The Modern Socratic Method Explained

Andrea Duncan

What if our modern education system could be greatly impacted by a man who lived over thousands of years ago? Socrates was a Greek philosopher who lived from 469-399 BC and his Socratic Method has become the basis on which the Classical Model, or Classical Education, is based. describes “His style of teaching — immortalized as the Socratic Method — involved not conveying knowledge, but rather asking question after clarifying question until his students arrived at their own understanding.” ( editors, 2019, para. 1) Around the world, a return to Classical Education is on the rise, and teachers need to be informed about its use in the classroom.

There are two main parts that make up the Classical Model. First, unlike traditional education in which children move from one grade level to the next, in Classical Education, the formative years are broken down into three major stages based on brain development, (a) the Grammar stage, (b) the Dialectic stage, and (c) the Rhetoric stage. The second main part of Classical Education deals with how information is acquired. Instead of a teacher lecturing from the front of a classroom, Classical Educators believe one comes to knowledge by asking numerous questions called the Five Common Topics. The Socratic Method’s greatest advantage, even more than leading students to information, is that it helps students become better at critical thinking, which has many benefits. As a result, teachers need to become familiar with the Socratic Method, or the Classical Model, and how to use it effectively in the classroom.

The first of the two main parts of Classical Education is students are not grouped with a specific age, instead the classically-trained child moves through three different stages based upon mental development. These three stages were developed to fit the specific skills that growing children exhibit as their brains grow and mature. The first is known as the grammar stage, which occurs between birth and age 12, the second is the dialetic stage, specifically for the young adolescent of ages 12-15, and the third is the rhetoric stage, which is for the mature brain of 16 and older. Once a child moves up to the next stage of development, that child can always use skills and abilities from previous stages to retrieve information, but each stage has its own special skills and abilities.

The first stage, the Grammar Stage, is distinctive because the young child’s sponge-like brain can memorize large amounts of information, without understanding what it means. Because there is so much information available to memorize in the world, students ages 4-12 years old can all be memorizing the same information at the same time. For example pre-K and sixth grade age children memorize such information as “Uniformitarianism is the belief that Earth’s past geological changes can be fully explained by current processes.” (Bortins, 2012, p. 27) Not only can a four-year-old not understand the meaning of this sentence, but most adults, who are not rocket scientists, do not understand it. However, anyone can simply memorize it, which is what young children can master.

The second stage of learning is the “Dialetic” stage, in which adolescents begin to question the world around them. Classical educators also call this stage the “understanding” stage because students begin to understand all of the memorized information they learned in the early grammar years. For example, they learn that uniformitarianism means that the world has not changed much over time and any geological wonders are in existence as a result of things that have occurred many times in history. In addition, this is a unique time because pre-teens seem to want to ask questions, discuss everything, and learn “Why?”, often to the consternation of those around them. However, this is part of understanding and coming to truth. As difficult as the Dialectic stage can be, this thought process should be encouraged because it is the way in which the classical student begins to internalize information that was absorbed in the grammar stage of learning.

Lastly, around the age of 16, the student moves into the “Rhetoric” stage of learning, when he or she has absorbed and memorized information in the grammar stage, understood it in the dialectic stage, and can now share that information with others. As an example, a question might be, “Do you believe that uniformitarianism is the true way the Earth was formed or do you believe in the catastrophism view, which is that certain major events shaped the Earth’s surface over time?” This is an exciting and maturing time for the young adult. Rhetoric students are better able to empathize with others, which can lead to a greater maturity in all areas of life. Also, because the brain is such a complex organ, it can now easily move in and out of the grammar stage- it can always memorize new information, dialectic stage- develop an understanding of that information, and rhetoric stage- share that information with others, at will. The Classical Model helps students hone these skills, and this leads to better understanding, learning, and growing.

The second main part of the Classical Model is the act of asking questions to gather information, also known as “The Five Common Topics”. They are (a) Definition, (b) Comparison, (c) Circumstance, (d) Relationship, and (e) Testimony. The first, or Definition Questions, simply define words such as “What is uniformitarianism?” The second, Comparison, compares and contrasts two people, places, things, objects, etc. such as “How is uniformitarianism different from catastrophism?” The third, Circumstance questions ask what was going on in different places or at different times. For example, “Does uniformitarianism better explain that the Grand Canyon was formed slowly or quickly?” The fourth, Relationship Questions deal with relationships between people, objects, and time periods, as well as cause and effect. “Does uniformitarianism or catastrophism better explain the creation of the Grand Canyon?” Lastly, “Authority” inquiries answer deeper and more profound questions about life such as “Does uniformitarianism change your view of how the world as we know it began?”

Asking questions such as these can greatly improve learning, and is extremely engaging to students. Below is an example of how a teacher might lead a discussion on a simple subject of a “blade of grass” in a classical classroom:

For students in the Grammar stage of learning: Answers students give are in italics. Leader: Now, I want you to look closely at this. What do you think it is? A blade of grass. Can you remember from our memory work, what are the classifications of living things? Let’s respond together. The classifications of living things are Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. (Bortins, 2012, p. 65) What color is it? What are the different colors in the order of the rainbow? The different colors are Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet. Tell me about this blade of grass. Is it a plant or an animal? What are some parts of a plant? Some parts of a plant are leaves, stems, and roots. (Bortins, 2012, p. 65) What are some parts of a plant cell? Some parts of a plant cell are Nucleus, Cytoplasm, Vacuole, Mitochondria, Cell membrane, Cell wall, Chloroplasts, Golgi Bodies (Bortins, 2012, p. 65). . .

For students in the Dialectic Stage: Students answers will now differ, so they are not given. What is a blade of grass? How is a blade of grass like a leaf on a tree? How is it different? Does a blade of grass stay the same size all the time? Does it grow? Does it grow differently at different times of the year? What can you tell me about the seasons of the year? Do you see the veins in the blade of grass? What does this tell us about how water travels through a blade of grass? Is the grass alive? What does that mean? Does it have amino acids? Can amino acids be replicated in a laboratory? What does that tell us about the world?

In the Rhetoric Stage: Again, answers are not given. Let’s discuss a blade of grass. What does grass tell us about biology? How do the atoms of a blade of grass demonstrate that the grass is alive?What is the chemical make up of a blade of grass? Is there evidence in the atomic make up of the grass that the grass is alive? How does a blade of grass grow? What is necessary for growth? Why is the placement of the Earth in the galaxy necessary for life and growth of a blade of grass? If the Delaware River had been a grass pasture, would George Washington have been successful on that impactful Christmas Night in the Revolutionary War?

Clearly, it is obvious that a blade of grass could occupy learners at any stage of life for an infinite amount of time. Clearly, it is very important that educators learn more about the Classical Method or Socratic Method of teaching. Even if students have not grown up in the model, it can be implemented in all Modern Classrooms for a great learning experience for all. Is that not what we want from education?

Bortins, L. A. (2012). Foundations: The weekly grammar for classical communities. West End, NC: Classical Conversations, Inc.

Socrates. (2019, August 23). History. Retrieved from

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