Socrates (470-399 BC)
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think”
Socrates’s vision was to initiate thinking rather than merely teach his students. He is one of the few thinkers who forever changed philosophy.
Even though often misunderstood, Socrates remains one of the greatest world philosophers. He was considered a controversial figure due to his unusual way of living and philosophical points of view. Socrates led an extraordinary life, always questioning everything. His method of question and answer (the Socratic method) is used to this day to encourage critical thinking. Socrates was an inspiration for Plato (the teacher of Aristotle), thus becoming the “father” of the famous triad of ancient philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and himself. Unlike other known philosophers, he never wrote anything, and his life and work have been analyzed through the writings of his colleagues and disciples like Plato. Like most great men, he was ahead of his time and misinterpreted by others.
Socrates is considered the founder of Western philosophy and the most enigmatic philosopher of all times. He believed that “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” He thought that the thinking process begins when we realize we know nothing. His controversial way of thinking eventually took its toll when he was sentenced to death for corrupting Athen’s youth.
Socrates was born in 470 BC in Athens, Greece, where he died in 399 BC. He was a famous ancient Greek philosopher whose critical thinking had a profound impact on Western philosophy.
Everything we know about Socrates is described in conversations with his students and followers. He was perceived as a man with a vision and integrity, even though his native Athenians considered him weird and even mocked him in their plays. Socrates was educated according to his status and learned to read and write. Following the Athenian custom, his father taught him a trade, but he also gave his son a progressive cultural education in poetry, music, and athletics. Socrates didn’t use his trade skills but rather spent his days asking people questions in the Athenian marketplace. Even though he was poor, he quickly got the attention of young, wealthy aristocrats like Plato who enjoyed listening to his open discussions with the wisest and most powerful men in Athens.
Socrates joined the Athenian military and fought bravely in the battle of Potidaea (saving the life of Alcibiades, a famous Athenian general) and the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. He also fought at the battle of Delium and Amphipolis and was admired for his fearlessness and ability to tolerate physical pain. Despite his wisdom and bravery, he was sentenced to death (with hemlock poison) by his fellow citizens for corrupting the youth. His tragic death didn’t undermine his contribution to progressive thinking. Therefore, he will always be remembered as one of the greatest philosophers that ever lived!
Socrates is mostly known for his method of teaching called the Socratic method. He used his method based on asking a series of open-ended questions (more than a yes or no answer) in Athens (as his classroom) when conversing with the elite and common man to come to political and ethical truths. Through his dialectical method of questioning, he compelled his fellow Athenians to think through a problem to reach a logical conclusion. Here’s how he used his methodology on his students:
- He didn’t teach what he knew but rather provoked his students to think on their own, and find the answers themselves;
- He engaged students in discussions in order to help them explain broad ideas and reveal the complexities and doubts behind those ideas;
- Socrates never gave information and facts to his students. He posed profound questions on a particular topic or issue to encourage critical thinking as well as encourage students to pose questions of their own.
Socrates’ theory of educating young minds was groundbreaking both for teachers and students. According to the Socratic method, teachers should have the following role:
- Guide classroom conversations rather than provide information;
- Compel students to contemplate why things are a certain way;
- Encourage students to think about being for and against arguments on a specific topic;
- Make sure students are not passive observers and recipients of knowledge;
- Use teacher-student shared dialogue;
- Pose thought-provoking, open-ended questions with no pre-determined goal;
- Create a “productive discomfort” learning environment, not an intimidating learning environment;
- Not to focus on the students’ statements but on the system of values that supports their beliefs, actions, and judgment.
The implementation of the Socrates method has many benefits. Here are some of the most important ones:
- Inspires students to discover their thoughts and beliefs and helps foster critical thinking skills;
- Enables students to reach their conclusions based on self-analysis of the material as opposed to accepting what they are told;
- Develops reading comprehension by stressing critical thinking and the ability to see the world from a different perspective;
- Keeps students engaged in a conversation, contributing to the topic based on their practices and ideas.
- Prepares students to think quickly;
- Compels students to be prepared and observant.
- Arouses curiosity in students by making them think differently on various topics;
- Teaches students to accept a challenge;
Socrates’ method and philosophy had a huge impact on education, teaching methodology, and life itself. His ethical system based on human reason was meant to achieve practical results for the greater well-being of society. Socrates believed that ultimate wisdom comes from knowing ourselves. Only then we increase our ability to understand the things around us and make the right choices that will bring true happiness. No matter how we interpret his philosophy, it’s clear that Socrates’ main goal was to teach students how to live a good and virtuous life. The application of the Socrates method has an impact on many aspects of modern education. This method enables teachers to:
- Create a productive classroom atmosphere where students are truly learning, not an atmosphere where students are copying information and shortly after forgetting it;
- Ask questions to dig deeper into a complex subject;
- Challenge students to discover their own beliefs and principles;
- Use a specific set of questions designed to lead the students to an idea
(examples: What are your assumptions on the matter? Can you support your arguments? What are the long-term connotations of your suggestion? Can you explain the issue from a different perspective? How would this issue affect you and your peers? What do you mean by…?
- Help students to learn new concepts through open-ended questions;
- Ask one group of students to argue one side of the subject and another group to argue the opposing viewpoint and explore the reason behind each group’s perspective;
- Use questions as a mean to provoke alternative opinions and assumptions and ask for clarification and explanation of the effects of a choice;
- Show students how to recognize the weak points of an argument and maneuver that argument at a higher level;
- Encourage students to wonder how things could be different which elevates the learning process from a passive experience to a participating experience;
- Make sure students come to class prepared for discussion by studying the material before class;
- Let the discussion lead the way through the material;
- Use questions as a guide, to reach the foreseen teaching points and create a student-centered classroom;
- Promote inquiry by using good questions, guiding students to explore different points of view;
- Lead a discussion and prepare follow-up questions rather than be satisfied with one answer;
- Work through ideas and different answers to guide students through the learning process, teaching them to think about the subject in question, not merely teach the subject;
- Take notes (or have students keep a record) during discussion and use them for repetition or quizzes/exams;
The Socratic method assists teachers and encourages them to teach their students how to think and have an opinion of their own on any given subject. Students actively participate in the discussion, give assumptions, defend their views with solid arguments, and come to conclusions. Teachers who have successfully implemented the Socrates method see their student’s progress through their open contribution to discussions. These students can question themselves and others, never settling for a yes or no answer. Students who have experienced the Socrates method of teaching are not afraid to admit their mistakes, but take pride in understanding they are wrong.
From ancient Greece through modern times Socrates’ philosophy has found its place and application. Socrates and his disciples magnified the purpose of philosophy from trying to comprehend the outside world to understanding a person’s inner values. His hunger for definitions and open-ended questions motivated the development of formal logic and systematic ethics. Socrates’ life is an example of the struggle and importance of living according to a person’s well-examined beliefs. Even though the Socratic method of teaching may be more beneficial for one discipline over the other, it can be used and applied in every modern education setting. Teachers worldwide should thank Socrates for having the unique opportunity to use “ancient” techniques for “modern” results!