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South African Education
A Partial Solution to Part of Its Greatest Problem

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.


Kids photo by Elan Sun Star
Photography by Elan Sun Star

The following article was written in and for South Africa, but much of it also applies to schools in other developing regions of the world.

The greatest problem of South African schools and classrooms, most levels and places, is the great variety among their students. There is tremendous commitment to bring all the benefits of education to the greatest number and variety of people, but it has proven difficult to do so and simultaneously to sustain the highest academic standards.

The problem seems parallel to one this writer has observed in the United States. In American education there has been some effort made to respond to the recognition of variety in its students, involving multiple intelligences (per Howard Gardner) and various preferred learning styles.

Teachers are now urged to teach the same lesson, point by point, to each of the main preferred learning styles and to each of the main multiple intelligences. So far, this task has proven to be beyond the ability or disposition of American teachers to perform.

Despite considerable bodies of well-accepted and authoritative evidence concerning such variations among students, the actual practice has spread very little and seems unlikely even to remain where it is now in use.

Thus, standard classroom teaching, both in the States and elsewhere, aims at only a narrow window of convenient, accepted abilities and behaviors. Students outside that window, no matter how many there may be, are deprived of the opportunity to develop their potentials or to gain a meaningful education.


Pointing toward part of a solution

Socratic Method draws directly forth from each student. Moreover, each student tends to come from his or her own strengths, preferred cognitive and learning style, and best intelligence, and thence to build effectively around these.

With modern forms of Socratic Method, which can be used with even large numbers of students at a time, all or nearly all students can develop instead of only those who are within focus of the standard teaching window.

Thus we see use of (modern forms of) Socratic Method as a basis toward solving the difficulty posed by the great variety among students, cited widely as the greatest problem of South African schools and classrooms, most levels and places.


Relevant aspects of Socratic Method

For thirty-some years, Project Renaissance has been researching Socratic Method, analyzing its dynamics, determining the main reason why its use so consistently has resulted in genius-level intellectual performance through 2400 years of history, and devising modern forms of the Method which have all of its strengths and few or none of its weaknesses.

Project Renaissance, also involved in researching methods of creativity and of creative problem-solving, has found that every form of creativity technique, except for the "incubation" process, is at least mildly Socratic. This is because "the active ingredient" in Socratic Method is that persons being "educated" or drawn out have to examine their own first-hand awarenesses and to struggle to make responses based upon what they discover there. Persons doing brainstorming, Osborn-Parnes sequences, or other procedures based upon programs current in professional creativity practice, also examine their first-hand awarenesses, searching for better and further responses to the situation laid before them.

Responding in some specific or concrete way to one's own first-hand awareness reinforces not only that particular awareness but the behavior, the trait, of being aware. Reinforcement powerfully shapes future behavior. This main law of Psychology, after nearly two centuries of sustained scientific study and research, is the Law of Effect. No organism, now or at any time in history or prehistory, survives except by discovering what works and adapting accordingly. Not only every human being, but every living thing, "obeys" that natural law, much of which can be summed up in the statement that "you get more of what you reinforce."


Socratic Method as part of the proposed solution

It is only in didactic teaching that one really needs to meet the variety of needs in the classroom by teaching to visual intelligence, auditory intelligence, emotional intelligence, motor intelligence, social intelligence, and various of the other types, cognitive styles and sensory modalities.

If one teaches Socratically, the students perforce make response naturally from their own strengths (reinforcing thereby those strengths), and build upon them. The organic nature of their growth indicates that if Socratic practice is sustained, eventually the students also associate and bring into use those areas in which they had been weak, strengthening those as well, though cultural expectations often interfere with that stage of development.

This writer now believes that a similar solution may apply to the problem of variety among students in the classroom and in the educational system. The problem:   Even highly gifted teachers have great difficulty teaching directly to all the different students, types of students, levels of education, levels of commitment, and levels of cooperative behavior now represented in many classrooms.

Some students are not reached; the effort to reach more too often means that the main track of education suffers and the highest standards of outcome are not met. The great commitment South Africa has made to full educational opportunity for all is badly compromised when passing tenth grade or getting a given college degree no longer means quite what had once been promised for and associated with that level of proficiency.


Application of Socratic Method

Teachers and schools and school systems do not have to plunge entirely into a formal different system of methods, nor to do so overnight. The Method can be tried on piecemeal. As teachers find their results improving and their work and efforts finding much easier going, they can try on additional bits.

