them develop abstract thinking skills
- Enables them to figure out why they think the way they do (this is called “metacognition,” or, thinking about thinking)
- Enables them to clarify their worldviews
- Enables them to evaluate new ideas
- Helps them find their way through difficult problems with consistent thinking tools
- Helps them identify preconceived ideas
- Clarifies what they think
- Helps them better understand other peoples’ perspectives
- Clarifies what their opinions have in common with opposing opinions
- Helps a student identify the ethical boundaries he won’t cross
- Gives a student opportunities to practice reasoning with a trusted adult
Easy Ways to Use it in the High School Classroom
Socratic Dialogue always begins with a position of humility, even ignorance. There’s no prescribed track to follow in these conversations, no study guides to follow, no algorithms to keep you on course. Just explore the new ideas that come up.
What Should You Talk About?
Anything, and the closer to home you can get it, or make it, the better the conversation will go. You can talk about a conflict going on in your young person’s life or in the life of one of his friends, about news events of the day, or a conflict going on in a book that your student is reading.
Once you Find a Topic:
- Find out what your student knows about the topic. New knowledge is always built on existing knowledge, so you have to connect new ideas to ones your student already has. That becomes the foundation for new ideas to rest on.
- As we mentioned before, it’s important that the teacher-facilitator start from a neutral position. You assume a posture of ignorance about a topic, and even though you may be knowledgeable about the subject, taking this stance gives the student freedom to explore an idea without fear that he’ll say something “wrong.” Having a non-threatening environment in which to explore thoughts is vital in making discoveries.
- Define the terms. Socrates said, “the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” Once the vocabulary of a topic is understood, students are ready to process the conversation.
Now you’re ready to start the conversation. Your goal is to ask the questions that will lead her to make her own discoveries about the topic.
The conversations will be either inductive or deductive.
Inductive conversations lead to conclusions after being persuaded by the information they have about a topic. They track ideas back to their sources. They always include conjecture, wild guesses, presumptions, and “hunches.” They see given outcomes and try to understand what their sources might be. The premises become the evidence.
Deductive conversations break big ideas into parts. They make a point and back it up. They deal with facts, not conjecture, and the facts are the evidence.
Questions to ask during a Socratic Dialogue:
- Did you see how…?
- Why did that person…?
- If he thought that, then…?
- Why would she…?
- What do you think?
- What caused that?
- Do you feel that…?
- If that’s the case here, then shouldn’t it also be here?
- Could something else be going on, something we don’t see?
- Since this is the case, it sheds light on…
- If it isn’t the case, it sheds light on…
- What you said here isn’t consistent with what you said over here…
- What would you call that kind of attitude…?
- Can you think of another place in the story where…?
- How would you compare…?
- What motivated the person to behave that way?
- How would you classify…?
- What would happen if they continued…?
- What is the relationship between…?
- What ideas would justify his actions over here?
- Is it possible that both perspectives are right?
- Is it possible that both perspectives are wrong?
- Where do they overlap?
- If they can’t intersect, how can they complement each other?
The Socratic Method is a thinking tool that will stay with your students long after they finish high school. It lets them engage in smart dialogues without winners, losers, or conquests. Best of all, it creates smart young people that are mentally equipped to take their place in the world and to take on the harmful influences that await them in it.
For a download of socratic discussion starters from CathyCanen.com CLICK HERE.