The Power of Socratic Discussion: How This Ancient Teaching Method Transformed Modern Education

  ”In ancient Rome, only the rich were eligible to join the army and receive spoils and land, and the poor were not eligible. Therefore, I feel that Roman rule did not benefit everyone.” Nick’s expression was serious when he spoke, and it was easy for people to ignore it. He is only 10 years old and a fourth grader.
  Jimmy, a classmate sitting on the other side of the round table, retorted: “I don’t think so. The rich are also helping the poor fight for their rights.” He looked down at his notes and continued: “The textbook said that there was a law at that time that poor people bought You can buy food at a lower price.”
  This is a history lesson from a public elementary school in Wichita, Kansas, USA. Such a discussion is held every two weeks, with 30 children sitting in two circles. The children sitting in the inner circle are responsible for speaking and asking questions, and the children sitting in the outer circle are responsible for recording the speeches of the classmates in front of them.
  After the class, the teacher had no sense of presence. She didn’t even stand in the middle of the two-layer circle, but just observed quietly from the periphery. She neither corrected the students’ answers nor explained any knowledge points, nor did she act as the final judge.
  Nor is the purpose of students to argue out what is right or wrong through debate. Their task is to finally find the answer to this question through full expression and discussion: “Did the rule of ancient Rome benefit everyone?”
  This is a very common curriculum format in American schools currently, known as Socrates. Socratic Seminar, sometimes translated as “Socratic Circle”. It is said that Socrates and his students used this form of learning more than 2,400 years ago.
The Difference Between Socratic Dialogues and The Analects

  As a thinker and educator, Socrates himself did not leave any written works. We can still understand his educational philosophy and teaching methods today through the writings of his students Plato and others. These works record a series of intelligent questions and answers and discussions between Socrates and his students on various topics, with Socrates often acting as the questioner, which also reflects the education of this “teacher of all teachers” Concept: Disseminate ideas to students through questions and answers, conversations, discussions and even arguments with students. He never teaches students ready-made answers, but allows students to reach conclusions through their own exploration and thinking. Therefore, although these writings are similar in form to “The Analects of Confucius”, they are completely different in nature.
  Socrates’ teaching method is actually a method of debate where teachers and students are equal. When he feels that a student’s answer is wrong, he usually does not directly point out where the mistake is and why it is wrong, but allows the other party to find out the truth through constant questioning. contradictions and gradually find the correct answers.
  From ancient times to the present, Western education circles have been exploring the application of Socrates’ ideas in classroom teaching.
“The greatest idea ever”

  In 1981, 23 high school students were whispering at the entrance of a conference center in Maryland, USA. For the next three days, the high school students will attend two seminars each day on the following themes: truth, goodness, beauty, freedom, justice and equality. Although they have been preparing for this seminar for several months, and everyone has read several books and taken thick notes, they still can’t hide the nervous look on their young faces. The organizer of this event, or their “coach and mentor” for the next three days, American educator Mortimer Adler, looked relaxed and confident.
  Mortimer Adler’s domestic fame may come more from an enduring bestseller – “How to Read a Book”. But the vast majority of Chinese people have never heard of this story that happened when he was 78 years old. When the seminar time came, Adler arranged for the students to sit in order in two circles of seats, one inside and one outside, while greeting the education experts who came from all over the United States to observe this demonstration course.
  Are high school students capable of discussing such serious philosophical issues? What if the seminar turns into childish small talk? Facing these generally skeptical observers, Adler smiled and said: “Let’s take a look and listen.”
  After observing the scene for three full days, the famous American education reporter Susan Walton published A report titled “The Greatest Idea: Teaching Children How to Think.”
  She described the seminar this way: Adler asked the students to discuss in a loose Socratic method. He did not stand in the middle of the circle around the students, nor did he comment on the students’ work from time to time. During the speech, all he did during the whole process was to maintain order, express opinions, debate, revise opinions, and finally form a consensus. These processes were all completed independently by the students.
  Halfway through the seminar, a day and a half into it, both observers and the students themselves were convinced that high school students were smart enough to discuss these philosophical topics. Students said that they were looking forward to conducting more such seminars with their classmates in regular classes. Adler adds that if teachers attend similar workshops during their training, they can easily use the workshop format in their own classrooms, and “any teacher can do it.”
“Return” the classroom to students

  In the months following the success of this open class, Adler did two things. On the one hand, he published two books in succession, “Comprehensive Education Suggestions” and “Comprehensive Education Issues and Possibilities”, which elaborated on the concepts and implementation points of the Socratic discussion teaching method; on the other hand, he conducted educational activities in various states in the United States. A series of lecture tours were given at the conference. In a speech, he said that although he was very confident in this new course format, he predicted that it would be difficult for this format to really enter the campus within this century (the 20th century).
  However, the education community’s enthusiasm for this new method far exceeded the old man’s expectations. At that time, the European and American educational circles had reached a consensus: for a long time in the past, the educational circles had been too obsessed with “answers”, whether they were right or wrong, while “questions” were the key to cultivating critical thinking. Socratic discussion is truly student-centered, allowing students to lead the process and results of questioning, rather than the traditional teacher asking and students answering. So soon, teachers all over the United States, from universities to elementary schools, began to try this new teaching form in the classroom.
  Various “Socratic seminar teaching method training courses” targeting teachers are popular all over the United States. Many training courses can attract thousands of public school teachers to sign up for training in one session, and some training companies can earn tens of millions of dollars a year.
  By the time Adler passed away in 2001 at the age of nearly 100, this teaching method had developed into a fairly mature form of teaching and evaluation in the American public education system, and was widely used in various subjects such as literacy, history, and art. Some elementary schools start organizing such seminars from the first to second grade, and some university courses even use this format throughout the semester.
A typical Socratic discussion

  Before the activity officially begins, the teacher needs to do the following preparations: First, think clearly about what the teaching objectives are and what the evaluation criteria for student performance are; then, students must read textbooks or other materials in advance; and the most important thing is to design a Open-ended questions that prompt students to think and discuss. This question cannot have a single, standard answer, but must reflect in-depth thinking about the reading materials or teaching materials, such as “Can the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet be avoided?” “What is the meaning of school?”
  In formal seminars, students sit in two concentric circles, one inside and one outside. Students in the inner circle focus on expressing opinions and discussions, while students in the outer circle need to become observers behind the one-way mirror, observing and recording carefully, but cannot interact with the inner circle in any way. Students in the inner circle must also listen quietly as members of the outer circle evaluate the quality of the discussion among members of the inner circle. If the workshop is long enough, the inner and outer circles can switch places.
  There are many variations of the Socratic discussion format, but the discussion-recording-feedback model is essential.
Is this discussion effective?

  Of course, the popularity of a teaching method can never be just because it is “easy and fun.” Since the 1990s, educational scholars in the United States, Britain and other countries have begun to evaluate the effectiveness of Socratic discussions and published a large number of papers. Through rigorous quantitative research, they have proven that this teaching method can improve children’s academic skills and scientific thinking, such as critical thinking and creativity, and can also help improve reading, writing, expression and teamwork skills. It has also become an important part of the American education system in evaluating students’ daily performance.
  American educator Lambright pointed out in a 1995 paper: “When students participate in a group, listen to other people’s ideas, and observe the collision of one idea with another, they will become more creative. “Power.”

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