A better way to put it might be this: It's a teaching method. It presupposes a student who gives a rat's ass about learning. Such students are not common.

It goes like this: You teach by asking questions. The answers of the questions should be within reach of the student's knowledge and ability to reason. The questions can include mild hints. You're not telling the student the answer, you're helping the student figure it out for himself. So you go in baby steps, nudge him towards the answer, and break the big thing down into bite size pieces that the student is prepared to chew.

The strength of this is that unlike a lecture, it engages the student's mind with the material every step of the way, so the student is much more likely to remember the stuff than if it were just dumped on him in a mass. The student will also, hopefully, understand the material much more fully. You're communicating more than just a list of factoids: You're showing the student how to get there. The weakness is that it can't be done by an apathetic teacher, and it also requires a very high teacher to student ratio: 1:1, ideally. Also it's useless for stuff like learning state capitals: "Okay, so Michigan is a state. Where is it? What kind of capital do you think it might have?" Heh heh.

Here's yet another way to get at the idea: The hardest part of figuring something out is asking the right questions. Somebody who knows a subject well will have a feel for which questions are the right ones, and can direct the beginner to those questions. Training wheels for the mind.

The Socratic method is great for stuff like computer programming, which can't really be taught any other way. "What are we trying to do here? How would you start?", "Why are you doing it that way?", "What do you think that code will do when you compile it?", "What does that expression mean?", "Why are you assigning input to the array index variable?", "Okay, what actually happens when you dereference a pointer? What's it really doing there?", etc.

So let's go back to the rat's ass above: More often than not, the student will stare at you with blank, lifeless eyes and a slack jaw. He will give random, senseless answers. He will pretend that your questions are rhetorical. He will try to wear down your patience until you give up and do all the work for him. He regards the whole thing as a contest: You're trying to force him to think, and he "wins" by not thinking. Students like that are usually untrainable and all you can do is let them fail. This is why I am not a professional educator: Professional eductators have an ethical obligation not to give up on the hopeless cases. God bless 'em; it must be a hellishly frustrating job. They're saints.

The Socratic method can also be used to cover up your own ignorance. Simply throw someone's questions back at them and let them come up with the answer.

For example:
Supplicant: "Why does my head hurt?"
You: "Why do you think your head hurts?"
Supplicant: "It could be because I just hit myself on the head with a large hammer..."
You: "Your head hurts because you just hit yourself on the head with a large hammer."
Supplicant: "Wow! You're so clever!"

Despite the somewhat stilted/simplified dialogue, I believe you get the idea.

(Please note: This will not always work, as people can notice what you are doing, and get angry - or turn it into the Game Of Questions)

Surely this node would not be complete without an example of the master at work. Here is Socrates talking with Protarchus about worldly pleasure versus the life of the mind, from the Dialogues of Plato. I like this one particularly, because at one point Protarchus says, in effect, "ow, my head hurts", and Socrates replies, "cheer up, son, you're doing fine":

Socrates: But, let us first agree on some little points.

Protarchus: What are they?

Socrates: Is the good perfect or imperfect?

Protarchus: The most perfect, Socrates, of all things.

Socrates: And is the good sufficient?

Protarchus: Yes, certainly, and in a degree surpassing all other things.

Socrates: And no one can deny that all percipient beings desire and hunt after good, and are eager to catch and have the good about them, and care not for the attainment of anything which its not accompanied by good.

Protarchus: That is undeniable.

Socrates: Now let us part off the life of pleasure from the life of wisdom, and pass them in review.

Protarchus: How do you mean?

Socrates: Let there be no wisdom in the life of pleasure, nor any pleasure in the life of wisdom, for if either of them is the chief good, it cannot be supposed to want anything, but if either is shown to want anything, then it cannot really be the chief good.

Protarchus: Impossible.

Socrates: And will you help us to test these two lives?

Protarchus: Certainly.

Socrates: Then answer.

Protarchus: Ask.

Socrates: Would you choose, Protarchus, to live all your life long in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures?

Protarchus: Certainly I should.

Socrates: Would you consider that there was still anything wanting to you if you had perfect pleasure?

Protarchus: Certainly not.

Socrates: Reflect; would you not want wisdom and intelligence and forethought, and similar qualities? would you not at any rate want sight?

Protarchus: Why should I? Having pleasure I should have all things.

Socrates: Living thus, you would always throughout your life enjoy the greatest pleasures?

