Socrates Was Right All Along About the Best Way of Teaching

Future schools could look a lot like ancient Greek symposiums.


If you’re reading this and grew up going to Western schools, you might remember your teachers following this basic formula: Explain a subject from the blackboard, ask the kids questions that test whether they get it, then give feedback designed to refine their understanding. A new report suggests that this isn’t exactly the most efficient way to teach, and that kids could learn a lot more — and more quickly — if they were taught the right way.

According to new research from the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), educators need to take a cue from the ancient Greeks and teach like Socrates — that is, by getting kids to engage with material rather than simply respond to it. In the report, the researchers explain that “dialogic teaching,” which engages kids in conversations about a class’s subject matter, could be much more effective than the traditional lecturing and quizzing style used in many schools.

“Questions are structured to provoke thoughtful answers; answers prompt further questions and are seen as the building blocks of dialogue rather than its terminal point,” the EEF report says, echoing the tenets of Socrates’s ancient teaching style.

If the goal is to increase kids' engagement with the subject matter, taking Socrates's approach and asking an endless stream of questions is a good strategy.

Flickr / picturesquire

That is to say, discussions in a dialogic classroom are meant to flow from one idea to the next rather than jumping through disconnected points. The goal is to get students thinking about the subject matter instead of just raising their hands to win brownie points for correct answers.

Socrates, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E., understood the value of this approach and employed it in order to fight back against the sophists — thinkers who would put their knowledge on display in lengthy lectures. He believed in teaching through a system of group questioning, where the goal is neither for the teacher to simply present rote ideas nor for individual students to win debates but for the whole “circle” to arrive at some deeper understanding through group engagement and effort.

It’s not a dead idea. Similar teaching methods show up in yeshivas and madrassas, where Jewish and Muslim students learn and debate Jewish law under the guidance of their teachers. However, it seems to have been forgotten in Western schools until recently.

But a recent revival of the method shows that it still holds water. In a pilot study involving nearly 2,500 fifth graders at 76 schools in England, teachers taught students basic rules and skills for how to engage with one another (for example: listening carefully, not interrupting, exposition, and questioning). Then, teachers in subjects from math, to English, to history probed and guided classroom debates and conversations around their subject matter. At the end of one school year of dialogic teaching, students exposed to the method were, on average, two months more advanced in English and science than their traditionally-taught peers, and one month more advanced when it came to math.

Teachers reported that if they had more time to try out and implement the method, they would expect even more significant results.

That all sounds great, but it’s also important to keep in mind that this was a study done in mostly high-performing schools in the United Kingdom. It will be interesting to see further research into the method from different kinds of schools in different places.

But right now — and not for the first time — Socrates is looking pretty smart.

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