Teaching Reason via Socratic Practice

Students need reasoning skills today more than ever.  They're not going to find it in public schools, however, and rarely will they find it even in formal logic courses.  What they need is a Socratic learning environment.
Michael-strong

The mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead has said that all of western philosophy may be seen as a series of footnotes to Plato.

The sense in which this is true is not that any particular doctrine of Plato’s is true, but rather that philosophy — in the sense of the ongoing pursuit of logically consistent understandings of reality — really began with Plato’s Socratic dialogues.

In the modern world, those who would teach logic and reasoning often focus on teaching symbolic logic, formal reasoning, and the identification of fallacies. David Kelley’s excellent book The Art of Reasoning, for example, is among the best in this genre.

As valuable as this didactic approach may be, however, in my experience it does not consistently improve students’ real-world reasoning abilities, nor their propensity to think rationally about the world.

Such didactically-received knowledge of reasoning skills may be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for becoming a more rational human being. The Socratic method, however, is quite different in this regard.

I was exposed to, and then immersed in, the Socratic method as a student at St. John’s College, a “Great Books” college where all classes are taught by means of Socratic seminars.

Impressed by the power of this method, and aware of how much younger students would benefit from learning this way, after graduation I devoted myself to developing a Socratic approach to secondary school education.

I call this approach “Socratic Practice.” Socratic Practice emphasizes the cultivation of reasoning skills as a daily practice. We do this by creating a classroom culture in which logical consistency becomes the social norm among students in classroom dialogue.

At first, I began working with public schools, training teachers to use Socratic Practice in their classrooms. What I soon discovered, however, is that it is impossible to create consistently high-quality Socratic Practice classrooms in schools that are managed by the government.

Many of the teachers in government schools are not intellectually capable of doing it; and those who are, require extensive training, which is rarely available. Worst of all, once a reasonably good program has been set up, a change in administration can dismantle it overnight.

As a consequence, I turned my attention instead to creating new private schools and charter schools that could be based on Socratic Practice principles from the very beginning.

This approach has worked very well. During its second year of operation, for example, a charter high school I created in Angel Fire, New Mexico, was ranked among the top 200 public high schools in the U.S., according to Newsweek’s Challenge Index, and has been in the top 100 ever since.

Students in a Socratic seminar at Moreno Valley High School in Angelfire, New Mexico
These Newsweek rankings are compiled based on the number of students taking the Advanced Placement (AP) exams each year. The first year I founded this school in Angel Fire, none of the students had taken an AP test and a local college professor told me point blank that northern New Mexican students were not capable of passing AP tests. Nevertheless, this year they ranked 51st in the nation, with AP passing rates more than double the national average.

On some occasions, student cohorts at my schools who took the SAT — which is essentially a reasoning exam — have gained more than 100 points per year.

My efforts to train the existing faculty of even small private schools in Socratic Practice were rarely successful. Instead, I found I preferred to personally hire bright young teachers with the mental ability required to demand conceptual consistency from their students.

Only when the faculty is capable of modeling conceptual consistency, and holding students to that same standard, do the students develop a classroom culture in which they participate in enforcing that norm on their peers. Only when the peers make consistent Socratic demands on their classmates do dramatic improvements in reasoning result.

The art of leading classroom Socratic dialogue turns out to be as sophisticated an art as violin playing, wine tasting, or aikido. There are endless variants and styles, and the possibility for cultivating a lifelong practice which is never perfected. The practitioners of this classroom Socratic art often find it to be one of the greatest pleasures of their lives, even when they are working with elementary or middle school students.

While small schools often cannot afford extensive Socratic classroom training for their faculties, larger privately-managed chains of schools can. Thus one of the unforeseen benefits of greater educational freedom, once we obtain it, will be chains of schools that develop cohorts of young people with an ever-deepening capacity for reasoning and a rational perspective on life.

Aristotle noted that “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.” The only habituation most young people develop in contemporary schools are bad habits.

The ability to systematically develop long-term mental and emotional habits in a school setting will require cohorts of teachers who themselves have been trained to exhibit those same mental and emotional habits. Didactic instruction of any kind is ill-suited for the introduction and maintenance of new habits.

Government schools act as a monopoly standard, imposing similar teacher qualifications, curriculum, tests, textbooks, and other materials across each nation. Thus even most existing private schools accept the dominant government monopoly standard, hiring teachers with mainstream training and credentials, using mainstream curriculum, tests, and textbooks.

