Using the Socratic Method To Teach A Home Bible Study
(Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling)
By Jonathan Brooke
The Socratic method is, in what I consider to be its purest form, where questions (and only questions) are used to arouse curiosity and at the same time serve as a logical, incremental, step-wise guide that enables students to figure out about a complex topic or issue with their own thinking and insights. In a less pure form, which is normally the way it occurs, students tend to get stuck at some point and need a teacher’s explanation of some aspect, or the teacher gets stuck and cannot figure out a question that will get the kind of answer or point desired, or it just becomes more efficient to “tell” what you want to get across. If “telling” does occur, hopefully by that time, the students have been aroused by the questions to a state of curious receptivity to absorb an explanation that might otherwise have been meaningless to them. Many of the questions are decided before the class; but depending on what answers are given, some questions have to be thought up extemporaneously. Sometimes this is very difficult to do, depending on how far from what is anticipated or expected some of the students’ answers are.
A prior relationship with the class is not fundamental. However, try to build a certain rapport with the students, rapport being something that I feel is important for getting them to comfortably and enthusiastically participate in an intellectually uninhibited manner in class and without being psychologically paralyzed by fear of “messing up”. Tell the students “when you think you know an answer, just call it out. You won’t need to raise your hands and wait for me to call on you; that takes too long.” (This can take younger students a while to adapt to. Some times the younger students keep raising their hands; though after a while they might simply call out the answers while raising their hands.)
Students do not get bored or lose concentration if they are actively participating. Almost all of the students will participate the whole time; often calling out in unison or one after another. If necessary, it could be asked if anyone thought some answer might be wrong, or if anyone agreed with a particular answer. You get extra mileage out of a given question that way. If necessary, you can also call on particular students; if they don’t know, other students will bail them out. Calling on someone in a non-threatening way tends to activate others who might otherwise remain silent.
This method takes a lot of energy and concentration when you are doing it fast, the way I like to do it when beginning a new topic. A teacher cannot do this for every topic or all day long, at least not the first time one teaches particular topics this way. It takes a lot of preparation, and a lot of thought. When it goes well it is exciting for both the students and the teacher. It is difficult to stay at that peak and pace or to change gears or topics. When it does not go as well, it is very taxing trying to figure out what you need to modify or what you need to say. Practice the sequence of questions on another teacher or friend (or a complete stranger–That’s always fun). Try to find the flaws in the sequencing of questions. Figure out the correct sequence. Take time to prepare the particular lesson. I personally like to do new topics fast originally and then re-visit them periodically at a more leisurely pace as you get other ideas or circumstances that apply to, or make use of, them. When you re-visit, you fine tune.
The chief benefits of this method are that it excites students’ curiosity and arouses their thinking, rather than stifling it. It also makes teaching more interesting, because most of the time, you learn more from the students-or by what they make you think of-than what you knew going into the class. Each group of students is just enough different, that it makes it stimulating. It is a very efficient teaching method, because the first time through tends to cover the topic very thoroughly, in terms of their understanding it. It is more efficient for their learning then lecturing to them is, though, of course, a teacher can lecture in less time.
It gives constant feedback and thus allows monitoring of the students’ understanding as you go. So you know what problems and misunderstandings or lack of understandings you need to address as you are presenting the material. Though, to repeat, this is teaching by stimulating students’ thinking in certain focused areas, in order to draw ideas out of them; it is not “teaching” by pushing ideas into students that they may or may not be able to absorb or assimilate. Further, by quizzing and monitoring their understanding as you go along, you have the time and opportunity to correct misunderstandings or someone’s being lost at the immediate time. And in some cases their ideas will jump ahead to new material so that you can meaningfully talk about some of it “out of (your!) order” (but in an order relevant to them). Or you can tell them you will get to exactly that in a little while, and will answer their question then. Or suggest they might want to think about it between now and then to see whether they can figure it out for themselves first. There are all kinds of options, but at least you know the material is “live” for them, which is not always the case when you are lecturing or just telling them things or they are passively and dutifully reading or doing worksheets or listening without thinking.
