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Socrates in the Classroom: Helping Students to Discover What’s Already There

18 Mar 2014 10:55 AM | Anonymous

By Jeff Kukucka

“… searching and learning are, as a whole, recollection” – Socrates, Meno

The Platonic theory of anamnesis posits that the process of learning involves discovering knowledge that is present within us, but lies dormant until we go looking for it. The goal of teaching, then, is not to fill students’ heads with information, but rather to help them uncover, understand, and apply the knowledge that is already there. 

Consistent with Plato’s epistemology, I find that students often know more than we give them credit for. Indeed, they often know more than they themselves realize. They do not enter our classrooms as blank slates, but with a wealth of prior knowledge, beliefs, and experiences that can (and should) be harnessed to our mutual advantage. 

To illustrate, take the following in-class “experiment” (adapted from a similar exercise by Gary Lewandowski, Monmouth University), which tests the hypothesis that eating certain types of candy affects intelligence. First, students complete and self-score an “intelligence” test comprised of ten trick questions (e.g., “How many months have 28 days?” The answer: All of them.). Then, I pass around a bowl of candy, filled with just enough Smarties and Dum Dums for each student to eat one. Finally, they take a second “intelligence” test in which they study photos of many objects and then recall as many as they can. (See here for materials.)

Students can tell that this “experiment” is patently absurd, and they vociferously object to their inevitably low “intelligence” scores. The key is to use Socratic questioning to help them realize and articulate why they so reflexively object to it. For example, I ask them questions such as, “Do you think that eating the candy made you smarter?” (internal validity), “Do you think that the test really measured your intelligence?” (construct validity), and “Do you think that it adequately measured your intelligence?” (content validity). 

Though students had likely never heard these parenthetical terms, within minutes they are offering sophisticated critiques of our “experiment” and suggestions on how to improve it. From here, these novel ideas do not seem as foreign to students. I have merely given them a new lexicon and framework for concepts that, on some level, they already “knew.”

I use a similar exercise in my statistics course. I have students imagine that they are given a “magic” coin that is allegedly weighted to yield more heads than tails when flipped. I then ask: If you were to flip the coin 100 times, how many heads would it take to convince you that this really is a “magic” coin? They can agree that a normal coin may yield 55, 60, maybe even 65 heads just by chance, but it would be very suspicious if the coin produced, say, 80 heads.

At some point, they must decide when the “data” is compelling enough to reject our “null hypothesis” that this is a boring, non-magic coin. (Some students, apparently fearful of a Type I error, even demand that the coin produce 100 heads!) The logic of null hypothesis testing is an especially obtuse and alienating topic; by showing students that they already understand how it works, it no longer seems so daunting. We then build on this analogy to make other concepts (e.g., alpha levels, effect size, power analysis, etc.) more accessible as well.

In the words of Jerome Bruner (1961), learning is not a search for “islands of truth in an uncharted sea of ignorance.” Rather, it is a process of discovery in which we manipulate our existing knowledge in ways that allow us to go beyond what we already know. The implication is that we should not treat students as empty and passive receptacles for information. Students flourish when they are active and autonomous participants in their own learning (which Bruner called the hypothetical mode). As instructors, we can facilitate this process by helping them unearth their existing knowledge and see its relevance to unfamiliar course material.


Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.

Plato. (1976). Meno. (G. M. A. Grube, Trans.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. 

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