Students graduating from Moreno Valley High School in Angelfire, New Mexico (credit: Sangre de Christo Chronicle)
While many private schools do add value beyond the monopoly default, their abilities to innovate are often severely limited. Only when we have a large-scale educational marketplace with numerous competing chains of private schools, will we begin to see such school chains develop systems for training consistent mental and emotional habituation in their faculties.

In the case of Socratic rationality, it turns out that not even all philosophy or mathematics majors are capable of real time conceptual consistency in their interactions with energetic adolescents — who can be geniuses at pushing the emotional buttons of adults.

Once private entities are capable of providing systematic long-term training in mental and emotional habituation, however, the human development industry will embark on a stage of innovation that will be every bit as exciting, and far-reaching in its implications, as the innovations in the IT industry over the past fifty years.

Because the benefits of such innovation in human development extend far beyond the benefits of an internalized Socratic rationality, I refer to this prospective new stage of educational freedom as “the legalization of markets in happiness and well-being.”

In my next column, I’ll explain how freedom in education, healthcare, and community formation will amount to the legalization of markets in happiness and well-being.

Michael Strong is the CEO of FLOW, which he co-founded with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. FLOW’s mission is “Liberating the Entrepreneurial Spirit for Good” by promoting free market solutions around the globe.

17 comments from readers  

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Best of luck to you, Michael! The best hope we have is for people to learn how to think again(actually, for most, it will be the first time). Until that happens, we'll remain in this intellectually bankrupt, culturally toxic, politically barbarian maelstrom.

Eagerly looking forward to your next column!
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Socratic or platonic teaching is useless unless one is grounding in a facts-based philosophy from which to pursue knowledge. Witness the often-ridulous and condescening socratic dalogues in Plato, in which Socrates poses endless questions but comes to no rational conclusion himself. (His goal was often to make fun of famous people.)

Unless you know where you are going or know the best method (objectivity) for getting their, the a student simply learns that no rational conclusion is possible, leading to skepticism and endless permutations on "truth." Socrates was an exponent of skepticism, saying that the ultimate truth cannot be known. And Plato himself (though rightly regarded as the first systemic philosopher) expounded ludicrous ideas about all four branches of philosophy.

The only solution for education is that of Objectivism, in which logic and facts are supreme, and all words are clearly defined according to their specific reference to reality.
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Excellent points- happy to hear there is change happening. I would love to sit in on an occassion when you work with student- or see video of it.
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Mr. Strong: Critical column. I have felt for years that no one really learns to think, to reason, in ordinary schools. I have never heard of the Socratic Method, but from your column I gather it teaches just that. I believe I am a Socratic reasoner, based on the teachings of Rand going back to the early 60's. I extrapolate, seek reason and non-contradiction, and know when I have hit upon the truth. I have been socially involved with University professors, who get angry with me when I call them and beat them on ideas. They are invariably socialistic, but worse, I see them as intellectual frauds, who are seriously short changing their students. One was a philosophy prof, the other is a psychology prof. The first recently passed away, the second will absolutely not debate with me. He is a strong defender of feelings, and politically correct, and compassion. I am 80 and still seek ideas. For me it is like listening to music I love. I would love to know more about the Socratic Method. Frank Toplin
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I enjoyed this very much, and will look forward to your next article.
Andrew S
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What a fascinating introduction to a new possibility for our schools.

I'm particularly intrigued that "conceptual consistency" is named as the standard for Socratic Practice.

My main question would be: to what extent are objectivity and emotional honesty cultivated in Socratic Practice?

I ask because, without having observed a class-in-session, it is possible to imagine Socratic Practice encouraging, over time, an over-prioritization of inquiry at the expense of decision-making.
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This is quite possibly the most substantive treatise and treatment of the subject of modern education and the improvement of same I have yet witnessed!

I hope you are successful, as you may well be the last vestige of hope for our future.

