Monday, August 10, 2009

The Socratic Teaching Method

In C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (TLWW), the Professor, to whose home the Pevensie children have been sent to avoid the London Blitz, has a wonderful discussion with the older children, Peter and Susan, about their younger siblings.

When youngest sister Lucy first told her brothers and sister about visiting Narnia, they didn’t believe her. After Edmund and Lucy visited Narnia at the same time, Lucy was excited that Edmund would now be able to confirm her earlier story. Unfortunately, Edmund claimed there was no Narnia, that he was just pretending to humor Lucy. Both Edmund and Lucy stuck to their stories and caused a row. Peter got mad at Edmund for teasing their little sister, and both Peter and Susan were afraid that Lucy was going mad. They decided they must talk with the Professor about the situation.

To their surprise, the Professor stopped what he was doing, pulled up chairs for Peter and Susan, and gave them his full attention. After they explained the situation, rather than rushing to judgment or making a pronouncement, he began asking a series of questions, which was “the last thing either of them expected.”

To paraphrase their conversation, in which the Professor used questions, restatement and further questions in the Socratic manner:

Question – How do you know that your sister’s story is not true?
Answer – Edmund said they were only pretending.
Comment – That fact “deserves consideration, very serious consideration.”

Question – Does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?
Answer – Generally, both children thought Lucy to be the more truthful.
Response – “A charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing.”

Question – Are you saying Lucy is lying?
Answer – The children said they thought Lucy might be mad.
Response – “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One only has to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.”

Question (aside) – “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”
Response – ‘There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

Question – Why do you say Lucy’s story can’t be true?
Answer – Peter conjectures that if Narnia really did exist, everyone should be able to find it when they opened the wardrobe. He had looked and didn’t find anything.

Question – What has the fact that you looked in the wardrobe and didn’t find Narnia have to do with Lucy’s claim she had been there?
Answer – Peter explained that “if things are real, they’re there all the time.”

Question – Is that true?
Answer – Peter could not answer, and Susan claimed that there hadn’t been enough time elapse for Lucy to really have gone anywhere.
Response – The professor said that the fact of the time difference “is the very thing that makes her story so likely to be true.” He said that, if there were other worlds, he would expect that their measurement of time would not be the same as ours. He also confirmed that he didn’t think any little girl would be able to fabricate such an elaborate story as the one Lucy told of Narnia. (See Note #1, below.)

After this conversation, Peter asked the Professor if there really were “other worlds all over the place.” The Professor responded with “Nothing is more probable.” His parting comments were “We might all try minding our own business.” This ended the discussion. Peter and Susan felt better about their little sister, and they had newfound respect for the Professor who had treated them more like adults than children.

The Power of the Socratic Method

I learned about the Socratic method of teaching in college, and it remains my favorite method of presenting lessons. By asking open-ended questions, class members are encouraged to reflect critically and interpret the question based on personal knowledge and experience. There usually are no right or wrong answers, and the responses reflect individual thinking, feeling or behaving. Responses also often generate additional questions, responses, and insights.

The Socratic method is the oldest, and still the most powerful, teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking. (It is routinely used in training law students.) The teacher presents questions, not answers. Through ongoing questioning and responding, students form their own answers through disciplined thought. One reason it is so powerful is that each student is able to learn what is most important to him and his situation, as well as gain an appreciation for the differing ideas of others in the class. The method goes beyond memorization, into reasoning and application of ideas to new situations. It fosters personal growth.

In TLWW, the Professor uses a form of Socratic teaching. He both asks and responds to questions designed to get Peter and Susan to figure out the situation for themselves. At the end, both children seemed calm, and also felt more mature because of how the Professor talked with them. Learning by this method was held in high regard by the Professor, who didn’t much care for the English school system.

