Socratic method, critical thinking and the liberal education tradition. 

Over the years from about 1960 to 2000 a debate raged between content and process in education. The conservatives said that it was the content matter which mattered. The progressives said it didn’t matter what you taught … that education was all about a journey … about allowing children to create their own learning. The odd thing is that at the heart of the classical tradition, the role of the teacher has as often been conceived as the teacher asking questions of his pupils rather than giving answers to them. Cicero described Plato as a skeptic … someone with no teachings to offer, only tough questions to make us think for ourselves. 

The teaching method that owes its existence to ancient Greek philosophy is called the Socratic method, after Socrates, who taught Plato and died in 399BC.


Socrates and creating your own knowledge 

The Socratic method of teaching is one which uses inductive questioning, moving from one premise to another and then on to a conclusion. It is interactive and engaging and can involve pupils in an exercise of epistemology, where they seemingly create knowledge for themselves (or rather, arrive at a conviction about something, by a structured, analytical reflection). It is similar to the famous medieval disputations practised by the Dominicans and others in front of crowds of students in Paris and Oxford in the 13th century. Both Socrates and Aquinas are almost playful as they move along, step by step, taking their audiences with them. Whether one is following Socrates’ train of thought in Plato’s dialogues or St Thomas’s in the Summa the same step by step approach can give the reader the impression that he is in the room with the teacher, engaged actively in the pursuit of truth.

This method is very different from a series of catechetical questions and answers, or the rote-learning of tables and grammatical paradigms, even though a classical education might involve aspects of this too. As anyone enjoying the slightest familiarity with Plato will know, this method is at the heart of the western intellectual tradition. And yet the strange thing is that because it is so difficult to do the Socratic method well, it has often not been employed at all, even in the best schools; on other hand it has been widely admired.

I do however remember it happening in my school as a boy. We had teachers who never tired of questioning us. We had a few followers of Diogenes as well as few Socrates types. It will be remembered that Diogenes once emptied his bowels in front of his disciples in order to make a point which involved surprising them. One Mr Diogenes (not his real name) rushed in with a sword and threatened to kill us before delivering a lesson on the Book of Judges. Another threw an enormous and very holy Bible across the room, ranting and raving as he did so, but it then turned out to be a very old dictionary saved from the dustbin. His point was about not judging a book by its cover. There were many such examples.


Forgotten truths

A fellow old boy of King Edward VI School, Southampton, the celebrated hymn-writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748) said of the Socratic Method that ” it leads the learner into the knowledge of truth as it were by his own invention, which is a very pleasing thing to human nature; and by questions pertinently and artificially posed, it does as effectually draw him on to discover his own mistakes, which he is more easily persuaded to relinquish when he seems to have discovered them himself.”  (The Improvement of the Mind, 1741.)

Watts had to extol the pedagogy of Socrates in this period, precisely because it was largely unknown, glossed over or neglected, even by men who quite clearly had a regard for each pupil as a human being: educational pioneers and reformers such as Dr Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) and educational saints such as St John Bosco (1815-1888).

Rousseau (1712-1778) is famous for his idea that a boy can educate himself without a teacher. He explores the idea in Emile, ou l’Education. Such a doctrine, even if it seems naive in regard to original sin, at least suggests a high regard for the intellect and potential of every child. It is very close to what Lord Baden Powell thought and practised. But in the hands of lesser men, and of the iconoclastic left, this was a free licence to destroy, from the 1960s on, much of the educational patrimony that made Rousseau into the intellectual giant that he admittedly was; not in France, which preserved its classical learning until fairly recently, but in the UK and America. In these cultural contexts Rousseau’s idea was to spawn untold classroom horrors.  Maria Montessori and Lord Baden Powell both realised that a true classical education is experiential… we perceive first through the senses before we apprehend something in our intellect. And a lesson learned heuristically, not just accepted and memorised, is a lesson learned for good. But teachers like Lord Baden Powell and Maria Montessori had a clear idea of what they wanted to teach … the method was at the service of the content.  That is the way it should be.


Rediscovery and Revivial

In the USA in the late 19th century Christopher Columbus Langdell pioneered the famous Harvard “case study method” in the teaching of law. It functioned in a purely Socratic manner, leading the students through inductive questioning to a sound conclusion. In a generation it came to be thought of as the best way to learn the law, and – more importantly – to think like a lawyer. Although its use in legal education later somewhat declined in the law, more recently the Harvard Business School has made it the basis of much of its teaching. And when I studied for a Masters in Educational Leadership through the University of Buckingham, this was precisely the method employed, in order to make us “think like headteachers”.

Over the course of the 20th century Socratic method has had its advocates in all sections of the political and ideological spectrum and in many countries. The Hungarian educational theorist and mathematician George Polya (in 1945) proposed a specific 4-step heuristic (ie. method for solving a problem and arriving at knowledge) in his book How to Solve It aimed at a mass market. It has been summarised as follows: “Understand, Take Apart, Put Together, Check”. The Great Books movement in the USA, pioneered by Mortimer Adler in the 40s and 50s, also promoted socratic thinking to the general public and led to its adoption and promotion in a plethora of small liberal arts colleges and other institutions. It will be seen that there was a hunger for the socratic method in the post-war period; in the generation that had experienced the Nazis and the Communists, both offering new ideas to save the world,  together with all the promised future benefits of science, one can understand a desire for answers to the big questions.