As their comfort levels and confidence rise, they can readily become full masters of Socratic practice. For some gentle examples of this aspect, please examine the article on Dynamic Format. This article also answers the next major question:

How can one effectively use Socratic Method not with one student at a time but with dozens or even hundreds at one time?

Traditional versions of Socratic Method could be used effectively with only 1 or 2 students at a time. In larger classrooms, while the teacher was drawing out one or two students, the other fifty-eight would get restless. So how can one possibly use Socratic Method in modern situations?

Dynamic Format shows how one can not only use the method to provide a fully Socratic and intense learning experience for any number of students at a time up into the hundreds, but to establish and maintain groundrules which have everyone in that classroom fully engaged with the subject being taught, fully and continuously on task until the given task is accomplished.

Morale rises as students discover that they are actually accomplishing and assimilating high success levels of intellectual, artistic and/or social content.

Also on this website is a monthly Winsights column of articles, some of which incorporate elements of modern Socratic Method. Please examine articles Nos. 33, 55, 72, and 52 to discover a few of the many applications.

There are also hundreds of creativity methods in professional use around the world today, some of which work extraordinarily well. Each of these can be turned into another specific, Socratic-like technique for improving the teaching and learning of curriculum content.

What if, from as early in the school program as possible, teachers, parents and volunteers were trained and supported in Socratically drawing out every student in depth, at length, in detail, on their subtlest and deepest awarenesses in context of each topic of study?

What if, from as early in the school program as possible, all students were trained and supported in Socratically drawing out their fellows — and themselves — in depth, in detail, at length on their subtlest and deepest awarenesses in context of each topic of study?


Characteristic gains

Throughout history, use of even the older forms of Socratic Method consistently yielded such seemingly miraculous gains that practitioners became convinced of the idea that all information and understanding are somehow already inside each student, needing only to be "drawn out." So consistent were these high results that "education" itself was named after the concept.

We, ourselves, do not have to believe that all information and understanding are already within each student. Psychology has demonstrated, however, that a great amount of such actually is within each of us, far more than is ever conventionally at our conscious disposal — including the contents of all those lessons which appeared to be falling on deaf ears!

Shift the focus, from stuffing information didactically into students, to drawing it up from within them. The dynamic then changes most remarkably, and far more of this once "lost" information becomes available and engaged.

Aside from the formal academic gains to be made in understanding and in intellectual mastery of each subject taught via this method, student language skills and even reading comprehension skills also and rapidly become surprisingly proficient. Instead of passivity, students gain immense active experience in thoughtful, perceptive, deliberative use of language.

This gain, in turn, can feed into further gains in other subjects, including even those not being Socratically taught. This gain can be perhaps best understood in terms of the findings by noted researchers that learning and growth result mainly, not from stimulus, not from genes, not even from nutrition, though those things all help, but from feedback on one's own activities.


Support for the thesis that learning and growth are mainly
via feedback upon one's own activities

  • 1890 — John Dewey, one of many educators and philosophers who advanced the theory that one should "learn by doing."

  • 1900 — Maria Montessori, Spontaneous Activity in Education, as applied to learning basic skills from math via Cuisinaire Rods to such basics as shining shoes without messing.

  • 1919 — Santiago Ramon y Cajal, father of neurology, publisher and main author of Histologie of the Brain, showed that individual brain cells, brain circuits, and the overall brain itself physically grow and develop mainly from sensory feedback derived from one's own activities.

  • 1960 — Omar Khayyam Moore, sociologist at University of Pittsburgh and inventor of the Edison "Talking Typewriter" for teaching two-year-olds to read, write and type, used Montessori's principles of letting the environment do the teaching.

  • 1990+ — current leading neurologist, Marion Diamond, in her lab studies re-demonstrated Cajal's key principle above. Rats maintained in a stimulating environment but not part of it, having to look over the shoulders of the other rats, so to speak, had brains and behaviors fully as shriveled as those of the rats raised in deprived environments.
    • Finding:  One has to play directly with the toys, oneself, for one's brain and behavior to gain their benefits.
    • More general finding:  Not only learning but raw sheer physical brain growth and development proceed best as feedback upon one's own activities — a corollary of the Law of Effect.

By extension, students digging in their own first-hand awareness and expressing what they discover there, thereby reinforce not only that particular awareness but their awareness generally.

They also improve their ability to function — even their physical brain grows and develops in response to their externalizing their awarenesses, especially their deeper and subtler awarenesses which seldom make it to consciousness in conventional situations.

Bottom line is that standards of academic achievement can fully rebound and climb much higher than ever before, while educational opportunity is fully extended to everyone.


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