Socratic Method

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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From time to time, some authoritative people claim that there is no such thing as accelerated learning, that the remarkable results reported for it are untested and unproven.

No teaching or learning method on Earth has had more testing and validation, formal and informal, than has Socratic Method. Even the older forms of the method, over a span of 2300 years, have proven to be as powerful as most other methods cited as “Accelerated Learning.” Moreover, where many other forms of Accelerated Learning mainly improve memorization and retention, Socratic Method directly generates understanding.

As we’ve come to know more about the human brain and mind, and about the science of human behavior, we now understand what made even traditional forms of Socratic Method so very effective. This has enabled us to develop modern and even more powerful, and more generally useful, forms of the method—forms which also are infinitely easier to use than was the original.

We will describe for you much of this here. And we invite you to use to your own advantage what is not only one of the most powerful learning methods ever known, but a powerful way to solve problems, to make discoveries, including scientific discoveries, to improve business, to improve your life, and to improve your relationships. Socratic and otherwise, two-thirds of our Project Renaissance methods, despite their wild variety, boil down simply to these three steps—

  1. Set your focus — by question, by problem statement, by topic-to-figure-out statement, by discovery focus, and/or by intention.
  2. Describe in detail what you find in that focus.
  3. As you detail, you discover more and more within that focus.

For you, we’ve packed as much of the actual “how-to” as we can into these few pages. This is now yours to use. We have included some overview, some explanation, and several example forms of the method in which you are guided step by specific, easy-to-follow step into creating the experiences and beneficial effects of modern Socratic Method.

Something to consider:  How would your life now be better, in so many ways, if years ago in your own schooling, everyone in that school had been trained and supported to draw you out in depth and in detail, at length, on your deepest and subtlest awarenesses, in topic after topic in your courses of study and on life itself?

The key here is “at length.” The main shortcoming of the original Socratic Method was that while you were using it with one or two students, the other forty-seven would grow restless. Please read Dynamic Format to begin to see how everyone can literally become a Socrates to everyone else, and how, even in the largest-sized classes, everyone can experience the effects and benefits of Socratic Method at length, and what some of the effects of doing so are upon the immune system, the body, brain and mind.

Something else to consider:  What if the decision-makers in your enterprise regularly met for 2-3 hours every, say, Thursday afternoon, to draw each other out at length, in depth, in detail, on your respective deepest and subtlest awarenesses regarding the performance and situation of that enterprise? Your performance would shoot through the roof!!!

We’ve brought you as much as possible of this information, in forms which we hope will be useful and helpful to you. There is still more information, including elsewhere on this website. A recommended reading list appears at the end.

Those now reading this document but who happen to be from an overseas culture:  We’d very much like to find translators to get some of this, and this present document, also into your language. We also seek translators — and publishers — for some of our other English-language books and titles. We believe that this can help achieve some very broad benefits.

Here, then, is information we hope you will find useful, on one of the most powerful and beneficial methods to be found on the planet. Enjoy.

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Socratic Method at a Glance

Origins:   Greek Stoics, 2nd and 3rd Centuries B.C., the Athenian Socrates.

Effects:   Such “miracle leaps” of understanding, learning, and personal growth occurred that its practitioners became convinced “all knowledge and understanding are (somehow) already within each learner and need merely be ‘drawn forth.’” (We don’t have to assume it all is, to recognize that much more is from a variety of sources than gets used under conventional circumstances.) These “miracle effects” were reliable enough and consistent enough for the entire “education” profession to be named after the concept of “drawing-forth” (educare).

History:   First round of use, in late classical Greece, a population base of a few tens of thousands of people on whom it was used produced a greater number of world-class geniuses than Earth’s entire six billion people today are producing with didactic schooling, even with today’s advantages of technology and the Information Age. The second round of use, in Renaissance Europe, saw a population base of a few hundred thousand people on whom it was used produce a greater number of world-class geniuses than today’s six billion people.

Explanation of Effects:   The method induced one to relate directly to his or her own first-hand awarenesses, examining these to answer questions or challenges and seeking to respond directly from those first-hand awarenesses. This engages the most fundamental natural law of behavior, the Law of Effect (“you get more of what you reinforce”), to reinforce —

  • the particular awarenesses thus examined and responded to;
  • the behavior or trait of being aware; and
  • further regions of the brain more and more onto line with everyday, focused, word-based consciousness.

The various forms of Socratic Method also force us to dig past our usual short-cuts in thought and perception, past all the trite stock responses we’ve accumulated around almost every event or situation, and probe deeply into our own richer and subtler awarenesses, which is where the meaningful is to be found in every one of us. Every one of us very much needs to be drawn out at length, in depth, on matter after matter after matter.

