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The Secret of Socratic Schooling

Next time you’re stuck with an awkward silence and lots of students refusing to make eye contact, just ask yourself; “What would Socrates do?”

By 7 min read 6

As I remarked in one of my posts last month, recently I had the pleasure of overseeing some training for my Japanese colleagues and my fellow native teachers during the summer recess. Of course, despite being the teacher in this regard, it is important to also remember that one is never too old to learn new things. As such, I was delighted when, in early August I was invited to take part in a series of seminars in preparation for my taking the TKT test early next year.

TKT, or Teaching Knowledge Test is a relatively new qualification for currently working teachers. Offered by the same organization who administers the CELTA and DELTA teaching credentials, it provided a neat top-up on what I had learned previously from my CELTA certification course, as well as giving me some ideas on areas I needed to brush up on.

Of course, as in all academic seminars, I certainly didn’t agree with 100% of the ideas being put forward, but I was given plenty of food for thought. One issue which I think is pertinent to teachers everywhere was the concept of the Confucian Classroom vs the Socratic Classroom. So, today I thought I would share some thoughts on this and hopefully if you are a teacher in Japan, you can take something from it.

Confucius believed that honour and respect for family was the ideal basis for building strong communities

First a bit of philosophy. For those who may not know Confucius and Socrates are widely regarded as two of the greatest minds in human history. Not only this, but they made lasting and radically different impacts in determining the way education for the masses would take shape the in centuries ahead.

Confucius was born in China in 551BC, his philosophical belief system, known as Confucianism, forms the basis by which traditional Japanese classrooms are managed and set up to this day.
Confucius believed that honour and respect for family was the ideal basis for building strong communities and therefore, ultimately strong, stable governments. As such, he was a major proponent of the idea of respect for your elders, adherence to the teachings and ideals of those older and more experienced than you, and also the concept of listening to your elders and learning from them.

Does this sound familiar?

Today most public school classrooms in Japan still follow these basic principles of Confucianism. Teacher knows best, students are expected to listen, look and learn. Questioning the logic or the reasoning of your elders is never encouraged, and inquiry is kept to a minimum. In the context of an English class, this means that we will often find our TTT (teaching talking time) maximized, and STT (student talking time) is minimized.

This works very well for subjects like math, science and history, which rely heavily on rote memorization and input delivered in a lecture format. It is not such an effective methodology for skill-based subjects, such as languages, where practice and interaction are crucial to increasing competence.

Socrates, on the other hand, had other ideas. Born almost a century or so after his Chinese counterpart Confucius, in 469 BC, Socrates is today credited as one of the founding fathers of western philosophy.

To his disciples, such as the similarly lauded Plato, Socrates was a great orator, debater and critic of contemporary politics and ideals. To his detractors he was an argumentative fool, whose own intransigence ultimately led to his demise.

Since Socrates himself never actually wrote any surviving texts in his lifetime, it’s difficult to truly know which side he falls on. Like most people of elevated intellect, the term “flawed genius” is perhaps most pertinent.

Anyway, as an outspoken critic of the politics of his native Athens at the time, Socrates always preached to his followers the importance of inquiry. Questions are the key to further learning in the Socratic system, and as such one should never been afraid to speak out or to challenge an idea they may disagree with. Unfortunately this constant need to question and challenge others led to his eventual execution on charges of heresy against the Athenian state.

“The unexamined life is not worth living” is possibly the most famous quote attributed to Socrates, and it emphasizes again the importance of asking questions and inquiry to enhance one’s knowledge base.

In many ways the cultural differences we notice in our Japanese classrooms when compared to classes we may see back in Europe or the US can be directly attributed to the difference in teaching styles between Socrates and Confucius.

In order to make our students more effective learners of English, or indeed any foreign language, I believe we need to try and make our classrooms less Confucian and more Socratic. So, how do we do this?

Simply saying at the end of a lecture “Are there any questions?” will, in most cases just be met with a plethora of blank stares and awkward silences. To get your students thinking like Socrates, you will need to use more subtle means. One effective technique I use is to start off right from the greeting.

Many classes in public schools in Japan use an English language form of the “Aisatsu” (honourable greeting) that students give to all their teachers as they bow at the beginning of each class.
Rather than just the conventional bow and good morning, I make it into a game. After saying good morning, I will then ask the students a series of questions. Such as, “how are you?”, “How is the weather today?” and so on.

Of course simply producing the stock answers they will have memorized isn’t really embracing the Socratic approach. But then you turn it on them, and encourage them to ask you questions. At first, they will just parrot back the questions you have already asked them, but over time as their vocabulary expands and they become more confident in expressing themselves they will start to form their own questions.

Confidence is key here, so it’s crucial that any corrective feedback you give the students at this point is kept as constructive as possible.

For more advanced students, such as junior high or high school, it is also a good idea to look at any point in the lesson where you can throw in some opportunity for questions to encourage further discussion. For example, recently in our junior high textbook at one of my schools, we covered a unit on global warming and environmental issues. Unlike the likes of Donald Trump, my students actually seem to have some semblance of an understanding and acknowledgement of this issue, and as such we decided to have a debate on what we could do about it.

Debates are a great way to build your students inquiry skills as well as their fluency and confidence. However, it’s important that you give them adequate preparation time, to coherently form their main arguments. Also, if you can get your Japanese colleagues on side, I believe it’s best to try and set aside an entire lesson for this kind of activity, in order to ensure everyone has a chance to speak their mind. Moderating the debate also takes a careful hand, to ensure that the more capable students don’t dominate the proceedings. Everyone needs to be given the opportunity to contribute.

