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The Socratic method (also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, Socratic irony, or Socratic debate), named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer's own point.
The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. The extent to which this method is employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, is called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method.
In the second half of the 5th century BC, sophists were teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to entertain or impress or persuade an audience to accept the speaker's point of view. Socrates promoted an alternative method of teaching which came to be called the Socratic method. Socrates began to engage in such discussions with his fellow Athenians after his friend from youth, Chaerephon, visited the Oracle of Delphi, which confirmed that no man in Greece was wiser than Socrates. Socrates saw this as a paradox, and began using the Socratic method to answer his conundrum. Diogenes Laërtius, however, wrote that Protagoras invented the “Socratic” method.
Plato famously formalized the Socratic elenctic style in prose—presenting Socrates as the curious questioner of some prominent Athenian interlocutor—in some of his early dialogues, such as Euthyphro and Ion, and the method is most commonly found within the so-called "Socratic dialogues", which generally portray Socrates engaging in the method and questioning his fellow citizens about moral and epistemological issues.
The phrase Socratic questioning is used to describe a kind of questioning in which an original question is responded to as though it were an answer. This in turn forces the first questioner to reformulate a new question in light of the progress of the discourse.
Elenchus (Ancient Greek: ἔλεγχος elengkhos "argument of disproof or refutation; cross-examining, testing, scrutiny esp. for purposes of refutation") is the central technique of the Socratic method. The Latin form elenchus (plural elenchi ) is used in English as the technical philosophical term.
In Plato's early dialogues, the elenchus is the technique Socrates uses to investigate, for example, the nature or definition of ethical concepts such as justice or virtue. According to one general characterization, it has the following steps:
- Socrates' interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example "Courage is endurance of the soul", which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.
- Socrates secures his interlocutor's agreement to further premises, for example "Courage is a fine thing" and "Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing".
- Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis, in this case it leads to: "courage is not endurance of the soul".
- Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor's thesis is false and that its negation is true.
One elenctic examination can lead to a new, more refined, examination of the concept being considered, in this case it invites an examination of the claim: "Courage is wise endurance of the soul". Most Socratic inquiries consist of a series of elenchi and typically end in aporia.
Frede insists that step #4 above makes nonsense of the aporetic nature of the early dialogues. If any claim has been shown to be true then it cannot be the case that the interlocutors are in aporia, a state where they no longer know what to say about the subject under discussion.
The exact nature of the elenchus is subject to a great deal of debate, in particular concerning whether it is a positive method, leading to knowledge, or a negative method used solely to refute false claims to knowledge.
W. K. C. Guthrie in The Greek Philosophers sees it as an error to regard the Socratic method as a means by which one seeks the answer to a problem, or knowledge. Guthrie claims that the Socratic method actually aims to demonstrate one's ignorance. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, did believe that knowledge was possible, but believed that the first step to knowledge was recognition of one's ignorance. Guthrie writes, "[Socrates] was accustomed to say that he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The essence of the Socratic method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something, in fact he does not."
Socrates generally applied his method of examination to concepts that seem to lack any concrete definition; e.g., the key moral concepts at the time, the virtues of piety, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. Such an examination challenged the implicit moral beliefs of the interlocutors, bringing out inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs, and usually resulting in puzzlement known as aporia. In view of such inadequacies, Socrates himself professed his ignorance, but others still claimed to have knowledge. Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge. While this belief seems paradoxical at first glance, it in fact allowed Socrates to discover his own errors where others might assume they were correct. This claim was known by the anecdote of the Delphic oracular pronouncement that Socrates was the wisest of all men. (Or, rather, that no man was wiser than Socrates.)
Socrates used this claim of wisdom as the basis of his moral exhortation. Accordingly, he claimed that the chief goodness consists in the caring of the soul concerned with moral truth and moral understanding, that "wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state", and that "life without examination [dialogue] is not worth living". It is with this in mind that the Socratic method is employed.