If you can get the right questions in the correct order, students in the whole intellectual spectrum in a normal class can go at about the same pace without being bored; and they can “feed off’ each others’ answers. “Gifted” students may have additional insights they may or may not share at the time, but will tend to reflect on later. The point is to try to stimulate and challenge all students as much as possible. The Socratic method is an excellent way to do that. It works for any topics or any parts of topics that have any logical natures at all. It does not work for unrelated facts or for explaining conventions, such as the sounds of letters or the capitals of states whose capitals are more the result of historical accident than logical selection.
Of course, you will notice these questions are very specific, and as logically leading as possible. That is part of the point of the method. Not just any question will do, particularly not broad, very open ended questions, like “What is arithmetic?” (or if you are trying to teach them about why tall trees do not fall over when the wind blows “what is a tree”). Students have nothing in particular to focus on when you ask such questions, and few come up with any sort of interesting answer.
And it forces the teacher to think about the logic of a topic, and how to make it most easily assimilated. In tandem with that, the teacher has to try to understand at what level the students are, and what prior knowledge they may have that will help them assimilate what the teacher wants them to learn. It emphasizes student understanding, rather than teacher presentation; student intake, interpretation, and “construction”, rather than teacher output. And the point of education is that the students are helped most efficiently to learn by a teacher, not that a teacher make the finest apparent presentation, regardless of what students might be learning, or not learning.
These are the four critical points about the questions: 1) they must be interesting or intriguing to the students; they must lead by 2) incremental and 3) logical steps (from the students’ prior knowledge or understanding) in order to be readily answered and, at some point, seen to be evidence toward a conclusion, not just individual, isolated points; and 4) they must be designed to get the student to see particular points. You are essentially trying to get students to use their own logic and therefore see, by their own reflections on your questions, either the good new ideas or the obviously erroneous ideas that are the consequences of their established ideas, knowledge, or beliefs. Therefore you have to know or to be able to find out what the students’ ideas and beliefs are. You cannot ask just any question or start just anywhere.
It is crucial to understand the difference between “logically” leading questions and “psychologically” leading questions. Logically leading questions require understanding of the concepts and principles involved in order to be answered correctly; psychologically leading questions can be answered by students’ keying in on clues other than the logic of the content.
For the Socratic method to work as a teaching tool and not just as a magic trick to get kids to give right answers with no real understanding, it is crucial that the important questions in the sequence must be logically leading rather than psychologically leading. There is no magic formula for doing this, but one of the tests for determining whether you have likely done it is to try to see whether leaving out some key steps still allows people to give correct answers to things they are not likely to really understand. Further, I found that when you used this sequence of questions with impatient or math-phobic adults who didn’t want to have to think but just wanted you to “get to the point”, they could not correctly answer very far into even the above sequence. That leads me to believe that answering most of these questions correctly, requires understanding of the topic rather than picking up some “external” sorts of clues in order to just guess correctly. Plus, generally when one uses the Socratic method it tends to become pretty clear when people get lost and are either mistaken or just guessing. Their demeanor tends to change when they are guessing, and they answer with a questioning tone in their voice. Further, when they are logically-understanding as they go, they tend to say out loud insights they have or reasons they have for their answers. When they are just guessing, they tend to just give short answers with almost no comment or enthusiasm. They don’t tend to want to sustain the activity.
Finally, two of the interesting, perhaps side, benefits of using the Socratic method are that it gives the students a chance to experience the attendant joy and excitement of discovering (often complex) ideas on their own. And it gives teachers a chance to learn how much more inventive and bright a great many more students are than usually appear to be when they are primarily passive.
This article “Using The Socratic Method To Teach A Home Bible Study: Teaching By Asking Instead Of By Telling” written by Jonathan Brooke is excerpted from Brooke Associates website at www.brookeassociates.org.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”