Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Why Asking Questions Might Not Be the Best Way to Teach

A recent study throws the efficacy of the Socratic method into doubt

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More than 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Socrates wandered around Athens asking questions, an approach to finding truth that thinkers have venerated ever since. In modern times, the Socratic method was adapted for use in universities and became the dominant form of instruction for students learning philosophy and the law. The most recent national survey on the subject found that 97% of law-school professors use the Socratic method in first-year classes. Socratic dialogues seemed to work for the ancient Greeks (at least according to the records produced by Socrates’ disciple Plato.) Are they effective for people today? Recently, a group of researchers decided to find out.

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In a study published in the December 2011 issue of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education, four cognitive scientists from Argentina describe what happened when they asked contemporary high school and college students a series of questions identical to those posed by Socrates. In one of his most famous lessons, Socrates showed a young slave boy a square, then led him through a series of 50 questions intended to teach the boy how to draw a second square with an area twice as large as the first. Students in the 2011 experiment, led by researcher Andrea Goldin, gave answers astonishingly similar to those offered by Socrates’ pupil, even making the same mistakes he made. “Our results show that the Socratic dialogue is built on a strong intuition of human knowledge and reasoning which persists more than twenty-four centuries after its conception,” the researchers write. Their findings, Goldin and his co-authors add, demonstrate the existence of “human cognitive universals traversing time and cultures.”

But these “universals” come with a significant caveat. By the end of Socrates’ lesson, the Greek boy had figured out how to do the task. More than half of the contemporary subjects, on the other hand, failed to grasp the import of the philosopher’s 50 questions. This is only one experiment, of course. But it raises intriguing questions about the value of the Socratic method as a teaching technique in today’s classrooms. Law professors praise the tactic for training students to respond quickly and fluently to challenging questions — even if most instructors today employ a “soft” Socratic method, far less combative than the gladiatorial exchanges made famous in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase. Philosopher Mitchell Green, a professor at the University of Virginia, extols the approach for a different reason. “Answering questions about philosophical problems forces students to invest themselves in the outcome,” says Green. “The problem comes alive for them, not as ‘something René Descartes or John Stuart Mill once said,’ but as a dilemma for them to wrestle with and make choices about. The Socratic method makes them put some skin in the game.”

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Green has his own ideas about the future of the ancient philosopher’s practice. He is working on digitizing the Socratic method: creating a computer program that will pose a series of questions about a philosophical problem, adjusting subsequent queries to challenge the user and reveal the flaws in her reasoning. Green has begun the venture by programming answers to familiar philosophical chestnuts like the mind-body problem and the question of free will. Ultimately, however, he plans to allow users to contribute their own content to the program (vetted by philosophy professors and graduate students who will maintain the site): a kind of Wiki-Socrates. Green’s project, which he hopes to make available to the public this summer, may seem a long way from the dialogues of Socrates’ Athens — but it’s simply the latest exchange in a conversation lasting 2,000 years.