Discussion in all subjects necessary to fill void in education

June 4, 2012 — by Staff Ed

Over two thousand years ago, Socrates introduced the power of discussion through his Socratic method, a dialectical form of inquiry and debate based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking.

Over two thousand years ago, Socrates introduced the power of discussion through his Socratic method, a dialectical form of inquiry and debate based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking. In the vast majority of modern high school classrooms, however, emphasis on rote memorization and teaching for the test have buried Socrates’s ideals.

Though humanities classrooms often use Socratic seminars to discuss and explore ideas, introducing similar discussions to math and science classes would provoke independent thinking and reasoning skills, an aspect critical to high school education.

In many science and math courses, teaching methods tend to be fairly standard: Students listen to lectures, do their homework, take exams and repeat. This orthodox form of education, however, makes passing tests the main incentive for learning. Without the opportunity to ponder the real-world value of their skills and knowledge, students are more likely to forget what they learned after their final exams or AP tests end.

Introducing Socratic seminars to math or science classes may seem counterintuitive, but it would allow students to ponder theories and applications behind the concepts they are taught to blindly memorize. Through discussion in math classes, for example, students could brainstorm problem-solving methods through inductive reasoning or pattern recognition. Learning math or science in this style—thinking critically about abstractions behind the dry facts and formulas—would teach students to create their own discoveries, a skill essential to any future educational or occupational pursuits.

The methodology behind approaching education is arguably more important than the actual course material. The problem, however, lies in the sheer vastness of course material teachers are required to cover. By encouraging breadth over depth, current high school curricula fail to encourage real intellectual development.

Socratic seminars, on the other hand, teach students invaluable lifelong assets: how to contribute original ideas, how to keep an open mind, how to think and speak on their feet. It seems illogical, then, to limit Socratic-based discussions to English classes. Why not math, science or even history?

In 1930, philanthropist Edward Harkness suggested a similar teaching method to the principal of Phillips Exeter Academy, a private boarding school in New Jersey. In this “Harkness Method,” teachers hold class discussions on topics ranging from “a novel by William Faulkner to atomic and molecular structure” instead of flatly lecturing to their students. The academy’s website explains, “It's a way of being: interacting with other minds, listening carefully, speaking respectfully, accepting new ideas and questioning old ones, using new knowledge and enjoying the richness of human interaction.”           

In other words? Harkness tables accommodate open-ended discussions for all and every subject, ranging from the humanities to the sciences. They act as platforms for creativity and original thought.

By requiring students to interact with others in such a way, students learn to think critically, to keep a porous mind. Through meaningful discussion, they are shaped into freethinking intellectuals rather than teacher-pleasing sheep. After all, the knowledge of how to think analytically and how to apply material is infinitely more effective than the knowledge gleaned from the course material itself.

Most importantly, however, the application of Socratic-based discussion to all subjects would encourage a love of learning. It would teach students to develop a voice, to speak their minds, to draw out others against themselves. In listening, interacting and constantly questioning, students may discover that sharing ideas can be highly enjoyable. Education can actually be fun. Who knew?

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