Condemnation of the School System

The Professor’s aside question of “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?” is reflective of Lewis’ overall feeling about school systems. In his autobiographical book Surprised by Joy, Lewis described the horrendous boarding schools he was sent to as a young boy. It wasn’t until he had a private tutor—William Kirkpatrick—that he enjoyed education. Lewis credited Kirkpatrick, an “obsessively rational thinker,” with teaching him how to think and reason clearly. This last tutor he had before entering Oxford taught Lewis the “give-and-take that seeks truth through the relentless probing of an opponent’s position,” using (as Lewis described it) an exaggerated version of Socratic dialog. Under this tutor, Lewis honed his considerable debating skills.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Professor in TLWW used a form of Socratic dialog when talking with Peter and Susan about Lucy and Edmund. Lewis knew from personal experience the power of the method, and how it stimulates the mind and forms a strong foundation for future learning and reasoning.

Lewis’s condemnation of schools was the framework around which he wrote The Abolition of Man, subtitled "Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools." Lewis began his book with a critical response to what he called “The Green Book,” by “Gaius and Titus” (in fact The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing by Alex King and Martin Ketley (1939), who had asked him to review their work). The Green Book purported to teach English to school children, but took it upon itself to teach that all statements of value (such as "this waterfall is sublime") are merely statements about the speaker's feelings and say nothing about the object. Lewis claimed that such a subjective view of values was faulty, and, on the contrary, certain objects and actions merited positive or negative reactions: that a waterfall can actually be objectively praiseworthy, and that one's actions can be objectively good or evil. In any case, Lewis noted that this was a philosophical position rather than a grammatical one, and so parents and teachers who gave such books to their children and students were having them read the "work of amateur philosophers where they expected the work of professional grammarians." (I’m sure King and Ketley regretted asking Lewis to review their book!)


While Lewis was very vocal about the shortcomings of England’s school system (he mentioned it again in The Silver Chair), he was passionate about education and learning. He was an academic who spent his entire adult life teaching and tutoring at Oxford and later Cambridge universities. A lifelong learner himself, he also encouraged others to pursue intellectual and spiritual education, to hone their critical thinking abilities, and expand their cultural horizons. He wrote extensively in multiple genres and was able to reach a wide spectrum of individuals. His radio broadcasts during World War II (which were later compiled into the book Mere Christianity) provided hope and comfort through turning to God and Christ in times of trouble. His powerful thoughts and words have stood the test of time, and he is today among the most often quoted philosophers and critical thinkers.

Lewis also cared deeply about children. Like the Professor in TLWW, confirmed bachelor Lewis took in a group of girls during the Blitz and seemed to enjoy the experience. (See Note #2, below.) In addition, he took pains to write back to children who had written to him (some letters were compiled and published under the title Letters to Children). And, of course, his Chronicles of Narnia were a wonderful gift to children of all ages; through the pages of the seven books, readers can have profound experiences as well as enjoy flights of fantasy.

Lewis taught on several levels, using many different techniques. I believe he wrote something for each one of us. We just need to immerse ourselves in his books and embrace the great thoughts that are found on the printed page. The experience can be life altering.

Note #1: In addition to demonstrating a Socratic teaching method, the discussion among the Professor, Peter and Susan, shows another mode of teaching used by Lewis--a trichotomy. A trichotomy is a three-part version of the philosophical "dichotomy," which dramatizes that there are only two real choices or options in assessing the truth of a proposition; a trichotomy attempts to force a choice among three things. The Professor explains that Lucy's story of Narnia shows that she is (a) lying, (b) mad, or (c) telling the truth. Put this way, they all agree that the "logical" conclusion is that Lucy is telling the truth about her adventures beyond the wardrobe. Lewis also uses the trichotomy in Mere Christianity to defend the divinity of Christ, who men variously refer to as "liar, lunatic, or Lord." Lewis adeptly champions the last option.

Note #2: One reason children were sent to the Oxford area to escape the German Blitz was that it was considered safe because Adolph Hitler had indicated a penchant for nearby Blenheim Palace. The birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, Blenheim would have become Hitler's home had the Third Reich won the war. Therefore, Hitler did not want his air force bombing prized property. Several London children found safety the Oxford area, including those taken in by Lewis at The Kilns.

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