Socratic Inversion

The Socratic method is one of the most powerful methods of learning and instruction known.

 Rather than dictating to students what they should think, Socratic method teaches students what they must know in order to think — namely, how to perform rational thought experiments.  Unfortunately, this method of teaching is not as easily practiced as it is talked about, and for anyone working in the teaching profession the reasons for this are probably obvious.  I will not belabor them here.

An image of two gentlemen in dialogue.
Socratic Method

What makes the Socratic method so powerful is its recognition that the student is his own best teacher.  For, with perhaps the exception of a parent or a very good friend,  few teachers can ever know the mind of a student better than the student himself.

When we are young the gateway to knowledge is a wide open door — a door through which most of us exhibit little reluctance to pass.  As we grow older, however, we become more selective about what we learn, and many barriers to the acquisition of new knowledge form.  This too, is likely well understood by most and does not require additional explanation.

Of course, we ask questions for the sake of asking questions knowing full well that we care little about the answers that we receive in return.  We can also ask questions to feign interest, stimulate social interaction, or simply amuse ourselves when we are bored.  In contrast, there are those questions whose answers are relevant to our effort to maintain our conceptual order.  Such questions demand answers and fill our heads with endless contemplation until they are finally answered or disappear, because our circumstances change and the questions that gave rise to our contemplation lose their relevance.

When a teacher asks a question to his students using the Socratic method, he often has in mind a specific outcome about which he believes himself to be correct, but is willing to change, if only the logic of the dialogue should force a different conclusion.  So, he asks questions to others that he has likely already posed to himself, and challenges others to come up with different answers that could change his own conclusions.  During the course of the dialogue, he might also come up with new questions never considered by himself, or even discover answers to old questions for which he could not find the answers in the absence of good discourse.  In any case, in order for Socratic method to work the students must take an interest in the questions being posed.  In effect, the motivation must come from the student; never mind the stimulation provided by the teacher.

When the student asks a question, however, the motivation, if the question is sincere, is likely very different.  For it is a question that serves the conceptual order of the student’s mind, and not that of the teacher.  Further, if the answer that the student receives does not provide him with the knowledge that he seeks, he will ask another, and still another, until he realizes that he is asking the wrong person, receives the answer that satisfies his need for conceptual order,  or discovers the answer for himself via his own sustained query.  Socratic inversion builds on the student’s need to ask questions — not the teachers desire to elicit appropriate answers.

The Assumption

If we assume that every word, phrase, or clause in a sender’s message is the answer to a question about the message, students can be taught to distinguish between what is important in a message and what is not, discard the latter, process the former, and decide thereupon what additional information, if any, the student requires to understand the author of the message.  In effect, the student learns how to ask the questions necessary for him to understand not only the messages of others, but also those that he, himself creates.  In this latter regard, the student learns to create messages that others can more easily understand.