Tag Archives: Socrates

The Socratic Method, Teaching the Trivium: Dialectic


Not many teachers would want to wander into the staff room after a particularly robust seminar and be presented with a coffee cup full of steaming hot hemlock, ‘drink this you corruptor of youth!’ No, best to keep quiet in the classroom and not ask too many questions…

But how wise are you?

Admit it, you know nothing and in knowing this, you know you are wiser than anyone who thinks they know everything. This is the starting point for the Socratic method, do not start with a lofty appreciation of your own knowledge but with an appreciation of your own ignorance. It is through the admittance of ignorance that you can then begin to seek out how best to live. Know thyself! Rather than worrying about convention or worrying about what others might think, you have to find it in your own soul how to live the good life. For Socrates this is a moral and rational process that involves hard questions. These hard questions are a constant intellectual process through which we might uncover the truth and reality about our lives as lived. Make no mistake, this method is looking for truth.

Socrates used dialectic as a teaching method: ask questions, get answers, then question the answers. There weren’t easy answers to his questions, no wonder he pissed people off, as soon as something was settled up pops Socrates to undermine the consensus. Socrates saw himself as a kind of intellectual midwife bringing truths to birth; does this method do that?

Socratic method is a form of argument called elenchus – refutation and cross examination; it is great fun for those involved if all are happy to participate, it is however quite threatening to those who are not, they can see it as upsetting and quite aggressive. What the questioner tries to do is look for contradictions and inconsistencies in answers and by the time the session is finished most often participants find themselves in a state of Aporia or doubt about quite fundamental things. This is the heart of the Socratic dialectical form of questioning, with many people often ending up none the wiser.

Socratic questioning examines statements of fact, it questions something that might seem at first to be quite simple, say: ‘what is courage?’ and exposes it to analysis, resulting in a realisation that these ideas are really quite complex. Each statement is treated as conjecture, you then think about the consequences of such a thought. To give a contemporary example, someone might say that pupils need grit and determination, the Socratic questioner might ask: “what if your pupils are metaphorically banging their heads against a brick wall, is determination and grit a good thing, would not giving up be a better option?” The answer to this would be, yes, in this case giving up would be a better option. Therefore grit and determination are not what pupils need more of. This assumption, in turn, opens itself to another question and so on…

It has no doctrines to pull out of the bag, you don’t want to use it in a discussion where you want students to respond in one way. It would be dishonest to use it in a citizenship class to discuss in race or gender if you are wanting a certain outcome. Therefore use carefully in the classroom! Don’t open pupils minds to all sorts of thoughts only to castigate them for those thoughts. In fact it’s not a good method for lots of teaching, if you want children to know that 9 x 11 = 99 you might not want to question their answer if they get it right because the answer is ‘true’.

It is a good way to get students to realise the enormity of their own ignorance, and also yours! Therefore in order to pull it off the relationship between a pupil and teacher is important as well as the relationship between the pupils in the rooms: can the pupils take the rigorous questioning that is bound to come their way? Are they robust enough at a tender age to realise it is not them being questioned but our assumptions and that some unpalatable truths might be exposed on the way?

So why use it?

Where it works really well is examining a core belief in your subject that is open to doubt. In Art this might be the perennial question ‘What is Art?’ For me, as a teacher of theatre, I would return regularly to the question ‘What is truth’? It was a question that allowed us to look at the different theories of many theatre practitioners: Stanislavski, Brecht and Artaud… We questioned ‘truth’ through realism and naturalism, surrealism, expressionism, dialectical materialism etc. Therefore, instead of questioning the ‘facts’ I wanted students to know, we had the purpose of bringing our knowledge of different theories to our Socratic dialogue. The students had to know lots of stuff to enrich the argument; my aim was always to disrupt the central question but not to disrupt the knowledge that was brought to bear in the argument, this I would always check for accuracy.

Eventually students would try to persuade people as to the efficacy of certain ideas more than others, I would expose that to questioning, we’d come up with a new understanding, expose that to questioning and so on, in other words the process of the trivium, through grammar to dialectic to rhetoric and round again. At the end of the theatre course students had explored fully the question of what is truth in theatre, and would be able to express their own strong opinions as to what it was to them; this helped each of them to know thyself as a maker of theatre.

