The Socratic method of inquiry, also called the "elenchos", was introduced by
Socrates in order to discover the truth. It was first described by
Plato in the Socratic dialogues.
The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover the truth about some topic. A skillful teacher can actually teach students to think for themselves using this method. This is the only classic method of teaching that is known to create genuinely autonomous thinkers.
There are some crucial principles to this form of teaching:
- The teacher must set the topic of instruction, and the student must agree to this.
- The student must agree to attempt to answer questions from the teacher.
- The teacher must be willing to accept any correctly-reasoned answer. That is, the reasoning process must be considered more important than facts.
- The teacher's questions must expose errors in the students' reasoning. That is, the teacher must reason more quickly and correctly than the student, and discover errors in the students' reasoning, and then formulate a question which the students cannot answer except by a correct reasoning process. To perform this service, the teacher must be very quick-thinking about the classic errors in reasoning.
- If the teacher makes an error of logic or fact, it is acceptable for a student to correct the teacher.
It is helpful if the teacher is able to lead a group of students in a discussion. This is not always possible in situations that require the teacher to evaluate students, but it is preferable pedagogically, because it encourages the students to reason for truth rather than from authority.
More loosely, one could label any process of thorough-going questioning as an instance of the "Socratic method'.
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