Daily Archives: March 23, 2009

Socratic Method

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I have a peculiar style of teaching that I think makes class time interesting. I wish I could convince everyone to use it. It’s a little similar to the Socratic Method. My method works best for Sunday School, where most of the lesson consists of discussing principles rather than reporting facts. My method is based on the following rules for the teacher.

  1. Pick the subject matter that is the most interesting to you, preferably the part that you have the most questions on.
  2. Never ask a question that you know the answer to.
  3. Rephrase questions so the discussion will be constructive.

The goal is that both the teacher and the students will learn something together. When the teacher asks questions that don’t have a single “right” answer, then the students have the chance to help the teacher. I believe that the students learn more when they are talking than when they are listening. The students will also respond to how passionate the teacher is. If the teacher is talking about something personally interesting, and especially if the teacher is motivated by the opportunity to learn something new about the subject, then the energy level will be elevated.

Also, consider how the students feel pressured when the teacher asks the class an easy question. Game theory would say that the predicament carries a high risk and a low reward, leading to an environment where no one volunteers. If a student tries to answer the question and gets it wrong, then they will look foolish. And if a student gets it right, then no one is impressed, because it was easy. Questions like that discourage class participation. On the other hand, imagine a class where the teacher warns that they have a very hard question that they don’t know the answer to. That changes the game to one of low risk and high reward. A student does not need to feel embarrassed about giving an unsatisfactory answer, because the question was very difficult. And if the student gives a good answer, they will feel brilliant.

A teacher can write a typical lesson plan by just preparing some introductory material and then writing down three to five questions that they would like to have answered. Usually the questions need an introduction that engages the students so that they feel the teacher’s own curiosity. The teacher should research all the answers themselves, and then only submit to the class the questions that they couldn’t answer on their own.

Sometimes questions convey a negative tone, and those should be rephrased. For example, a question like, “Could Moses really perform those miracles?” sounds more like a doubt than a question. When a teacher feels like his or her testimony in a subject is weak, then it is important to find questions that will strengthen everyone’s faith. A constructive alternative sounds like, “How can we strengthen our faith in the miracles performed by Moses?”

It takes extra confidence in the students to run a class according to these rules. I’ve successfully taught this way to students as young as twelve, however. I think it would surprise most teachers how capable their students are, and how the teachers just needed to raise their expectations.