To Hell with The Socratic Method!

Today I mean simply to get straight to the point. There will be no interruptions and I won’t even be taking questions! I find that this is the only way to really get things done.

Sometimes we like to defend the excellence of the Socratic method and the effectiveness of the seminar or discussion method in learning. But let’s face it. These methods are not really that effective when the object is merely to get things done. There is simply no greater obstacle to progressing through a text or a curriculum plan than allowing students to ask questions or examine one’s argument premise by premise.

Well I suppose a tornado or an earthquake might cause significant interruptions, but these things are not half so threatening to a teacher’s sense of “getting things done” as eight or nine students who feel free to speak their minds when they please.

Image result for tornado

After rebuilding the school, I bet I could still get through more text, turn more pages and “cover more material” if we just jettisoned the discussion method!

Sure, maybe the discussion method is an effective way for a student to become actively engaged in his own education. Maybe allowing a student to speak and ask questions and make comments (relevant or even irrelevant) is an effective way to provoke his enthusiasm for knowledge. I will even go so far as to grant that the discussion method might even arouse deeper understanding and even real learning.

Nonetheless, I still maintain that it is a very poor method for getting things done.

Image result for getting things done

And the terrible irony is this: After allowing students to speak freely and engage in discussion and intelligent “back and forth” and “two-way learning” (to use Adler’s expression) and Socratic-like debate…after provoking authentic interest in their minds for a subject by long examinations of even minor points and perhaps even trivial matters …after all this, I say, students will be the first to point out at the end of the Fall semester,

“Hey… isn’t this a class on the Sacraments?… Well how are we supposed to get through all seven if we are still only half way through Baptism?

Isn’t this just the way of it?

I almost blush to think how fast a student will “turn his back” on his poor teacher in pointing out the lack of progress-through-the-text simply because the teacher was suckered into the idea of provoking real learning!

Image result for turn his back

And is the student ashamed to draw attention to this “lack of progress” to his parents?

No! How many students have carefully pointed out to their parents,

Mom…Dad…the reason why our American History Class never made it past the North’s violent attempt to resupply Fort Sumter in 1861, was that we were really trying to understand step by step, from a careful reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and all relevant primary source material…of course all the time with spirited but amicable debate and discussion….how the North could so brazenly betray the very principles of their own independence.”

No! Instead, who gets crucified for what appears to be sheer incompetence in “making progress”? You guessed it.

The poor teacher.

Not that I am complaining or anything. I am simply pointing out the fact that allowing students the intellectual liberty to speak at all is inimical to covering material!

I have known some teachers who disagree. They say things like,

“Well, one can have it both ways. In discussions, the teacher must be very vigilant in only allowing relevant points to advance. There must be a firm discipline in directing students to speak to the point succinctly etc…etc…”

Obviously this teacher knows nothing about real classroom discussions. “Relevant points”…”Succinct”… Ha!

Or sometimes teachers will say,

“I spend the first 35 minutes lecturing on important material that I want to cover and then I allow 5 minutes for a lively and spirited debate.”

Well that is just shameless. As if a discussion could happen in five minutes! In my experience it takes at least 30 minutes to simply make a question arise. To even make an issue seem “discussable”… worth discussing…interesting…arguable…this takes loads and loads of time.  The mind of the student, you must remember, is sort of like the mind of a bear in hibernation.

Image result for bear hibernating

And it certainly takes more than five minutes to provoke such a mind to vibrant discussion!

But it is much easier to make progress when one is simply writing things down in a blog post such as this. The fact of the matter is that one gets to control the flow of the “discussion” more closely. As a result the flow of ideas, the thread of thought is easier to follow than in a real-time discussion, and, frankly, the ability to use images to advance a point can be a very powerful aid…like that bear for instance…isn’t he just like what you might imagine the mind of a student might look like, say, in the morning during those first period classes?

Any questions? Anything you would like to discuss? Sorry, it looks like we are out of time. The lecture is over!

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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