Protarchus: I should.

Socrates: But if you had neither mind, nor memory, nor knowledge, nor true opinion, you would in the first place be utterly ignorant of whether you were pleased or not, because you would be entirely devoid of intelligence.

Protarchus: Certainly.

Socrates: And similarly, if you had no memory you would not recollect that you had ever been pleased, nor would the slightest recollection of the pleasure which you feel at any moment remain with you; and if you had no true opinion you would not think that you were pleased when you were; and if you had no power of calculation you would not be able to calculate on future pleasure, and your life would be the life, not of a man, but of an oyster or pulmo marinus. Could this be otherwise?

Protarchus: No.

Socrates: But is such a life eligible?

Protarchus: I cannot answer you, Socrates; the argument has taken away from me the power of speech.

Socrates: We must keep up our spirits; let us now take the life of mind and examine it in turn.

Protarchus: And what is this life of mind?

Socrates: I want to know whether any one of us would consent to live, having wisdom and mind and knowledge and memory of all things, but having no sense of pleasure or pain, and wholly unaffected by these and the like feelings?

Protarchus: Neither life, Socrates, appears eligible to me, or is likely, as I should imagine, to be chosen by any one else.

Socrates: What would you say, Protarchus, to both of these in one, or to one that was made out of the union of the two?

Protarchus: Out of the union, that is, of pleasure with mind and wisdom?

Socrates: Yes, that is the life which I mean.

Protarchus: There can be no difference of opinion; not some but all would surely choose this third rather than either of the other two, and in addition to them.

Socrates: But do you see the consequence?

Protarchus: To be sure I do. The consequence is, that two out of the three lives which have been proposed are neither sufficient nor eligible for man or for animal.

Socrates: Then now there can be no doubt that neither of them has the good, for the one which had would certainly have been sufficient and perfect and eligible for every living creature or thing that was able to live such a life; and if any of us had chosen any other, he would have chosen contrary to the nature of the truly eligible, and not of his own free will, but either through ignorance or from some unhappy necessity.

Protarchus: Certainly that seems to be true.

The most obvious yet overlooked point in examination of the Socratic Method is that if you are debating Socrates, the one thing you must never do is agree with him. As soon as Socrates' opponent says, "that is so, Socrates" (or some similar affirmation), it's all over. Most of the questions Socrates asks lead his interlocutor into oversimplification or equivocation with regard to his own argument. Many of the most humiliating exchanges in the Dialogues of Plato could have been avoided if Socrates' opponent had qualified his agreement.

Gelfin has touched upon the ground rules of the Socratic dialogue. A Socratic "debate" is not a true debate. The participants are not proving points, but striving for a deeper understanding. It starts with a question, and leads to more questions. From the Dialogues.

Socrates: ... if [a person] were a philosopher of the eristic and contentious sort, I should say to him: You have my answer, and if I am wrong, your business is to take up the argument and refute me. But if we were friends, and were talking as you and I are now, I ought of course to reply in a milder strain and more in the dialectician's vein; that is to say, I should not only speak the truth, but I should make use of premises which the person interrogated would be willing to admit. And this is the way in which I shall endeavour to approach you.

If you want to debate, fine. Socrates wasn't trying to convince anyone of anything (in this context). It is true that at the start of the text I took the above quote from, Meno of Thessaly asked of Socrates a question, in which to have an answer. Socrates answered that he did not know, and asked Meno if he knew. Meno eventually admits he does not know. They then proceed to decide on what exactly they do not know. That is the heart of the Socratic method, working together towards better understanding.

In terms of teaching, as wharfinger has taken it, it is a method for being sure that the student knows (or learns) what the teacher knows. It is asking to hear what the teacher knows in the student's words. As wharfinger touches on, it is a good way to discuss matters of mind and of process. As we see on "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire", it helps to talk it out. However, in this way, the teacher must either have a firm grasp of the material examined (such as wharfinger's computer science professor), or not care where the discussion ends up (more towards Socrates' situation). Unless the whole is known, the discussion can end up far from the intended end.

As a side note, sockpuppet's description of Protarchus' headache from use is somewhat typical of the Dialogues. Meno describes Socrates as a torpedo fish, one that torpifies and confuses. Socrates goes on to quiz one of Meno's slaves in geometry, both instructing him (through questions, not giving answers) and confusing him (by virtue of the same method).

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