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. History.com 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.” (history.com 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 https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/socrates

Four Ways to Make a Classroom Beautifully Distinct

Andrea Duncan

In the movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, bored students sitting half asleep, while the teacher in monotone repetitively calls the name “Bueller, Bueller” is the quintessential picture of the modern high school classroom. In the stereotype, students come to school for seven hours a day, at a time in life when they have the most energy and stamina, to sit at a desk and listen to teacher after teacher lecture. But, what if your classroom was different? What if it was a place to appreciate aspects of life that you had never known before, to begin to answer the eternal question, why?, and to find novel ways to discover new concepts while playing games? Hopefully, your classroom can be transformed into the part of the day students cannot wait to experience.

1. Eliminate Lectures from your Vocabulary

Make the decision that you will no longer be the teacher who stands in front of the classroom and talks. Instead, have a clear goal in mind and find a new way to reach it. If you would like to teach students about alliteration, send one student to the board, sit the rest in a circle, and throw a ball around the room as each student catches it and recites a word beginning with the letter “D”. Then, break the students into groups and have a competition for the craziest narrative. Or, if your goal is to understand refutations, set up your room like a presidential debate stage, complete with moderators and a press box, dress yourself in a costume, download “news” music on your phone, and have a formal debate on “Should we have pizza for dinner tonight?” Next, together create a refutation, before round two, “Dogs are better house pets than cats.” And, if lecturing is absolutely necessary, do not stand up and talk to students. Ask tons of questions to actively lead them to answers.

2. Develop a New Perspective

Find new ways to look at old things. Go outside. Toss a ball. Lay on the floor. Do anything different. For example, if you want your class to understand parallelism, have students write a narrative about the desk from their chair, and then shake things up by laying on the floor underneath, and then standing on top of it. You have just created parallelism!

Or, perhaps, if your main goal is to help students understand that the one who writes the narrative, controls the microphone, and, inevitably, the one who changes the world, take the “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” poem and rewrite it about a big man, who comes down your chimney in the middle of the night to steal some of your food and leave reindeer poop all over your floor. Changes your perspective on Jolly Old St. Nick, does it not?

What if in your class today, students could go outside and look for the ugliest thing and rewrite it so that it is beautiful? “An obnoxious vine was stuck in a dark unwanted corner of the building; a weed that would easily be rejected by the beautifully manicured lawn beside it. Scaling the wall with drying, deteriorating, decaying leaves hindering its green growth, it was a tumor on the side of the building.” This could easily become: “An innovative rising life that contrasted strongly with the cookie-cutter, fit in the box, boring grass beside it, defying all logic to live, and instead of its Victorian-esque neighborhood which conforms to all the imitating rules, it instead decided to throw off all convention and reach for the stars.” In short, think of new and interesting ways to have a revolutionary perspective on learning, or become the new perception of the vine.

3. Refer to Yourself as the Lead Learner

This week I personally learned something new! I had always assumed that George Washington, when he left the Presidency, changed history forever. Imagine my dismay when I discovered John Adams, our second President, really was responsible for the peaceful transfer of power when he quietly relinquished the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson, leader of the opposing party, his greatest rival, and a man he truly hated! I had a new appreciation for Adams and felt as if a light had just illuminated a dark corner of my brain. I could not wait to share this information with someone! A teacher that has just learned something new will be excited to share that latest information, and in innovative and interesting ways. It is a sad fact, but, newsflash: students already know that we do not know everything. Take the time today to learn something new, even if it is with your own learners in a classroom discussion. You will be much more excited to share it with others, and all those around you will want to join in!

4. Marvel at the World and All of the Amazing Things in it!

The world truly is a remarkable place! Think about it! We are perfectly placed in the universe for the sun to rise every morning, keep the earth at the perfect temperature for life, and allow the big, gas planets to protect us from space debris! In addition, it is truly astonishing that tiny unique atoms that we cannot even see make up substances that can be created by combining atoms of different elements into molecules that can help sustain life! Even a tiny blade of grass is a living being that is smart enough to take water and evenly distribute it, constantly grow upwards, and know when to be dormant and when to be awake! And it does not even have a brain!

The world is a mind-boggling place and we get to share that marvelous world with young people. Get out and experience it. Your enthusiasm will infect your students. Find something new and outstanding to share with the young minds you are about to mold. Discover original and ground-breaking ways to have fun with your students in the classroom. You never know if that tiny blade of grass may have the cure for cancer sitting right inside of it, and one of your students may discover it!

Andrea Duncan has been a teacher of almost every subject: writing, English grammar, science, mathematics, Debate, Latin, and orchestra, for the last 16 years. Currently, she teaches 11th grade at her own school, Matthew 28 Academy.