"Ask - Don't Tell" - How You Can Use Socratic Dialogue in Your Home School

Socratic Dialogue refers to a method of classical home education that was first recorded in ancient Greece by Plato. In two of his more famous works, The Republic and The Apology, Plato records the conversations between the teacher, Socrates, and a variety of students. Although not immediately apparent, these conversations represented a method of inquiry in which an abstract moral concept such as justice, temperance, or virtue was examined through the process of asking questions. In effect, the master Socrates taught the pupil a concept by asking instead of telling.

So, how do you use Socratic Dialogue in your own home school? Well, the parent decides what concept he or she wants to explore and plans a series of specific questions that will eventually eliminate contradictions and reveal underlying beliefs. The questions are intended to help the student discover his or her belief about a certain topic while exposing errors in the student's reasoning. As the child answers each question, the parent scrutinizes the answer and asks if it's consistent with the child's original statement of belief. Often the parent is not looking for the right answer, but rather hopes to assist the child in drawing from his or her own insights and experiences to clarify the child's own understanding.

Don't let the term "Socratic Dialogue" intimidate. I'll bet you use the Scientific Method when performing homeschooling laboratory experiments. Both Socratic Dialogue and the Scientific Method use the concept of induction to arrive at conclusions. Inductive reasoning observes, interprets, and applies. Take the Scientific Method and apply it to an abstract concept through conversation, and you have basically constructed the Socratic Method. Here's an example using the Scientific Method:

  1. Define the question (why does ice float?)
  2. Gather information (glass, water, ice cube)
  3. Form a hypothesis (ice floats because it weighs less than liquid water)
  4. Test your hypothesis (drop the ice cube in the glass of water)
  5. Analyze the data (the ice cube rises to the surface)
  6. Interpret the data (this might mean ice is lighter than liquid water)
  7. Conclude (ice floats because it weighs less than liquid water) or reject the hypothesis and start again

Apply the same 7 steps of the Scientific Method to an abstract concept, and you have the Socratic Method. Here are the same 7 questions using the abstract idea of worship :

  1. Define the question (why do you think the children of Israel worshipped Canaanite gods?)
  2. Gather information (they were worried that Moses wouldn't return from the mountain, they were bored, their neighbors did it, they forgot their past experience with God's deliverance from Egypt)
  3. Form a hypothesis (people turn to other gods when their neighbors influence them, or when they are bored, or when they forget God's faithfulness - your call)
  4. Test your hypothesis (what gods do your neighbors worship? money, power, etc.)
  5. Analyze the data (do you know of kids who blindly follow their neighbors' example? do you?)
  6. Interpret the data (some people allow their neighbors to influence them; some influence their neighbors)
  7. Conclude (some people turn to other gods when their neighbors influence them) or reject the hypothesis and start again

You could apply these same 7 questions to any area of understanding like recurring themes in current events, history, or literature.

Socratic Dialogue is not the same as discussion. In discussion, both parties talk about what they are learning in a two-way conversation that may not have an ultimate goal. In Socratic Dialogue, the home school parent intends to help the child towards self-discovery through guided questions. The basic principle of Socratic Dialogue is "Ask. Don't tell."

Regular Socratic Dialogue trains the homeschooling child or teen to think critically and logically as he explains, rejects, and defends positions. Inductive reasoning, also used in the Scientific Method, becomes a regular habit as the child observes, interprets, and applies his learning to his life. The student is not the only one who benefits from regular Socratic Dialogue. Through incremental questioning, the parent is able to monitor the child's understanding (or misunderstanding) so that he or she can quickly respond with additional training or explanation. Written quizzes are unnecessary because Socratic Dialogue is one big quiz! If the child hasn't mastered understanding of the concept, more work is required until mastery is achieved. Conversation is active and challenging.

Typically Socratic Dialogue is introduced in the home school around the age of 11 or 12 when the child begins to exhibit analytical skills. (When your preteen starts asking "why" regularly, you know it's time for the Socratic method!) Start with a specific question. Draw from the child's prior knowledge or area of current homeschooling study. In the example above, it would be pointless to ask about the worship of other gods if the child had not already studied the applicable passages of the Old Testament. You must know the material yourself so that you can lead the child to the desired conclusion. Think of a map. When you start a trip, you know your final destination, and you plan the route. (Question? Answer. Question? Answer. Question? Conclusion.) Do the same with Socratic Dialogue. Plan the stops along the way, and lead your homeschooling child to the joy of self-discovery! Remember: "Ask. Don't tell."