Socrates in the  classroom

Children ask teachers questions

It is a great way to encourage thinking is to start where the student’s minds are.   You don’t know that until you find out.  And to find out where their minds are, don’t ask them questions.  Let them ask you.

    SOCRATES was an old Greek philosopher who made young men think by asking them questions.  Eventually he was made to drink hemlock poison, to get rid of him and his dangerous ways of getting people thinking. Socrates' young men had already had an education. They had knowledge and experience to base their thinking on.  But students in schools are still getting that knowledge and experience.  So they need to ask questions, to find out.

            Children are programmed to ask questions, because a primary way that a human child learns is from others, instead of having to acquire everything slowly and painfully from their own experience.  Before they start school, children are the ones asking questions -  “Why?” “What’s this?”   “Why can’t I?”   “What makes this go?"  "Where does that go?"  "How?" "When?"  "Why not?”  They ask stumpers like, “But Mummy, why does one and one make two?”

            Parents who worry that their adult minds will rot while they care for little people under two feet high, are likely to answer, “Because it is...”  “Never you mind ..” or “Ask another silly question and I’ll go mad’‘.  Parents who take all their child’s efforts at conversation seriously, try to translate the Encyclopedia Britannica into two-syllable words, or use their own brains to think out answers.

Shades of the question-house

From kindergarten on, Teachers Ask Them Questions. Roles are made clear the minute children arrive in kindergarten or Primary One.           The teacher asks the questions and the children answer questions.  “Wheat is your name?” “What is in that picture?”  “What do you think will happen next?” “Why do you think it will do that?” “What shape is this?”  “What colour is it?”   “Where is your jumper?”  “What are you doing there, Josh?”  In schools East and West it has been unquestioned that asking students questions is the way to get them to think.  Even Discovery Learning to make students find out from other sources than the teacher, commonly starts off by asking students questions. 

What would Socrates have done? 

A 'Socratic Quiz'combines ‘Learning through asking’ with 'Learning through answering'.    Some teachers have said the technique of a 'Socratic Quiz' is like rides on the Big Dipper, but the children find it exciting – as long as it retains the stimulus of novelty by being held only once a term.

How to run a 'Socratic Quiz’ in your classroom

    1. Leave some one- volume general-knowledge books in the classroom, with one book set as the main reference.   Tell the class that in two weeks there will be a Serious Pursuits session.  What is this Serious Pursuit?  In two weeks, teachers will ask them questions from the book, and everyone who can answer a question can ask the teachers about anything they like, as long as it is not personal.

   2. On the day a panel of 2-5 adults - teachers plus any others - are introduced, to ask questions around the class on general knowledge from the set book. If they have special interests or expertise that is told too – for example, one may be a doctor or mends cars, or sells fruit.

   3. The first student who can answer an adult's question then has the right to ask the panel of teachers any question at all - except personal ones.  For example, they could ask, “What are the Prime Minister’s policies on education?” or “How do people change the colour of their hair?”  but they could not ask, “What do you think of the Prime Minister’s policies on education?” or “Why do you change the colour of your hair?”

   4. The teachers ask questions around the class to make sure that every child has a chance to answer one correctly and to ask a question back. Some children can be given easy questions, for example, “What is a dinosaur?” or “Does a dog have four legs?” 

   5.  If no students can answer a general-knowledge question, then all the class are asked to try to find the answer before a follow-up session two weeks later.

   6. If no adult can answer a student’s question, then everyone including adults must look for an answer in the next two weeks.

   7. Two weeks later there is a follow-up session about the questions that could not be answered.  Probably all the adults cannot come again, but that does not matter.  (Some other adults might like to come in.)

The teachers ask the class questions about useful and interesting general knowledge that has the answers in the book, and suitable for the children’s level – for example, for 8-year-olds - what is the silicon in a chip, what does petrol comes from, name an invention made since you were born, what people did before there was soap, why did an ancient civilisation collapse, what is a sonnet, and who was Edison. 

            Children’s questions are unpredictable. Ten-year-olds in one session asked:

   Spell brontosaurus.  Where is Popacatapetl?  Why do we die?   Is astrology true?   What does the sun burn?  What will happen when oil runs out?  Where does money come from?   Why should it matter if we don’t wash?    Why do cats like fish?  Why can’t we eat in school?  Why do people like being naughty?  What are those yellow weeds outside the office?  Does the world have to get worse?  Where does Kylie Minogue live now?  Why can adults swear and children shouldn’t?   What does the Prime Minister get paid?  Why aren’t White people called Pinkskins and Spottyskins when that’s what they look like?   Is God real?  Could we have a school dance like they do at ....?

            Adults may sometimes have to  explain honestly that ‘nobody really knows . . some people think that . . .  other people think that . . .’  ‘I know where there are some great books on this - I’ll bring some in – and we could try Google on the Internet'  . . .

  In  Journeyings,  a book about Melbourne schools on a tram-route, Janet McCalman describes the teaching method of  a notable  history master, never forgotten by many now eminent former students.    ‘Forty-five Clayton’ fed the prescribed syllabus to the boys  - but then, at a certain time into the lesson, they could discuss anything under the sun.  Many of her pupils remember Ellen Christensen, who used to hand out history notes to her final year students for them to copy and swot up at home -  so that class-time could be spent starting at Point A in the supposed history lesson and then go anywhere in the world or off it.   She also ran ‘Walking Clubs’ where teachers and students went hiking and talking together at weekends - exercise for body and mind,  -  hours of glorious questioning and discussion.  This was education rich and rare.   To find out what you need to know, and learn to wonder about what you need to know, these are as important as answering other people’s questions.   But a teacher has to be rather brilliant to handle that sort of teaching and to  be able to redirect the cheeky juveniles who like to be impertinent in both senses of the word, and to avoid the great discussions sinking into trivial chatter which is not even ‘Improving Language’.  “I like Kylie Minogue. .