Evolution of Method:   the original forms of Socratic Method, direct one-on-one dialog, question and challenge, could only be used on 1-2 learners at a time. In larger classes, the other 49 students would get restless, a main reason why American “education” changed from Socratic to Prussian.

The world-wide creativity movement, beginning in the 1950s, without knowing it revived Socratic Method and did so in a broad range of variants, because it sought out the most effective techniques for the purpose, and these happened to be essentially Socratic (see “Explanation of Effects” above). The last few years have seen Project Renaissance deriving from creativity method, and from modern understandings of behavior, learning, the mind and brain, many various modern forms of Socratic Method which are even more powerful, easier to use, and useful with many learners at one time.

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What can the Socratic Effect do for your enterprise?

A Quick Overview

If you want more than the routine and unthinking from your employees and colleagues, then you want the same positive forces unleashed in your organization which produced world-class geniuses in classical Greece and in Renaissance Europe. — From tiny population bases, when Socratic Method was used it produced world-class geniuses at a rate some ten million times higher per capita than do the present schooling methods. What can the heightened and more ingenious performance induced by use of modern Socratic Method accomplish for your organization?

People forgot what the Socratic Method was and what it did. In every state, we mandated by law that the public be educated. But we made a mistake. We entrusted education to our schools and school teachers, who settled instead for merely teaching. But if we look at what Socratic Method truly is and does, we can begin to see what the Socratic Effect can accomplish within your organization, and for you, in whatever practical context, and not just in the limited context of schooling.

Three Keys:

  1. The principal natural law of behavior, referred to by psychologists as the Law of Effect, is this:  “You get more of what you reinforce.” What does get reinforced in your laboratory or office, and what does not? If you want just the results you’ve been getting, continue doing what you’ve been doing. If you want better results, do something better, beginning with looking at what’s been reinforced day-to-day and what’s not been.
  2. Socratic Method causes one to search his or her own perceptions and awarenesses, and to seek to respond from there to questions or challenges #151; thus reinforcing not only the particular perception sought after, but the trait, the behavior of being more perceptive and aware! Small wonder the method produced such genius! “Socratic Miracles” — such wonderful results came from its use that its practitioners were convinced that all knowledge and understanding are somehow already within each person, needing merely to be “drawn out,” i.e., “educated” — which is very different from “being taught”!
  3. What’s critical, then, is the type of challenge or question asked. To respond, does your employee or student dig into his or her actual perceptions and subtler awarenesses, or do they get to settle for short-term memory and conventional knowledge instead, and settle for that in what they reinforce? Or to just go along with the expected?

Examine the following Winsights articles below to see some of the ways in which the Socratic Effect is applied in modern context. (Great many other, highly diverse, ground-breaking Winsights articles are also posted on this website. See the Winsights index.) Then, see if you can answer for yourself what the Socratic Effect can do for your situation, and do for you, and do for your organization!

How best can you get your employees, your colleagues, drawing each other out and drawing you out on the finer and better points of what’s needed there in your work and enterprise? How best can you draw yourself out and tap into your own richer resources?

Further Reading

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Comparing Classical and Modern Forms of Socratic Method

