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3.04 Teaching Like Socrates Through Essential Questions and Problem Solving



If our aims are embodied in us first, if our teaching is built upon relationships, if we are awakening our students’ intellects through wonder, if we are stirring their hearts through story, if we are inspiring their imaginations through metaphor – then our students will be compelled to respond, to speak, and in speaking they will begin to learn. Through the Socratic method we can make room for their voices to be heard.


Plato’s dialogues describe Socrates teaching his students through the art of questioning. Socrates begins his instruction with an essential, philosophical, and often universal question such as “What is knowledge?” or “What is justice?” Then likening himself to a midwife, he attends to the student’s initial response through a series of probing questions and gentle redirections. With patience and surgical precision Socrates moves his students through a careful development of their own propositions, often leading them to the realization that their answers need revision or that a new proposition must be offered altogether. Socrates is careful to not answer his own questions and even claims to add nothing to the content of his student’s ideas, thereby maintaining a commitment to a pedagogy that lets his students develop their own understandings. Of course this does not mean that he allows his students to settle into wrong answers. In fact the careful reader of Plato’s dialogues cannot help but wonder whether or not Socrates is cleverly leading his students to a particular and predetermined understanding. Nevertheless, at the end of a dialogue it is the student who describes himself as having said more than he ever thought he had to say. It’s as if Socrates and the student together have not been tired by meandering banter but rather have come to a resting point in a conversational journey that moved forward one question and answer at a time.


Many consider Plato’s Meno to be the most concise and clear example of the Socratic method. So let us spend some time reading and reflecting upon excerpts from this dialogue.


MENO: Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? (70a)

SOCRATES: But Meno, by the gods, what do you yourself say that virtue is? (71d)


Meno poses the question but Socrates resists the opportunity to respond with a simple “yes” or “no” or the opportunity to offer a complete, eloquent and persuasive answer. Instead, Socrates responds with a well-calibrated question of his own. The difference between the two questions is subtle but significant. Meno asks whether or not virtue can be taught but Socrates asks for a definition of virtue altogether. It is important to Socrates for the conversation to begin with the right question or the “essential question” – a phrase coined by educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book 


According to the authors, essential questions: point to big ideas that connect and bring meaning to discrete knowledge and skills; are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence; aim to stimulate thought, provoke inquiry, and start conversations; are broad and full of transfer possibilities; serve as doorways to further exploration; elicit interesting and alternative views; require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers; may require rethinking a previous understanding; connect to prior learning and personal experiences; are genuine and relevant to student experience; are historically or philosophically significant to the field of study; reinforce understandings prerequisite to future studies; and are accessible to both the novice and the expert (Wiggins, McTighe).


So how does Meno respond to Socrates’ essential question? Let us read on.


MENO: …virtue is being able to manage public affairs… (71e)

SOCRATES: …I am looking for one virtue, I have found you to have a whole swarm … (72a)

SOCRATES: …they must do so [manage] with justice and moderation? (73b)


Supposing we asked the question “What is virtue?” to our own students and a student answered, “Virtue is being able to manage public affairs.” I think we might we be tempted to move on to a next student, fishing for just the right student to bite on our question and offer a decent response. Yet fishing for answers in the pool of your students, frankly, is not the Socratic method. 


In a similar Platonic dialogue titled , Socrates likens himself unto a midwife, helping his student give birth to an idea. Socrates says to his student, “You are forgetting my friend. I don’t know anything about this kind of thing myself, and I don’t claim any of it as my own. I am barren of theories; my business is to attend you in your labor. So I chant incantations over you and offer you little tidbits from each of the wise till I succeed in assisting you to bring your own belief forth into the light. When it has been born, I shall consider whether it is fertile or a wind-egg. But you must have courage and patience…” (157d).


My wife and I did use a midwife, or rather, my used a midwife to help her deliver our second daughter. So let me pretend to have some deep understanding of midwifery that will inform my reading of Socrates. A midwife stays with the student, attends to the student, and offers assistance. A midwife doesn’t simply receive an inadequate response and “move on.” 


Socrates attends to Meno by first offering a critique through a clever characterization. The excerpt from line 71e is just one of the various examples Meno offers of the exercising of virtue (but not the definition of virtue). Meno mistakes a swarm of examples for a singular definition. The help Meno realize his error, Socrates introduces an analogy. If Meno was asked, "What is a bee?" then he would likely reply by describing the defining characteristics universal to all bees, rather than describing the particular features of an entire swarm of bees one particular bee at a time. Likewise, Meno must identify a more universal characteristic of virtue rather than describing a swarm of examples one example at a time.

