The Bulletin

Waldorf Education and the Socratic Method

Wednesday, May 2012

The Socratic Method, in teaching, aims to increase understanding and critical thinking skills through inquiry. Memorized facts are soon forgotten. Children learn best by asking questions spawned from genuine interest. This goes against an assumption some have about the purpose of schooling. Waldorf educators believe that the purpose of education is NOT to instruct students.

Surprised? Consider this except from the whitepaper: Assessment Without High-Stakes Testing: Protecting Childhood and the Purpose of School: “The teachers’ task is not to convey what they know to their unknowing students, then confirm the efficacy of this transaction by testing the students’ ability to remember––or at least recognize–– what they have received.…A teacher’s task is… to draw out students’ nascent capacities. Herein lies the fundamental difference between in-struction, which in its etymological origins means to pour stones (Latin structus) into an empty vessel, and e-ducation, which in its origins means to lead or draw (Latin ducere) forth or out (Latin e-). When they instruct, teachers insert what they know into the empty vessel of the student who knows not. By contrast, when they educate, teachers draw forth from a student what he or she in some sense already knows, whether implicitly or explicitly. Like Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Meno, the teacher coaxes from the students––with the help of skillful leading questions–– responses that help them figure out the lesson for themselves, instead of waiting for the teacher to supply it.”

What would using the Socratic method look like in the classroom? Here’s one example. During a science lesson, the teacher blows up a balloon by combining baking soda and vinegar. Instead of telling the class that an endothermic reaction produced CO2, the teacher asks them: What happened here? Who has an idea? The teacher can then lead the inquires and debates between students. Then the teacher might have a few students hold the balloon and ask: What do you notice about it? Then the teacher can guide students inquiries about the implications of its temperature and weight. In this way, together as a class, they take the time to truly learn the why and how of this experiential science.

This article was originally posted to the blogsite for the Spring Garden Waldorf School (of Northeast Ohio) by Rocky Lewis on April 19, 2012 The referenced white paper by David Mitchell, Douglas Gerwin, Ernst Schuberth, Michael Mancini, & Hansjörg Hofrichter is available in the archives of the National Association of Independent Schools.