The motive for the modern usage of this method and Socrates' use are not necessarily equivalent. Socrates rarely used the method to actually develop consistent theories, instead using myth to explain them. The Parmenides shows Parmenides using the Socratic method to point out the flaws in the Platonic theory of the Forms, as presented by Socrates; it is not the only dialogue in which theories normally expounded by Plato/Socrates are broken down through dialectic. Instead of arriving at answers, the method was used to break down the theories we hold, to go "beyond" the axioms and postulates we take for granted. Therefore, myth and the Socratic method are not meant by Plato to be incompatible; they have different purposes, and are often described as the "left hand" and "right hand" paths to the good and wisdom.
- A Socratic Circle (also known as a Socratic Seminar)
- is a pedagogical approach based on the Socratic method and uses a dialogic approach to understand information in a text. Its systematic procedure is used to examine a text through questions and answers founded on the beliefs that all new knowledge is connected to prior knowledge, that all thinking comes from asking questions, and that asking one question should lead to asking further questions. A Socratic Circle is not a debate. The goal of this activity is to have participants work together to construct meaning and arrive at an answer, not for one student or one group to “win the argument”.
This approach is based on the belief that participants seek and gain deeper understanding of concepts in the text through thoughtful dialogue rather than memorizing information that has been provided for them. While Socratic Circles can differ in structure, and even in name, they typically involve the following components: a passage of text that students must read beforehand and two concentric circles of students: an outer circle and an inner circle. The inner circle focuses on exploring and analysing the text through the act of questioning and answering. During this phase, the outer circle remains silent. Students in the outer circle are much like scientific observers watching and listening to the conversation of the inner circle. When the text has been fully discussed and the inner circle is finished talking, the outer circle provides feedback on the dialogue that took place. This process alternates with the inner circle students going to the outer circle for the next meeting and vice versa. The length of this process varies depending on the text used for the discussion. The teacher may decide to alternate groups within one meeting, or they may alternate at each separate meeting.
The most significant difference between this activity and most typical classroom activities involves the role of the teacher. In Socratic Circles the students lead the discussion and questioning. The teacher's role is to ensure the discussion advances regardless of the particular direction the discussion takes.
Various approaches to Socratic Circles
Teachers use Socratic Circles in different ways. The structure it takes may look different in each classroom. While this is not an exhaustive list, teachers may use one of the following structures to administer Socratic Seminar:
- Inner/Outer Circle or Fishbowl: Students need to be arranged in inner and outer circles. The inner circle engages in discussion about the text. The outer circle observes the inner circle, while taking notes. The outer circle shares their observations and questions the inner circle with guidance from the teacher/facilitator. Students use constructive criticism as opposed to making judgements. The students on the outside keep track of topics they would like to discuss as part of the debrief. Participants of the outer circle can use an observation checklist or notes form to monitor the participants in the inner circle. These tools will provide structure for listening and give the outside members specific details to discuss later in the seminar. The teacher may also sit in the circle but at the same height as the students.
- Triad: Students are arranged so that each participant in the inner circle (called a “pilot”) has two “co-pilots” sitting behind him/her on either side. Pilots are the speakers because they are in the inner circle; co-pilots are in the outer circle and only speak during consultation. The seminar proceeds as any other seminar. At a point in the seminar, the facilitator pauses the discussion and instructs the triad to talk to each other. Conversation will be about topics that need more in-depth discussion or a question posed by the leader. Sometimes triads will be asked by the facilitator to come up with a new question. Any time during a triad conversation, group members can switch seats and one of the co-pilots can sit in the pilot’s seat. Only during that time is the switching of seats allowed. This structure allows for students to speak, who may not yet have the confidence to speak in the large group. This type of seminar involves all students instead of just the students in the inner and outer circles.
