A Digital Agora: Socrates' Maieutic Method in the Online Classroom

Concurrent Session 6
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Brief Abstract

This presentation explores what a digital version of Socrates' maieutic method, aimed at encouraging the organic development of a learner's own insights through guided questioning, might look like. I argue that this method has great potential for the online humanities teacher through fostering passionate, organic, and internally motivated student engagement.

Extended Abstract

The Athenian philosopher Socrates strove throughout his life to live by the Delphic inscription, “Know Thyself.” True education, on his view, begins with self-awareness. The method he forged through decades of philosophical engagement with his fellow Athenians bears continual reference to this maxim. Understanding is first wrought within the soul of the student, taking first the form of a desire to know. This desire, however, is predicated upon a fundamental recognition that is as much a moral insight as an epistemic one, namely that one does not yet know.

In his quest to elevate the minds and ideals of his peers, Socrates recognized that the effective teacher is not one who hands off insights ready-made to his or her students. Such a pedagogy is misplaced at the very outset, for it conceives of knowledge as a dead or sterile product that might be traded for coin. Such a method might produce a cadre of effective mimics of another’s knowledge, but not knowers. Unless understanding is forged within the framework of self-knowledge, and the desire for self-betterment that any honest self-appraisal will bring, it is not understanding.

Armed with this insight, Socrates employed what is often termed the maieutic method. Seeing himself not primarily as an enlightened sage possessed of privileged insights, but as a simple lover of wisdom, Socrates approached his students as a perennial student himself. As a self-proclaimed “midwife of knowledge,” Socrates did not distribute insights (for that cannot be done) but helped those willing to seek alongside him in their labor pains, as understanding was born within the mind of his interlocutor.

This is, of course, what is commonly referred to as the “Socratic Method,” though the nuances of this method are widely ignored. Socrates did much more than simply “asking questions,” or “fostering open discussion.” While he approached his task with humility, as a fellow student, Socrates was also expert and guide. As presented in the dialogues of Plato, Socrates is a master teacher, who frames debates on contentious subjects with the deft hand of one intimately familiar with the intellectual landscape he invited others to explore alongside him. Socrates’ questions were always guided, and purposeful. And the knowledge he strove to help birth was not simply whatever idea his student hit upon as personally preferable, but rather those ideas that bore the mark of logos, of truth, beauty and goodness.

It is decidedly difficult to practice Socratic pedagogy in the online learning environment. So much of the strength of Socrates’ teaching methods lies in the intimacy and immediacy of physical personal connection. His interlocuters and students are as affected by his personal wisdom and virtue as they are by the logical distinctions he makes, or the arguments he obliquely fashions. How might Socrates have taught an online class?

If Socrates is an important teacher (and it seems beyond doubt that he is), then this is an important question. If teaching is an interpersonal quest between learners, one or some of whom have access to thoughts and notions as yet unclear to the others, forged through self-reflection and honest dialogue, how might such teaching translate to the digital classroom?

In this presentation, I have three central goals. The first is to briefly clarify what was so unique and powerful about the way Socrates taught. The second is to attempt to interpret and fashion these pedagogical tools for implementation in the online learning environment. As noted above, this attempt involves far more than the commonplace advice to ‘ask students questions,’ which is a feature of any sensible pedagogy. Instead, it is an attempt to identify the core importance of the hunger for self-knowledge that must be present within the student in order for engaged learning to take place. The third goal is a continuation of the second, and involves sketching out an archetype for what a “digital Socratic teacher” might look like, and how the classroom as “digital Agora” might take shape.

My presentation will attempt to simultaneously define the dual roles of teacher and student within the digital Agora, and how the teacher can effectively invite the student to adopt the position of genuine learner. This process happens, I will argue, through the adoption on the part of the teacher, of an “intermediary position” between master and student. There are two basic mistakes, it seems to me, that an educator can adopt: the first is to cast oneself as an unquestioned intellectual authority, the second as merely another student ‘along for the ride.’ These mistakes are possible, I take it, in any field, but I will focus on the humanities in my treatment.

In the first mistake (assumed mastery), the teacher assumes an impossible burden, in a two-fold sense: first, they assume the burden of authority on topics (philosophical, moral, aesthetic, etc.) that are, by their very nature prone to deep and ongoing debate, and second, they forget the Delphic maxim of self-knowledge, and the necessity that any understanding achieved by the student must be forged within the heart and mind of the student.

In the second mistake (feigning as student), the teacher undermines his or her own authority from the outset. The teacher may well proclaim his or her general ignorance alongside Socrates, but if this ignorance is total, then the student may justly wonder why they are taking the class to begin with. Just as Socrates’ evident wisdom and penetrating intelligence left his interlocuters in little doubt as to his obvious mastery of his subjects, so too the teacher ought to be the authority within the classroom, though one tempered by their own necessity for self-knowledge, and the humility that comes with it.

In this presentation I will sketch out strategies for avoiding these two pitfalls, specifically as they arise within the online classroom. I will open the presentation up to audience member discussion and participation, putting the maieutic method into practice by inviting the reflections of educators and students on the best methods for achieving engaged and passionate learning. I am myself as much a student as an authority on issues of pedagogy, especially online pedagogy, the relatively brief history of which means that we are all in the position of learner to some degree or other.

My hope is that the insights that arise in the presentation will be of use to instructors, students, and course designers. No matter what new technologies might arise to facilitate learning, if the basic love of learning is not at the heart of the educational process, it seems that the rest will matter little.