Questioning the Socratic Method

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

What happens when researchers question the Socratic method?

In a study published in the December 2011 issue of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education, four cognitive scientists from Argentina describe what happened when they asked contemporary high school and college students a series of questions identical to those posed by Socrates. In one of his most famous lessons, Socrates showed a young slave boy a square, then led him through a series of 50 questions intended to teach the boy how to draw a second square with an area twice as large as the first. Students in the 2011 experiment, led by researcher Andrea Goldin, gave answers astonishingly similar to those offered by Socrates’ pupil, even making the same mistakes he made. “Our results show that the Socratic dialogue is built on a strong intuition of human knowledge and reasoning which persists more than twenty-four centuries after its conception,” the researchers write. Their findings, Goldin and his co-authors add, demonstrate the existence of “human cognitive universals traversing time and cultures.”

But these “universals” come with a significant caveat. By the end of Socrates’ lesson, the Greek boy had figured out how to do the task. More than half of the contemporary subjects, on the other hand, failed to grasp the import of the philosopher’s 50 questions.


  1. Alrenous says:

    I honestly would not have expected that. Most of the dialogues are sharply biased.

    I’m more a glass-half-full on this one. Only half didn’t get it? Cute. Try a gold standard double-blind controlled trial against a lecture.

  2. Alrenous says:

    Apparently I’m an intellectual gleaner.

    In a final example, a number of times Kathy Perkins and I have presented some non-obvious fact in a lecture along with an illustration, and then quizzed the students 15 minutes later on the fact. About 10 percent usually remember it by then.

    Half of them failed to grasp it? You say it like it’s a bad thing, instead of five times more effective than a lecture.

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