To then move Meno toward a refinement of his answer, Socrates asks Meno to qualify just a virtuous person manages public affairs. Must the manager do so justly and with moderation? Through the use of a probing question, Socrates is helping Meno redeem his answer by perhaps lifting from it certain implied characteristics of virtue. In a way, Socrates is entering into the of Meno’s attempt to an answer – nudging Meno in just the right direction.


After laboring together over the possibility that virtue is the just and moderate management of public affairs, Socrates and Meno together conclude that they need to return back to the original question and have another go at it.


So what virtue?


Let us hear Meno’s next attempt.

MENO: What else but to be able to rule over people… (73d)

SOCRATES: Shall we not do this justly and not unjustly? (73d)


Notice the parallel structure. Meno again offers a specific example or application of virtue then Socrates again asks a probing question to help Meno lift some universal characteristic from the example. In the ensuing conversation, Socrates finally helps Meno understand that justice is an implied part of both of Meno’s responses. One (not must but both manage public affairs and also rule over people . Through a series of probing questions, Meno has come to refine his answer. Socrates has asked “What is virtue?” and Meno has finally understood his answer to be, “Virtue is justice.” What once felt to Meno like a series of failed and wasted attempts at defining virtue has now been synthesized into a singular and better answer. It’s as if the conversation had all along been converging upon the reality that virtue is indeed justice.


Here Socrates might be tempted to celebrate Meno’s understanding, accept his definition, and move on to a next question. However, Socrates knows that although Meno now understands himself, Meno has not actually answered the question. Justice is a particular virtue but virtue is not just justice. And so Socrates labors on, until Meno himself says, “not only justice is a virtue but there are many other virtues.”


MENO: …not only justice is a virtue but there are many other virtues. (73e)

SOCRATES: What are they? Tell me… (74a)

SOCRATES: We must certainly press on. The subject is worth it. (75b)


At this point we might wonder whether or not our own students would exhibit the same courage, patience, and resilience that Meno has demonstrated. Would they not throw their hands up in frustration or just get quiet and slouch down into their chair stubbornly waiting for you to finally cave and just give them the answer to your question? Would they be willing to press on because it is worth it?


In the Platonic dialogue there is a moment where Socrates must help a frustrated student understand the difference between conversation and combat. If a student believes your questions to be combative, that is, the means by which you eventually demonstrate your own intellectual superiority and authority over them, then they will indeed be frustrated by you and disengage. They will not be interested in being unfairly humbled by you or rather shamed into understanding. So what exactly is the difference between conversation and combat?


Socrates describes an unreasonable teacher as one who “plays about” and “trips up his opponent as often as he can.” A good teacher allows his student to slip up on his own and then helps his student to his feet again. In other words, don’t your students just allow them to – then help them get up to their feet again and again. Create the classroom environment where a student is willing to ask difficult questions and attempt to answer questions that are barely within their reach, because the student believes your classroom is a safe place to fail, a safe place to trip because you will help them to their feet again. In this environment a student will be more likely to press on. As Socrates explains, the student will “seek your company, and think of you as friend.” 


Returning to the dialogue at hand: Meno presses on with his friend Socrates through even more attempts at defining virtue until they converge upon virtue being the power to acquire the good and beautiful things one desires. 


MENO: …virtue is to desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them. (77b)

SOCRATES: Do you not think… that all men desire good things? (77c)

SOCRATES: You say that the capacity to acquire good things is virtue? (78c)

SOCRATES: I think you must face the same question from the beginning… (79c)

MENO: …both my mind and my tongue are numb… (80b)


Finally, Meno breaks and confesses his weariness and confusion. At this most tender moment, Socrates could squash Meno by finally putting on display a most brilliant and eloquent definition of virtue. This is perhaps Meno’s most vulnerable moment and therefore the most critical moment in the conversation.


It is one kind of pain to never feel known but it is a far greater pain to be known and then dismissed. Rather than dismissing Meno, Socrates empathizes with him. Socrates confesses that he is also perplexed by the question, “what is virtue?” In fact he goes further and validates perplexity as common to all men and to actually be a prerequisite to learning. So this leaves Meno wondering how then anything can be known, asking Socrates, “How will you look for , Socrates, when you do not know at all what is?”



MENO: How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? (80d)

SOCRATES: …there is no teaching but recollection. (82a)


Meno indeed asks a valid question. How does the Socratic method not devolve into an unsatisfying abyss of perplexity, uncertainty, and relativism? Well, it will devolve into this mess unless there is some hint that the conversation is moving toward, converging upon, reaching for, striving after an understanding of something that is real, something that is universal and true, some thing outside of the teacher and student. Neither Meno, the student, nor Socrates, the teacher, have to be able to define virtue completely, instead they must simply believe that virtue exists. Their conversation is valuable because it moves them toward understanding. Their conversation is not a waste because it does not end in mastery and eliminate all perplexity. In other words, it is okay for a conversation to refine but not complete understanding and even good when a conversation ends in some amount of wonder. 