- Simultaneous Seminars: Students are arranged in multiple small groups and placed as far as possible from each other. Following the guidelines of the Socratic Seminar, students engage in small group discussions. Simultaneous seminars are typically done with experienced students who need little guidance and can engage in a discussion without assistance from a teacher/facilitator. According to the literature, this type of seminar is beneficial for teachers who want students to explore a variety of texts around a main issue or topic. Each small group may have a different text to read/view and discuss. A larger Socratic Seminar can then occur as a discussion about how each text corresponds with one another. Simultaneous Seminars can also be used for a particularly difficult text. Students can work through different issues and key passages from the text.
No matter what structure the teacher employs, the basic premise of the seminar/circles is to turn partial control and direction of the classroom over to the students. The seminars encourage students to work together, creating meaning from the text and to stay away from trying to find a correct interpretation. The emphasis is on critical and creative thinking.
- Socratic Circle texts
- A Socratic Circle text is a tangible (part or whole) document that creates a thought-provoking discussion.
These texts ought to be appropriate for the participants' current level of intellectual and social development. The text provides the anchor for dialogue whereby the facilitator can bring the participants back to the text if they begin to digress. Furthermore, the seminar text enables the participants to create a level playing field – ensuring that the dialogical tone within the classroom remains consistent and pure to the subject or topic at hand. Some practitioners argue that "texts" do not have to be confined to printed texts, but can include artifacts such as objects, physical spaces, and the like.
Pertinent elements of an effective Socratic text
Effective Socratic seminar texts are able to challenge participants’ thinking skills if the texts are selected for the participants based on a number of characteristics:
- Ideas and values
- Complexity and challenge
- Relevance to participants curriculum
1. Ideas and values - According to proponents of Socratic Circles, an effective text contains ideas and values that are complex and difficult to summarize. Powerful discussions are claimed to arise from personal connections to an abstract idea (thought, mental image or notion) or from a personal value (an idea that is desirable or worthy for its own sake).
2. Complexity and challenge - Within the literature on Socratic Circles pedagogy, effective texts are to be rich in ideas, complexity  and open to interpretation. Ideally, it is argued, these texts should require multiple readings. At the same time, proponents also argue that texts should not be well above the participants intellectual level or too long to read.
3. Relevance to participants and curriculum - An effective text has identifiable themes or issues that are recognizable and pertinent to the participants and their lives. Keeping in mind at all times the significant themes, ideas and values in the text should always align with the intended curriculum.
4. Ambiguity - The literature states that good texts provoke critical thinking and raise important questions if the Socratic text is able to be legitimately considered and discussed from a variety of different perspectives, including perspectives that seem mutually exclusive. This promotes a lot of discussions, explanations and individual contributions since there is no right or wrong answer.
Two different ways to select a text
According to the literature, a good seminar consists of a strong effective text. Along with the four elements listed above, a good Socratic text is not limited to written documents. Instead, there are a variety of Socratic texts to choose from and can be divided into two main categories: (1) Print texts (e.g. short stories, poems, and essays) and non-print texts (e.g. photographs, sculptures, and maps) or (2) Subject area which can draw from print or non-print artifacts. For example: Language Arts (e.g. poems), History (written or oral historical speeches), Science (e.g. policies on environmental issues), Math (e.g. Mathematical proofs), Health (e.g. nutrition labels), and Physical Education (e.g. code of ethics).
Questioning methods in Socratic Circles
Socratic Circles are based upon student involvement and participation through the interaction of peers. The focus is to gain multiple perspectives on a given issue or topic. This enables students to understand different points of view and to thoroughly explore the topic. Socratic questioning is used to generate and help maintain the flow of the activity to help students connect the activity to their learning. The question pedagogy of Socratic Questions is open-ended; focusing on broad, general ideas rather than specific, factual information. The questioning technique used generally emphasize a higher-level of questioning and thinking that have no single right answer that encourages discussion among the Socratic circle.