Government schools have to - by their nature - balance between catering to the least common denominator and political appeasement. This system cannot produce quality in quantity, as it despises individualism.
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Having gone through our(U.S.) educational system, I can attest to how poorly they prepare young minds for their most important task, critical thinking. In the other countries in which I have attended schools (Cuba and Panama), things aren't any better. I have been wondering how one would go about accomplishing such a task. Creating an educational system that nurtures and teaches critical thinking skills that is. Glad to know others have tackled it and are having a measure of success. Perhaps by the time I have kids, such schools will be more prevalent in our society.
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The article brings a smile and a sigh of relief, because perhaps there is hope for resurrection! As a Michigan alternative high school teacher many years ago, the lack of reason, and subsequently, independent thought and creativity, were blatant causes for the anger, failure, and frustration so many students felt, as they had been pushed into a public norm which stifled and discouraged their intellect, freedom, and true nature.

Other teachers were amazed that students who were previously labled as failures or misfits could do well and had small expectations, which were actually belittling to students. When a similar method of reason was shared with teachers, they scoffed because they felt methods of reason were refusing to see the common cause, which to them, was the least and the smallest. However, many students had more sensability than teachers and chose these courses, as they saw the success in their midst, and so it challenged the nature of man.

Those students graduated with a diploma that was something of value, while others graduated with a diploma that was a useless gift - an homage to failure. When a teacher(who had pushed through a degree for a student) commented he was so happy to see that particular student graduate, I commented the student would do nothing, as nothing had been asked. That student has lived a frustrated life, in and out of jail, failed family commitments, and more.

But he had been a promising artist, whose creativity was stifled at the expense of being different. That is the nature of public schools today. Teachers are afraid of individual success because it will challenge their failed methods, and so they block reason and creativity, and instead, push the lowest common denominator. I hire hundreds of young people a year for my business in movie theatres, and am appalled at the level of intellect and thought of applicants. It has to be taught on the job.

But fortunately, so many young people get it, and they rise. I see them exceed expectations, and many share stories of success in school and other endeavors. We can smile at one another with a true common ground, that each of us has worth and value which we all seek and develop, and I see inspiration and excitement on their faces, as the world becomes a place of possibility, instead of the awfullness that is taught to them in education systems. The conditions in America and the world at the moment, are the end result of this great void of reason, and much will have to crash and burn before new spires can again reach to the sky.
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Michael Strong's comments are excellent. As a university business school professor, I worry about how my students think, not just what they think. This article is very insightful.
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Wonderful work Michael,

I was first exposed to 'Socrates' in college - oh how I wish I'd learned sooner! It's such a powerful way to teach and learn. Since, I have put a lot of effort into making it a core part of my own internal dialogue.

This work of yours is critical for the development of a new society and the destruction of the endless array of cults (religions and governments). These cults prey upon generation after generation of people, enslaving them and vastly reducing the overall intellectual power of society - through which civilization truely advances, hence dramatically - I estimate - reducing civilizations rate of advancement.

Cheers to you Michael,
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Love it. I would like to come be in your class and I'm 67.
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What a great summary of the facts and issues!
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Wow, Mr. Strong, I really enjoyed our article, Thank you. I feel that our education has deteriorated so much since my school days and that of my children. We were taught how to think, not what to think. Debates and oratorical contests were common both in grade school and in high school. I feel that a college education today is not even as good as a high school education was in my day.
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Because educational instututions have been given the job of replacing a parent - even if only for a few hours - they can never succeed. Mr Strong has created an academic situation designed to provide intellectual stimulation that should have been provided by parents before pre-k. I thank him for that but remind all that the first and best teacher a child has is his or her parent. Until the parents are taught the right way of thinking they will always be able to turn even the clearest thinking child to the wrong direction - no matter what school attended. My greatest hope is that youth, such as Mr. Strong's students one day extend their education to their own children. If this happens enough we might actually see some demand for change in the educational system that puts parents back in the seat of responsibility. Thank you Mr. Strong, but shame on those parents for putting their children in need of your help. Children learn to talk at home, the same place they learn to think.
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Because I was also an St. John's alumnus, Mr. Strong let me attend some of his high school seminars, which were as good as old college level discussions. Distribution of knowledge through Media has increased awareness & experience of youth. Mr. Strong's efforts & methods to counter the "dumbing of America" are most worthwhile.

Plato's Socratic Dialogues are still timely, while many "classics" are dated. They are perfect scenarios, but I have only seen Socrates' death scene filmed.
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Mr. Michael Strong is on to one of the most important building blocks to individual well-being today and into the future. The Socratic method used in his private schools, will almost certainly foster an environment where individuals will learn critical thinking and practical problem-solving. These are "learning how to learn" skills one will almost certainly find absent from most public "education" today - particularly in the pupil's formative years.
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