Socrates calls learning in this way an act of “recollection” wherein two immortal souls strive to “recollect” (or understand) some universal truth that is beyond them. Shifting the focus of the conversation all together, Socrates then attempts to demonstrate that “there is no teaching but recollection,” by leading a slave boy who happened to be standing nearby through, of all things, a geometry problem.


SOCRATES: Call one of these many attendants of yours… (82b)

SOCRATES: … And that, Meno, my friend, is recollection, as we previously agreed. After [opinions or ideas] are tied down, in the first place they become knowledge, and then they remain in place. (98a).


Rather than explain the geometry problem to you, it is more appropriate that you assemble a small group of colleagues to engage the problem together.

PROBLEM: Given a square measuring two by two units (area of four square units), how do you construct a square with an area exactly two times greater (area of eight square units)?

If your group answers the problem successfully then you will understand Socrates' comment, "Cleve men call this the diagonal (85b)."

SOCRATES: …we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know… (86b)


The entire conversation has led to a greater or at least refined understanding of virtue and a demonstration (even a mathematical one) that learning is an act of recollection. But more importantly, as Socrates claims, it has made Meno a better man, a man who is braver and less idle. Likewise, in similar Platonic dialogues, Socrates cites conversations of this kind, shaping students to become increasingly gentle, resilient, modest, and self-aware.


In closing, allow me to step back from Meno for a moment and reiterate several observations. 


The Socratic method requires patience (or rather “longsuffering) from the teacher. A student must be able to develop his idea, even a wrong idea, without being immediately corrected. In this way, the teacher exhibits Christian charity toward the student, respecting the student as an active participant in developing his own understanding. 


Teaching Socratically means that we will not respond to our students with frustration but rather with empathy, especially when their sincere propositions take the conversation in inefficient, even wrong, directions.


To rush a student into a coerced modification of his wrong answer or to quickly move from one student to the next, fishing for a correct response, is not the Socractic method. Teaching Socratically begins with an essential question then moves patiently forward as the teacher attends to a particular student’s response through a series of probing questions and occasional redirections. These probing questions are a demonstration to the student, and the listening class, that this student’s ideas are worthy of your consideration because you are deeply invested in developing his understanding, his resilience, his carefulness of thought and even his character. We honor our students when we resist the temptation to let our haste, or obsession with efficiency, cause us to dismiss a student’s sincere, and sometimes risky, attempt at answering our questions.


How can we cultivate this kind of resilience, commitment to, and appreciation for Socratic discussion in our classrooms? We might begin by pointing out to students that the process itself invites them to participate in their own learning experience while gaining clarity about their own ideas, shedding false opinions or beliefs, reinforcing convictions, and constructing original arguments. Furthermore we might share with them how our own experiences, including the defeating or refining of our own propositions, have proven to shape and strengthen our character and confess our hope that their experiences would do the same.


When an entire class learns to appreciate the Socratic method, the teacher is able to step back and let classmates function as midwifes for one another, charitably attending to the birthing of one another’s ideas. The class then identifies itself as a collaborative community that develops understanding together rather than a competitive race through the checkboxes of your curriculum.


At this point some qualifications are certainly necessary. It is still important for every teacher to balance this Socratic method with didactic, persuasive, and eloquent argumentation and explanation. Teaching Socratically does not eliminate the concepts of authority and expertise. If Socrates were more honest, I believe he would confess to having some direction in mind in his conversations, some prior idea or understanding of his own toward which a conversation is directed. Socratic discussion still requires a telos (an aim). More often than not, the teacher (much like a midwife) must know this telos well enough to be constantly aware of all the viable ways in which it may be pursued, thereby achieving the flexibility that Socratic discussion requires and guarding the conversation from divulging into chaos and recreational banter.


Should we associate the Socratic method with logic or dialectic and rhetoric, let us remember that these two elements of the Trivium are not accurate representations of the second and third stages of our students’ cognitive development. That is, “grammar” students are more than capable of engaging in Socratic discussion. In fact, our youngest students may be those in greatest need of the transformative love that you can show them through your attention, your patience, and your attending to the sharing of their ideas, even if they are clumsily articulated or unintentionally absurd.


Finally, let me suggest that should you decide to engage a student or group of students in this kind of Socratic dialogue, you might first ask: What essential question will I start with? How do I hope for my students’ understanding to be increased or refined? In how much perplexity and wonder will I leave my students? How will I demonstrate empathy toward my students? How might our conversation make them into better human beings?




  1. ​What are some of the questions you have asked that have proven to be most effective/provocative in developing your students’ understanding / in catalyzing meaningful discussion?

  2. What do you communicate to your students when you choose to attendto their answers? 

  3. Can our youngest students engage in Socratic discussions?



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