Socratic circles generally start with an open-ended question either by the leader or asked from participants to encourage critical thinking and to develop skills. There is no designated first speaker, however, as individuals participate in Socratic circles, the more experience they will gain. There are two distinctive roles for this method: a leader and the participant.
The leader keeps the topic focused by asking a variety of questions about the text, follow-up questions and questions to help clarify positions when arguments become confused and/or involve reluctant participants while restraining others who are actively involved. Their questions are to prompt and/or encourage participants to elaborate on their responses to build on what others state. The questions are to help probe participants to deepen, clarify, paraphrase and to synthesize a variety of different views.
The participants share the responsibility with the leader to maintain the quality of the Socratic circle. They are to listen actively to enable themselves to share their ideas and questions in response to those presented by others. This enables the participants to gain experience in thinking and speaking persuasively using the discussion to support their position. During the questioning and responding, participants are to demonstrate respect for different ideas, thoughts and values with no interruptions. Individuals are required to build on what was previously mentioned.
Questions can be created individually or in small groups. All participants must be given the opportunity to take part in answering the questions. This strategy will include roles for everyone, such as probing and expanding. These questions will help students predict the content of the material that is to be explored. There are three types of questions to prepare for Socratic Circles: opening, guiding and closing questions.
- Opening questions – used to generate further discussion at the beginning of the seminar which elicits the main idea.
- Guiding questions – to help deepen and elaborate the discussion and responses. Participants are to maintain on track and encourage a positive atmosphere and consideration for others.
- Closing questions – used to bring the seminar to a close. Participants are to summarize their thoughts and learning and personalize what they’ve discussed, making reference to their personal life.
The Socratic method is widely used in contemporary legal education by most law schools in the United States. In a typical class setting, the professor asks a question and calls on a student who may or may not have volunteered an answer. The professor either then continues to ask the student questions or moves on to another student.
The employment of the Socratic method has some uniform features but can also be heavily influenced by the temperament of the teacher. The method begins by calling on a student at random, and asking about a central argument put forth by one of the judges (typically on the side of the majority) in an assigned case. The first step is to ask the student to paraphrase the argument to ensure they read and basically understand the case. (Students who have not read the case, for whatever reason, must take the opportunity to "pass," which most professors allow as a matter of course a few times per term.) Assuming the student has read the case and can articulate the court's argument, the professor then asks whether the student agrees with the argument. The professor then typically plays Devil's advocate, trying to force the student to defend his or her position by rebutting arguments against it.
These subsequent questions can take several forms. Sometimes they seek to challenge the assumptions upon which the student based the previous answer until it can no longer be defended. Further questions can be designed to move a student toward greater specificity, either in understanding a rule of law or a particular case. The teacher may attempt to propose a hypothetical situation in which the student's assertion would seem to demand an exception. Finally professors can use the Socratic method to allow students to come to legal principles on their own through carefully worded questions that encourage a particular train of thought.
One hallmark of Socratic questioning is that typically there is more than one "correct" answer, and more often, no clear answer at all. The primary goal of the Socratic method in the law school setting is not to answer usually unanswerable questions, but to explore the contours of often difficult legal issues and to teach students the critical thinking skills they will need as lawyers. This is often done by altering the facts of a particular case to tease out how the result might be different. This method encourages students to go beyond memorizing the facts of a case and instead to focus on application of legal rules to tangible fact patterns. As the assigned texts are typically case law, the Socratic method, if properly used, can display that judges' decisions are usually conscientiously made but are based on certain premises, beliefs, and conclusions that are the subject of legitimate argument.
Sometimes, the class ends with a discussion of doctrinal foundations (legal rules) to anchor the students in contemporary legal understanding of an issue. At other times the class ends without such discussion leaving students to figure out for themselves the legal rules or principles that were at issue. For this method to work, the students are expected to be prepared for class in advance by reading the assigned materials (case opinions, notes, law review articles, etc.) and by familiarizing themselves with the general outlines of the subject matter.
