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Want your student to be a better writer? Use the Socratic method!

During my time as an undergraduate student, I had the pleasure of working at my university’s writing center. My main responsibility was to coach students who needed help on their papers. Most of them were wonderful to work with and it was a great job. However, one day I had a student come in because her English 101 teacher required students to take their papers to the Writing Center. She threw her paper down on the table, put her head on the table (not in desperation but entitlement) and said, “Fix this.”

Students are not generally so dramatic, but this encounter crystalized for me how mistaken many students are about writing instruction. They expect the editor to just fix all the mistakes. I even worked with a PhD student once who insisted I make changes on her dissertation myself instead of providing her feedback or suggestions! In some writing scenarios, editors do take on this role more, but in the context of education, it misses the point. So how do we fix this mentality?

The answer is through the Socratic method. For those who may be unfamiliar with it, the Socratic method is a dialectic technique frequently used in the context of debates. It is also an effective pedagogical technique. It involves asking one’s conversational partner thoughtful questions which cause him or her to see something from a different perspective. The advantage to this instructive approach is its ability to foster introspection on the part of the student.

It is important to keep in mind the goal of classical education juxtaposed against modern education. To contemporary educators, the goal is to fill a student with enough knowledge to pass them on to the next grade. Its essence is teaching for the test. Classical educators understand students cannot be successful unless they are taught how to learn. This is not to say students brought up in modern education are incapable of learning, but rather that it is healthier for the student to be intentionally guided through the natural arts of learning (what we call the trivium).

Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Perhaps we can adjust this for our purposes and say, “The unexamined paper is not worth turning in to the teacher.” In order to lead students into looking closer at their work, it is imperative that editors—whether parents, peers, or teachers—stop marking the page with the pen. While convenient, it causes students to rely on someone else. Instead, student writers need to be asked about their paper. “What sounds wrong about this sentence?” “Could you think of a stronger word to use instead of ____?” “What unnecessary words can be eliminated from this sentence?” etc.

Students may dislike this approach initially. Not only is it not as convenient, it requires them to be heavily critical of their work. French novelist Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) once accurately observed, “Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” Robust writing requires students to be their staunchest critics. It requires many re-writes and much nitpicking over individual sentences. It can feel tedious, especially while students are learning how to write, but it is especially vital when they reach college where it is up to them to wholly own their education.

More so than ever before, members of the younger generation are taught that they may speak and write without thinking. With the rise of social media, self-expression has lost most of its reflexivity, becoming instead merely reflexive. People are encouraged to reduce complex thoughts and ideas to 140 characters or less without regard for content or form. As these students go on to universities, they lack the valuable ability to write coherently and effectively.

A pedagogical method which utilizes the wisdom of Socrates can help rectify this problem. There are many other practices which should be adopted in correlation with this (copying passages, by hand, from the Bible and other great books is a personal favorite) but the Socratic method is the starting point for creating successful writers. Writing is not a subject in a vacuum. It requires an understanding of grammar and syntax, the ability to logically organize ideas, creativity (even in non-fiction writing), and persuasiveness. The Socratic method is adept at addressing each of these components.

So, do your students a favor. Try implementing the Socratic method when you work with them at writing. You will see them develop into competent writers who can craft excellent papers with minimal outside help.


CATEGORIES: Articles, Classical Christian Education, College and Post Graduation, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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