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Education, Tutorials, and the Socratic Method

Brian Ball | April 6, 2018

The tutorial model of teaching employed at NCH is, in some ways, based on the Socratic method of education. According to Socrates, education is a matter of drawing out what is already (innately) known. Thus, in Plato’s dialogue, The Meno, Socrates says, ‘The soul… being immortal… and having seen all things that exist… has knowledge of them all… and all learning is but recollection’. In particular, Plato rejects the Aristotelian hylomorphism I discussed in a previous post [TRANSFORMATION IN SPORT AND EDUCATION], and allows that the forms can exist independently of any things having those forms; and he thinks that prior to birth (and indeed conception) our souls encountered these pure forms, and that it is these encounters that we recollect. How much of this theory Plato’s own teacher Socrates embraces is less clear. In any case, in the Platonic dialogue, Socrates concludes, ‘there is no teaching, only recollection’.

This theory of education as recollection is illustrated in an episode in which Socrates engages with one of the slaves belonging to the title character, Meno, with whom Socrates in conversing. Socrates begins this interaction by drawing a square, two feet by two, so that it has an area of four square feet; and he asks the slave boy how to draw a square that is double the size. The boy guesses that drawing a square on a line of double the (two foot) length (i.e. one with a length of four feet) will produce a square of double the area (i.e. of eight square feet). By asking questions, Socrates gets the boy to recognize that this in fact makes a figure with an area of sixteen, rather than eight, square feet. Eventually, after further questioning, the boy concedes that he does not know how to produce a square double the size of the original. Socrates then turns to the slave’s owner, Meno, and says, ‘Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is the side of a figure of eight feet; but then he thought that he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has a difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows…. Is he not better off knowing his ignorance?… [N]ow he will wish to remedy his ignorance.’ Finally, after further questioning, the boy realizes that a square on the diagonal of the original square will be double the size. The role of the teacher here, according to Socrates (and Plato), has only been to educate – to draw out the knowledge already present.

I want to stress that an important step on the way to knowing that the square of double the area is built on the diagonal of the original square is, as Socrates emphasizes, the slave boy’s coming to know that he does not know – prior to this he is confident in his ignorance. In my view, this is crucial to the success of the Socratic method, and the tutorial system – at least in my own discipline, philosophy. Until students become puzzled, they do not – and perhaps cannot – see the value of putting in the intellectual effort to engage with a problem. Once they realize that they don’t know, they ‘wish to remedy [their] ignorance’, as Socrates puts it. Tutorial teaching is, in my experience, crucial for this purpose – it is only by pushing and prodding at students’ first efforts (their essays) that as tutors we can get them to recognize the intellectual weaknesses in what they have produced, and thereby get them to be intrinsically motivated to do better on their next attempt.

English 1-1 tutorial with Dr Charlotte Grant and Karishma Patel 9Nevertheless, I have over the years begun to introduce more straightforward information into my tutorials – to tell students some of the things that they simply need to know if they are working on a given problem – and I think there is some good theoretical justification for this. While I value the Socratic method of teaching extremely highly, I nonetheless find the theoretical justification for it difficult to accept – even when it is modernized so as to reflect the idea that innate knowledge is simply that which comes as part of the cognitive endowment gifted to us through the process of Darwinian natural selection (as e.g. on Chomsky’s account of our innate knowledge of the universal grammar of natural languages). It certainly does not seem that all of our knowledge is in fact innate.

Here I would like to appeal to some ideas of the Scottish enlightenment thinker Thomas Reid. Reid was one of the first to stress the importance of the social operations of the intellect. In particular, Reid emphasized the role of testimony in our cognitive lives: much of what we know derives not from what we ourselves have discovered, but from what we have been told; think of such fundamental scientific facts as that the Earth is round, rotates, and revolves around the sun, or more mundane truths including what you have gleaned from the newspapers this very morning. And Reid offers an explanation of how we can know so much by way of testimony: he thinks we have an innate disposition to tell the truth (i.e. to be truthful) as speakers (other things being equal); and we have an innate disposition to accept what others tell us (i.e. to be trusting) as hearers (again, other things being equal). Given these two dispositions, there is a mechanism available for the conveyance of information from one person to another.

Of course, there are cases in which speakers lie, or hearers are skeptical of what they are told. Nonetheless, I think Reid’s explanation of our ability to convey knowledge through testimony is basically correct. And if we are indeed social learners, as Reid suggests, this may have important consequences for pedagogical theory and practice. In particular, I have already suggested that it may vindicate my more mature tutorial practice of simply telling students basic relevant facts if they appear to be unaware of them, rather than attempting to get them to discover all of these subtle matters on their own. Perhaps the Socratic method is key for knowledge how – and especially knowledge of how to learn, arguably the most fundamental of intellectual skills – while testimony is, at least on occasion, a good way of conveying knowledge that. (See this post [PEDAGOGY AND VARIETIES OF KNOWLEDGE POST] for a discussion of the difference between these two varieties of knowledge.)

Brian Ball

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy