The Humpty-Dumpty quality to the lingo of the education world, where words mean what he wants them to mean, often stymies the parents trying to get to the core of what their school, district, board, or teacher is actually doing. When the labels are "spiral learning", "constructivism", "child-centered" or "discovery learning", parents on this board become reflexively suspicious. Often these words are used as a foil against "traditional methods", a term equally devoid of clarity. Are we all meaning the same thing? When a teacher or curriculum espouses discovery learning, do they mean what we think they mean? Do any of us know?
So here's a word most of us have a pretty good agreement on: The Socratic Method.
For now, we leave aside whether Socrates used the method the same way, and leave aside if he thought the method was for demonstrating ignorance or if it can be used to generate knowledge.
Let's just use it as it is used in teaching, such as in law school: the Socratic Method is both a learning theory and a pedagogy, where the teacher and the student engage in a discussion, or a series of guided questions, in order to reach the truth. The student is expected to familiarize themselves with the basic issues at hand (by reading and studying the assigned materials), and from there, the teacher begins a series of questions that are designed to expose errors in the students' beliefs or reasoning. Once exposed, questions are then asked that can only be answered by using correct reasoning. In this way, the teacher guides the student along to the right understanding.
The advantages of this method are pretty clear: first, the student has been forced, effectively, to engage more actively with the material and the ideas than in a listen-to-lecture setting. With practice, this engagement would lead to understanding how to use the appropriate material to prepare better in the first place. That means shoring up mastery of the underlying knowledge necessary to participate competently in the first place.
Second, this method uses students' misconceptions as the guidestones for learning. Misconceptions are the real reason for failure to understand material, and unrecognized misconceptions undermine all learning placed on top of them. By going to great lengths to determine and categorize the likely misconceptions in the first place, teachers are much more aware of stumbling blocks for their students, and are more likely to recognize when a student has foundational problems in their knowledge.
Third, while the method uses students' misconceptions, it uses teachers' corrective guidance to move past those misconceptions. It does not rely on the student making that realization on their own. The corollary to this is that the method pushes inexorably towards The Truth. That is: there is a right answer, that can be reached by knowing true facts and then using proper reasoning.
There are still some problems with this method. It's unclear that it scales well: can one lengthy conversation tackle a classroom full of misconceptions? Another issue is how to encourage participation. Is this exercise just one of humiliation? Can it be made to be encouraging rather than stifling for a group of young children? young teens? older teens? how so? Can a teacher keep this method from devolving into tearing students' ideas down without building up correct notions?
There are many resources to help teachers to use the Socratic Method. There are even some books that teach entire subjects using this, and not just philosophy! (My favorite is a computer science book called The Little Lisper, which teaches LISP to a child using this method.)
So could discovery learners and instructionalists agree on the value of using the Socratic Method for math and science teaching? If this were the discovery learning method being employed, what would be the objection? And to constructivists, if we granted you that we approved of the Socratic Method for discovery learning, would that be good enough? or not?
What do the teachers think? Anyone using this method to teach math or science? Anyone doing it with their whiteboarding? Just how difficult is it to use the Socratic Method in a classroom?