Where is our Socrates?

Sophists in ancient Greece were characterised as philosopher-teachers who travelled the country teaching (those who could pay) how to succeed in the society of the day. The skills they taught were highly prized at the time (rhetoric and public speaking). Sophists lost their respect when the people began to look at what and how they taught. The people realised that sophist’s teaching used powers of persuasion to impress and flatter the listener, often to support a point of view or belief that was detrimental to the listener. Sophists had no devotion to the pursuit of truth, only the pursuit of self interest. Sounds incredibly familiar, doesn’t it?

Socrates led a reaction to this pursuit of self interest through a method of teaching that involved dialog. The asking and answering of questions that would allow the participants to uncover flaws in their logic, and develop their skills of critical analyses. The cycle of asking, answering (often with a question), and asking again has been called the Socratic method of teaching/learning.

Today’s world embraces sophistry in media and business, while modern higher education has abandoned the Socratic method in favour of the didactic method of the teacher (authority) telling the student what they need to know, and then the student returning that knowledge in the form of an assessment. The most successful (from a worldly point of view) learn to be sophists on their own, and go to acquire power and wealth. I have never seen anyone who is really dedicated to the pursuit of truth obtain either (let me know if you know any).

Although the didactic method is good for transferring raw knowledge from one person to another (memorisation), it is not good at fostering thinking skills such as critical analysis or synthesis of information. These are the very skills that the world desperately needs today. The shallow learning that is passed off as the best HE has to offer today is what is in the greatest demand – probably because thinking skills are difficult to learn and difficult to practise, and the sophists of today are all about pursuing the easy life.

Here are a few examples of how learners are so enamoured by todays shallow approach.

Our own experience, here at Bangor, is that when you push students into a thinking environment, the students are split, with about half enraged that we are not telling them what to learn and the other half enjoying the experience.

I was discussing an idea I had with management yesterday. Simple idea about moving the required content for our degree into a mastery type, student centred, learning environment – supported by tutors with very small groups (about 5). Meeting once a week, a tutor could guide the students, lead discussions, and work through thinking exercises (my preference would be blog writing) with their students, while tracking the students content mastery through Khan Academy type tools. The manager I was talking to loved the idea, and agreed that  the learning experience would be immensely better than what they currently get in large lectures – but said that it is doubtful that we will seriously consider it because of the threat to our NSS ratings from those students who want a passive experience.

Where is our Socrates?