  • Induce one to dig into and search one’s own first-hand awareness, seeking to make one’s response from what one discovers there. This reinforces the particular awareness, the behavior of being aware and, depending upon the subtleties of the matter being pursued relative to the learner, one’s capacities for handling subtler issues. This is “the active ingredient” in Socratic Method, both forms, and why it is associated with genius and with high-level intellectual performance.
  • Can involve and be directed mainly by the Socratee, by the Socrateur, or even by oneself. (See The Socratic Continuum.)
  • In either case, classical or modern, both sides of a Socratic interview are led to pay attention to their own first-hand perceptions and to make specific responses to what they discover there. The Socratee — the person being drawn out — is being reinforced in his or her perceptions concerning the topic; the Socrateur is being reinforced somewhat on that but also and especially on his or her perceptions of the person being interviewed, in order that the questions, challenges, or other interview actions and interventions be on the mark. Thus both Socratee and Socrateur get the benefit of “the active ingredient” in the practice of Socratic Method, whether in the classical form or in modern.
  • In either case, classical or modern, connections are built between conscious and interior resources to such extent that, historically, practicing Socratics were nearly all convinced that somehow all knowledge and understanding is within every learner and needs merely to be “drawn forth.” This experience was widespread enough that an entire profession — education, after educare, to draw forth — was named after it, even though that education profession no longer does educating and settles for merely teaching.
  • In any case, what is important is not what is taught but what is learned.
Classical Forms of Socratic Method
  • Use specific leading questions to get one toward a specific desired “right answer.”
  • As with various religious orders several centuries ago, use of such leading questions can lead to abuses turning normal congregation members step by step into dangerous fanatics. Lawyers in court use this tactic to badger witnesses into awkward positions.
  • As in schooling generally, going for one right answer (a problematic goal here in a universe of multiplex relationships and possibilities) can stifle creativity and often leads to dogmatism.
  • The classical form requires not only careful attention to the perceptions of the Socratee by the Socrateur, but for the Socrateur to be extremely well versed in the topic or subject he or she is Socratizing on. (That is one of the reasons schools generally gave up on Socratic Method in the 1870s and went over to the Prussian model, based on didactic instructional methods.)
Modern Forms of Socratic Method
  • Are open-ended explorations first, less immediately concerned with forcing one’s way to one preferred “right answer.” As a result, practice of the method leads more toward creative command of much or all of the topic in question, and a broader, in-depth understanding of the topic than with the classical method.
  • Readily lead to a continuous stream of rapid flow with feedback in which one —
    • Describes his own ongoing perceptions, or perception of awareness;
    • Gets into a state of flow at his own optimal levels;
    • Hears his own ongoing descriptions in the context of his listener
    • Anything that you describe aloud in detail while examining in your perceptions, to a respected listener, you discover more and more about.
    • Educators Maria Montessori and John Dewey: learning proceeds best as feedback upon the learner’s own actions. Echoed by sociologist Omar K. Moore.
    • Father of neuroanatomy Santiago Ramon y Cajal in the 1920s and ‘‘30s, and the leading neurophysiologist in our time Marion Diamond: not only learning, but actual physical brain growth and development, proceed mainly as feedback upon the organism’s own activities.
    • Are so easy for the Socrateur to conduct that he can be fully effective even when he knows nothing about the topic. His power is in how well he listens, questions and encourages.
Suggested Ideal State

The ideal state is where one is meaningfully heard, at length, in detail, on issues of felt significance. Classical Socratic Method could effectively provide this condition for only one or several students at a time so that, in larger classes, the other forty-seven students would get restless.

Modern method can create a total, sustained Socratic and mutually Socratic state for any number of participants, even where you have classroom sections numbering in the hundreds of students. Find a clear example of this with the system of Dynamic Format. Thus, literally just about everyone can enjoy and thrive in the kind of sustained growth-provoking experience hitherto reserved for only the most fortunate few.

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Why You “Obey” the Law of Effect

Informal definition of the Law of Effect:
“You get more of what you reinforce.”

It is the business of life to find what works. In nearly every aspect, every detail, life discovers — and occupies — what works, and is shaped thereby.

Whatever your situation — what is the effect of your being there? What effects are you getting from (and as feedback from) your actions? Immediate, short-term, long-term, large and small? What works; what has worked; what has worked occasionally so that maybe you keep trying? What once worked that no longer does, but you keep doing and hoping?

From flagpole-sitting to squally brats, to the delights of reading, to the arts of love, to the making of wills or the satisfaction of giving, to racing, to rap, to crime, to prayer, to that morning cup of coffee, to suing McDonald’s for that so-hot cup of coffee spilled on a lap — we are all seeking out and moving toward what we find working, and to what we found working before.

Some of the better psychologists do understand that we repeat a certain behavior because in some way something from the effects of that behavior is or was working for us. That simplifies things, in the sense that if it’s a behavior that needs changing, find what it is that’s working or that once worked in response to that behavior, and change that.

The Law of Effect is as universal as any Law of Physics

This is universal, not just a law of animal behavior. To survive for long in a changing world, every very complex system has to sense how its surroundings are responding to its presence and to what it’s doing, and adapt its own behavior accordingly. This is true not just of humans and animals — it applies to plants, microbes, even one-celled organisms; viruses, collectively and individually; prions. Any such very complex system which did not do these things, which was not susceptible to what its feedbacks were telling it and which did not adapt its behaviors accordingly, very soon perished. All that remains — ourselves, all that is within us, all that is around us — are systems which do “obey” the Law of Effect.

The same will be true for life of whatever nature wherever it occurs in the universe. The details may be different as to what life finds working on some other world, in a nebula somewhere or even in the core of a star — but it will have, in common with us, susceptibility to the Law of Effect. It will be drawn in the direction of whatever works. It will seek experience, reward, positive reinforcement.