Failed experiments

In the UK, in recent years, “Critical Thinking” or “Thinking Skills” became a school subject and even a subject for public examinations. Inasmuch as such things can be properly diagnosed, it would seem to have been the brainchild of the educational left, the party which has mainly dominated in educational philosophy since the war.  It is unclear to me what might be involved in this subject or how it could usefully be taught as distinct from the subject of Philosophy. And in the end the experiment was ended; one suspects that robbed of content, the subject lacked potential for stimulating young minds. At the end of the day, one cannot do much critical thinking without something worthy and interesting to think about it in the first place. The mind needs to be furnished with some basic data in order for useful reflection to take place. This raises the question of the proper context for the Socratic method; my contention would be that it just does not cut the mustard when it is divorced from the kind of liberal education that Isaac Watts got at my old school and which was prerequisite for Aquinas’ students gathered in the auditorium of the Sorbonne.

One interesting feature of recent debates in educational philosophy is that people who were on the left in 1950s and 1960s, in the sense that they rejected what might be called “bourgeois content” in the curriculum, or even any fixed content at all (in favour of the experiential learning of whatever a child felt he or she wanted to learn) have, one by one, now moved to the right. Howard Gardner, the inventor of the multiple intelligences, is now taking an approach quite close to the Greeks in his promotion of an education in virtue, based on the transcendentals: Truth, Beauty and Goodness, in his book of that name (2011). E D Hirsch Jr has championed for years the idea that teaching the traditional the content actually generates the skills (and that, apart from basic numeracy and literacy, skills do not need to be taught in and of themselves as distinct learning activities). In his most recent work he has the data (much of it from France) to prove that conviction (2016,  “Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories”).


Changing sides

Back in the UK, Michael F.D. Young  was one of the luminaries of the Institute of Education in the 1970s, with  Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein; these were the men who promoted the notion of “restricted code” … the idea that certain conventions of language and existed as a way of oppressing the masses and keeping them out of the top jobs by making success in education impossible for them. The solution was to philistinise education so as to make it accessible to all. They got rid of the content, thought too challenging, in favour of a process which would, or so they thought, make learning more fun and more meaningful.

Unsurprisingly, the result of this approach (associated with the Labour governments assault on grammar schools) was to create an education system in which the only way to get a liberal education was to be rich enough to move to a different school’s catchment area, or to pay private school fees. Social mobility took a big knock. And the general intellectual quality of our academia, our journalists and even our school teachers, went into decline. So Young (in Bringing Knowledge Back 2008, Knowledge and the Future School, 2014, and elsewhere) switched sides. He is now an enthusiast of the classics. He says that teaching children the solid literature, science and languages of the liberal education tradition is giving them “powerful knowledge”. It is a kind of capital that enriches a person intellectually and even in terms of social mobility and professional prospects.

What changed his mind?  In a Guardian article discussing his support for Michael Gove (then, in 2018, UK Education Secretary), he gives a clear answer: “Becoming a parent … Before my elder daughter was moving to secondary school, I had a typical left position about selection, private schools and all that. But then, as a parent, you have to come to terms with the fact that this is your child and this is her only chance. You worry about what kind of school she’s going to and whether it has enough middle-class children.”

He comments on a failed attempt at quasi-Socratic education in South Africa in the 1990s, oddly similar to the “Critical Thinking” experiment in the UK. And he hits the nail on the head. It does not work without the associated patrimony of liberal learning, and also … it is difficult to do well:  “I was then married to a South African, so I became a sort of consultant to the democratic movement. They didn’t want anything that smelled of apartheid and that included the old curriculum with its academic subjects. They had this ‘outcomes-based’ curriculum – things like ‘become an active member of society’. But the teachers were underqualified. Expected to create knowledge themselves, they didn’t know what to do. It was a disaster.”

“When people talk about skills, it’s rhetoric for making the curriculum relevant to employment. That’s a mistaken view of what schools can do. They don’t know anything about work. If you have children who’ve taken vocational courses, employers don’t really want them. We’ve always used vocational courses as a way of coping with low achievers and that seems to me a loser from the beginning. And I am not a fan of people who go on about creativity. Creativity doesn’t spring from nowhere, it comes out of something you’ve been thinking about.”

There you have it. Creativity, and critical thinking are the fruits of a liberal education. And knowledge is the seed, gently planted and tended by a good teacher.

Ferdi McDermott, May 2020.


Erick Wilberding, Teach Like Socrates, 2014.

Howard Gardner,  Truth, Beauty and Goodness, Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter, 2011.

Michael Young and David Lambert, Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice, 2014.

ED Hirsch,  Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, 2016.

Guardian article on Michael FD Young:

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