Several excellent examples of the Socratic Method are portrayed in the 1973 film The Paper Chase, based on a 1970 novel by John J. Osborn, Jr., also titled The Paper Chase. Several scenes involve the interaction of members of Professor Kingsfields's first year Contracts Law course and clearly show how the Socratic method is used as a framework for presenting concepts in contract law to the students.
The Socratic method, in the form of Socratic questioning, has been adapted for psychotherapy, most prominently in Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy, Cognitive Therapy and Reality Therapy. It can be used to clarify meaning, feeling, and consequences, as well as to gradually unfold insight, or explore alternative actions.
Human resource training and development
The method is used by modern management training companies facilitating skills, knowledge and attitudinal change; e.g. Acta Non Verba, Krauthammer, Gustav Käser Training International, Odyssey Ltd, Dynargie, Wendell Nekoranec.
The principal trainer acts as a facilitator who uses a high percentage of open questions to allow the participants to reflect critically on their own way of thinking, feeling, or behaving in a given context - usually involving a problem or desired outcome - and guiding participants to form the conclusion or an axiom/principle/belief through their own efforts, potentially highlighting dissonance, conflicts of thought and actions with questions for further discussion.
The generalized form may then be elaborated with more specific detail through an example, e.g. a case study led by the trainer.
Lesson plan elements for teachers in classrooms
This is a classical method of teaching that was designed to create autonomous thinkers.
- Plan and build the main course of thought through the lessons.
- Build in potential fallacies (errors) for discovery and discussion.
- Know common fallacies.
- It may help to start or check with the conclusion and work backwards.
Methodology in operation
- The teacher and student agree on the topic of instruction.
- The student agrees to attempt to answer questions from the teacher.
- The teacher and student are willing to accept any correctly-reasoned answer. That is, the reasoning process must be considered more important than pre-conceived facts or beliefs.
- The teacher's questions should expose errors in the students' reasoning or beliefs, then formulate questions that the students cannot answer except by a correct reasoning process. The teacher has prior knowledge about the classical fallacies (errors) in reasoning.
- Where the teacher makes an error of logic or fact, it is acceptable for a student to draw attention to the error.
An informal discussion or similar vehicle of communication may not strictly be a (Socratic) dialogue. Therefore it is only suitable as a medium for the Socratic method where the principles are known by teachers and likely to be known by students. Additionally, the teacher is knowledgeable and proficient enough to spontaneously ask questions in order to draw conclusions and principles etc. from the students.
A number of American universities and boarding schools employ a system known as the Harkness method, a style of teaching directly derived from the Socratic method. Developed in the early 1930s at Phillips Exeter Academy under the patronage of philanthropist Edward Harkness, the system calls for an oval table around which approximately thirteen students and an instructor sit. The instructor does not directly lecture the class but rather poses thought-provoking questions or topics, which the group then discusses. Meant to encourage shy students to voice their opinions as well as to foster the development of critical thinking skills, Harkness is widespread at many American schools.
- Active learning
- Institutional memory
- Marva Collins
- Rote learning
- Socrates Cafe
- W. Clement Stone
- Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991., p 83.
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- PE Areeda, 'The Socratic Method' (1996) 109(5) Harvard Law Review 911-922
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- Jarratt, Susan C. (1991) Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Sprague, Rosamond Kent (1972) The Older Sophists. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company ISBN 0-87220-556-8.
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- Philosopher.org - 'Tips on Starting your own Socrates Cafe', Christopher Phillips, Cecilia Phillips
- Socraticmethod.net Socratic Method Research Portal
- UChicago.edu - 'The Socratic Method', Elizabeth Garrett (1998)
- Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling, an example from Rick Garlikov
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Plato
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Xenophon (includes some Socratic works)
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Cicero (includes some works in the "Socratic dialogue" format)
- The Socratic Club
- Socratic and Scientific Method