One of Socrates’ greatest attributes as a teacher (something which he himself never professed to be, by the way) was his realization that unlike a conventional Confucian teacher he himself was not above question. Whereas it is traditionally frowned upon here in Japan for students to question their sensei, I actively encourage my students to speak out. Sometimes I will occasionally make a conscious mistake, like a spelling error or a mispronunciation of a word, to encourage my students to speak out and correct me.

Not only does this encourage a more Socratic working environment, it also shows the students that teachers are no different from any other humans. We make mistakes and we have a sense of humour.
I hope my philosophical ramblings haven’t been too boring for you, dear readers. Hopefully for the English teachers amongst you I have given you something you can take forward into your lessons in the future.

Next time you’re stuck with an awkward silence and lots of students refusing to make eye contact in your class, just stop and ask yourself the all-important question: “What would Socrates do?”

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  • Melina Ferszt says:

    Hi Liam! Quick question, do you think it could be possible to find Spanish teaching jobs? I know its not as common as English teaching at all, but I have an international certificate for Spanish teaching. I have a pretty good English knowledge but nothing near teaching material… I would like to work with my own language while also learning Japanese.

  • aseuss says:

    This is a misreading of Confucius. Yes, when one starts out, one must pay proper respect to one’s elders, listen to what they have to say first. After all, they have a lifetime of experience and scholarship to draw upon, so it would only make sense to hear them out first and study closely what they deem to be true before one goes out and produces one’s own ideas. But even with this approach, Confucius hardly expected his students to simply sit there and soak up a lesson. In fact, he says in the Analects that students must be communicative and questioning: “If I hold up one corner of a problem and the student cannot come up with the other three, I do not attempt to instruct him again.” Indeed, the Analects is filled with back and forth dialogue among Confucius, his students, and other teachers where they all struggle to answer philosophical questions. Ultimately, Confucius taught, learning was a lifelong thing, so one had to learn how to teach oneself-which often meant finding people that one could learn from. This did not mean actual teachers or even authority figures:”Three people walking, one is my future teacher.” The very idea that one must pick and choose what one learns just from the people one encounters in life goes against the idea that learning is ultimately authoritarian or even institutional. It is an organic process that is very personal, a process that reflects oneself as an individual. Indeed, given Confucius’ idea of learning-that it is lifelong, that it reflects one’s actualization as a person, the authoritarian model can only be a preliminary part of that enterprise. It does not characterize it.

  • Toni Taherzadeh says:

    I wish I had read this 3 semesters ago. Well said, indeed. Thank you.

  • Great post Liam, this explains some behavioral patterns I’ve seen at my workplace as well. My co-workers usually never questions the manager or our routines.

  • maulinator says:

    Nice article. But I disagree with a small but important statement the author made :This works very well for subjects like math, science and history, which rely heavily on rote memorization and input delivered in a lecture format.
    I argue that none of the subjects that the author mentions is about rote memorization but critical thinking. Sure there is a rote portion to all subjects. Language has a rote portion, learning new words for example. History might be about dates and events, but history when properly taught is about the analysis. Why did that happen? How did the defenestration of prague lead to war? What were the ramifications of the minfest destiny in future policy. How does domestic policy affect foreign policy. These questions are the crux of history. Remembering dates of event names are not the key points, but they are the like the words of vocabulary of history so that one can make the proper arguments. What are the flwas in Brinton’s Anatomy or Revolution? What were the ramifications of Sputnik in terms of the how the cold war progressed and was viewed?
    Math and the hard sciences even more so. It is about analysis and derivation. If all the author got from his histroy and math classes were dates and formulas he was not taught properly. If he thinks that is what these subjects are all about then he is not as Socratic as he thinks! Math is not about formulas. It is about the derivation of the formula- the methodology of thinking that leads to a new formula or discovery. It is the analysis of a situation and providing a solution. The formulas are the vocabulary of the language of mathematics. Mathematics attmpts to put into a language the rules of the universe. No one should have to memorize formulas, one can derive them using logic. Formulas represent a completed thought and methodology of thinking, so one does not have to derive it again and again. It is shorthand. Why build the wheel over and over again when someone has done it for you in the past? Science is about questioning everything, which is as Socratic as one can get. TO test the physical laws, to discover new ones, one must question the current way of viewing things. Some of the greatest discoveries started with questioning what was the current view of the world. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton Einstein, all changed the way we look at the universe and the world but through rote memorizatioj but throguh what math and science really is: analysis and questioning- the root of Socratic thought. I would argue that these subjects should be more Socratic in nature than English language. These fields require analytical thinking. English is just using the language and following the rules and getting used to saying things or pronunciation, unless you are writing a novel.
    So while I thought the article was good (it is always better to get student participation), this point sticks in my mind that the author does not understand teaching of these other subejcts, which is outside his expertise so might be the case, or is just dismissive of these subjects as not being “Socratic” and might not fully grasp the philosohty behind the Socratic wiritngs.

    • aseuss says:

      Kindly look at my above response. Actually, Confucius pressed his followers to be communicative, to question what he was saying and provide their own answers. “If I hold up one corner of a problem and the student cannot come up with the other three, I do not instruct him further.” Indeed, the Analects is filled with back and forth dialogue between Confucius and his students. Ultimately, it was one’s responsibility to teach oneself as learning was a lifelong enterprise, Confucius taught.



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