Adaptation and Learning

Living systems — every one of these “obeys” the Law of Effect or very soon perishes. The growing-up of an infant is a matter of his or her discovering — in a million and one ways — and moving into a succession of those behaviors — internal and external — which work. The whole array of life in all its innumerable forms, even extremophiles (and, to the occupants of the original conditions on Earth we are the “extremophiles”!), consists of its past and present of finding what works and moving into what works.

“Function determines structure.”

This is a medical and biological truism. Our brains and how well they work are determined by the feedback, past and present, that they get on our actions. Our very hip joints are literally carved out into place by the physical activities of infancy, which is why there is such a high incidence of physical, structural hip problems in adults whose physical activities in infancy were for some reason greatly curtailed.

This is why the natural rate of learning in infants is thousands of times greater (for real!) than it is in us soon after we’ve been to school for a year or so. For the infants the learning is a natural feedback, a reinforcement on their own natural activities, and not an alien imposed structure precluding most of one’s growth and learning activity. This is why both John Dewey and Maria Montessori emphasized “learning by doing.” Function determines structure. “Use it or lose it.” Our very physical structure — in us and in all life — even within our own individual lives, reflects the history of what we found working for us and how we responded to what we found working.

And, of course, amoebas and animals and aardvarks and ourselves as humans, how we even got here, how we are shaped, our evolutionary biology, in every detail reflects the history of what life found working and then occupied.

Long- and Short-Term, Greater and Lesser

Some of the “niches” thus found and occupied — biological niches in our individual lives, economic niches, social niches, as well as general ecological and bio-evolutionary niches — are more advantageous than others. In a changing world, always some niches are opening and others closing (and not at a tidily sedate, orderly pace, but in cascades and surges). We humans evolved intelligence so we could go after the more advantageous, greater and long-term niches. With intelligence and wisdom we could take conscious self-direction in our lives and not have to pay the 99% extinction price which plodding lifekind has all along had to pay for stumbling into the smaller and shorter-term immediate niches which later proved a fatal trap when life forms couldn’t work their way beyond those cul de sacs.

We humans are, of course, above that.

  • We all — don’t smoke.
  • We all — don’t wreck the environment.
  • We all — don’t overeat.
  • We all — don’t abuse substances.
  • We all — don’t commit crime and punishment.
  • We all, because of our vaunted human intelligence, find our way into the greater things which work for the long haul, and don’t fall into any of the deadly niche-traps where we “sell our heritage for a bowl of porridge.”

Just look around our lives, just look around us in the world, to see how well we are finding our ways past the traps to those things which work greater and for the long haul.

How do we get from here to there and avoid that 99% failure rate? Find what will reinforce you in (and into) the greater, longer-term contexts. As most smokers have found, willpower alone is problematic — “nature abhors a vacuum.”

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The Core Readings on Socratic Method 

These articles and chapters are all found in the Project Renaissance website and constitute essential substance toward Win Wenger’s new book in preparation on the comprehensive history and application of Socratic Method. After 2300 years of intermittent use and neglect, Socratic Method is, at last, one of the great ideas for the 21st Century. As further sections of the book develop, we will include them here.

Further Reading

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Dynamic Format has just shown you how to make the full benefits of Socratic Method felt, not to just one or two students at a time but to any number or even hundreds at a time. Let’s go one step further than that:

For a school, or for an enrichment educational program, or even for an easy Socratic tutorial program (so easy the tutor doesn’t even really have to know the subject that he or she is tutoring in, if he or she has become a good-enough listener!!!) —

  • Imagine, from Day One, that every teacher there, every volunteer there, every staff member, and most or all of the parents were trained and supported to draw out each student in depth, in detail, and at length, on their increasingly thoughtful, deepest and subtlest awarenesses, in topic after topic of their courses of study. And
  • Imagine, from Day One, that all students there were trained and supported to draw one another out — and themselves out — in depth, in detail, and at length, on their increasingly thoughtful, deepest and subtlest awarenesses, in topic after topic of their courses of study!
  • And imagine all the other benefits and uses of modern Socratic Method in your own enterprise, as your decision-makers there meet regularly several hours per week to draw each other out and draw themselves out in depth, at length and in detail, on their respective thoughtful, deepest and subtlest awarenesses on the situation and operations of your enterprise…..

The more people in your language and culture and country can access the information so freely given you here, the sooner and more likely that such wonderful developments will in fact take root there and begin bringing welcome benefits.

We invite translators and publishers to take some of the additional English-language materials in this website and make that information useful to the people of your country in their own language.

Key References:   Dynamic Format | Mutual Listening

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