The Battle of the Blob

Michael Gove has  deblobbed in Austria. Now, with evangelical  zeal, and the rhetoric of social justice, he wants to irrigate the flabby educational colon of its sticky blob. This blob values Marxism, fights excellence and tries to prevent the poorest children from getting the education they need. In the same way as the Athenian State, which came to see Socrates as a danger to its traditional values and institutions and accused him of being a “corruptor of the young”, Gove is offering the blob a cup of hemlock so that they might imbibe and die. Just as Gove’s health farm drink of ‘Epsom salts and magnesium citrate’ reduced his blob, so the ‘Enemies of Promise’ too will disappear. For their part some of the accused ‘blobbers’ wrote to the Times firing their vitriol towards Gove saying, that because of his policies ‘there will be devastating consequences for children’s mental health‘. They seem to forget that the same utilitarian tanks were parked on education’s lawns under the last ‘progressive’ Government. Centralised diktats about curriculum, assessment and accountability did not result in a letter to the Times from the concerned 200 about children’s mental health over the previous thirteen years. Gove, the blobbers argue, is taking the curriculum backwards, with his emphasis on facts, uniforms and discipline, whilst they want education to focus on: creativity, character, critical thinking and collaboration. Gove, though describing his mission as progressive, is certain that traditional, knowledge-centred education is right and the blob is equally certain that progressive, child-centred education is right. If both sides are so certain, can we be certain that one side is entirely wrong?

In his article in the Daily Telegraph James O’Shaughnessy writes that the: “education system has been riven by an acrimonious debate about what children are supposed to get out of their time in school.” He goes on to argue that we should overcome the false dichotomy between progressives and traditionalists: “by persuading schools to deliver rigorous academic study while also equipping pupils with traits they need to flourish as humans”. The reason this sounds so easy is because his analysis sounds right, and his solution is simple, but he’s wrong, the dichotomy is not false, it is real! It is an age old battle that goes beyond the confines of our schools and is rooted in how both sides understand the world. It is the expression of the complexity behind what it means to be human. This will not be solved by traditional lessons rubbing along in harmony with teachers paying attention to pupils’ well-being. A ‘liberal arts’ education holds the traditional and the progressive sides of the education debate together through a contradictory state of creative tension and not by teaching a bit of happiness alongside history.


In my book Trivium 21c I write about the awkward relationship between knowledge and critical thinking, cultural literacy and creativity. I use the trial of Socrates and the hemlock cup as a metaphor for the age old battle between culture and anarchy, truth and doubt, and beauty and nihilism. The book concludes that as educators we need to embrace the very real dichotomy between tradition and progress and in order to do this we need to be less certain of being right about things and entertain the difficult question: what do I know?

Roger Scruton in a piece entitled: ‘The Questions That Have No Answers‘ writes: “If we look around ourselves today, we see a mass of ready-made answers and very few attempts to define the questions that would justify them.” This is certainly true of education yet both sides of the dichotomy say they know the answers: one side knows what skills our kids need for the 21st Century, and the other knows what it is they need to know. But we don’t know either, we can only guess.  Scruton goes on to write: “What makes us human is that we ask questions.” Can traditionalists and progressives ask themselves this question: Is it possible that they might not have all the answers?

Our lives are fascinating ventures into the unknown and this needs to be reflected in our schools. As Scruton puts it: “In art it is always as though the question is what the work of art is really about.” The same is true of the liberal arts, an important part of education is our continuing to question what education is really about. Our need is not to fashion an easy answer but to hold the competing ideologies together in an awkward contradictory balance, as we do in liberal democracies. Education is intrinsically human and therefore it belongs to all; whether conservative or radical, and it is frail, flawed and fantastic because of it. I may be wrong but I think it would be healthier if, rather than forever trying to win the battle of the blob, both sides started to question what education is for at a very deep, human level, be open to doubt and to not seek easy answers. In every school and classroom we should clash along together, uncovering some answers and certainly more questions to be asked.