Ancient Thinking and Modern Challenges: Socratic Education in the 21st Century

Ancient Thinking and Modern Challenges: Socratic Education in the 21st Century

Frank G. Giuseffi (Missouri Military Academy, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8411-9.ch001
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The purpose of this chapter was fourfold: 1) to offer an overview of current thinking on the 21st Century skills educational agenda - its intentions and goals for the future, along with the eventual teaching and learning challenges; 2) to present an historical analysis and several working definitions of critical thinking – an educational objective within the 21st Century skills movement; 3) a brief, yet important description of the life of Socrates as a person and as a teacher- with specific emphasis on the use of his method, and 4) the history and influence the Socratic method has had on critical thinking and its hopeful entry into mainstream 21st Century educational discussion.
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The educational landscape at the secondary school level reflects a growing concern for today’s youth to be reflective, critical thinkers. The 21st century student, according to Hoffman (2004), must be able to creatively solve problems, assimilate knowledge and synthesize information. Schoberl (2004) pointed out that research in learning theory identified a growing need for teaching pedagogies that emphasized deep understanding, intellectual exploration, and the application of knowledge and discovery.

Cookson (2009) wrote that there should be the marrying of the western intellectual tradition, namely the Socratic influence, with the present intellectual demands of the 21st century. Larson (2004) remarked that instructors should employ the Socratic Method in the hope of better understanding the way students today acquire knowledge. This chapter per the author wishes to advance the position that an ancient technique known to us as the Socratic Method, can be an instructional tool that offers assistance in the development of critical thinking skills for students and, consequently hold a rightful place in 21st century pedagogy and education.

This chapter will first offer an intellectual overview of the movement toward 21st century skills education. It then offers an historical look at the development of critical thinking, highlighting major thinkers’ ideas on the topic. The chapter will then present a detailed description of the person, Socrates. After a brief biographical introduction of the philosopher, the chapter uncovers the historical development of the Socratic Method, tracing its origins in the classical world and ultimately to the educational experiences in the United States. There is then a discussion on a distinctive practice within the Socratic Method known as the elenchus. In clearly explicating the Socratic Method, this chapter per the author argues that if educators fully understand the classic sense of this method, along with the nature and role of the elenchus, there can be a more enriching use of the Socratic Method in today’s classrooms and an appreciation for the role the ancient world has on today’s educational initiatives.



Daniel Bell’s assessment in the 1970’s of a post-industrial environment that would require a knowledge society and Peter Drucker’s assertion that a post-capitalist world would need to produce knowledge workers, ushered in the 21st Century Skills movement (Hargreaves, 2010). Dede (2010) argued that the 20th century is different from the 21st century in relation to “skills people now need for work, citizenship, and self-actualization” (p. 51). Zao (2009) wrote that based on the revolution that is currently occurring globally and digitally, it is vital that schools re-assess what should be taught. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the content that should be taught not only consists of the core subjects, but also 21st century themes such as global mindfulness, problem-solving, communication and critical thinking (Zao, 2009).

Basset (2004) posited that schools of the 21st century should focus on four pillars of content: proficiency, fluency, multicultural literacy and performance. Students should be proficient in reading and writing, mathematics, the empirical method of attaining knowledge and the uses of technology (Basset, 2004). Second, students would be fluent in various communications, able to lead in teams, and be able to make ethical decisions (Basset, 2004). Third, students must be able to converse well in their native language and have knowledge of its history, culture and geography (Basset, 2004). They must also meet the same standards of at least one other place or culture. Lastly, students must be able to perform in the fine arts, practical arts and athletics (Basset, 2004).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Platonic Dialogues: Famous ancient dialogues about first principles between Socrates and his interlocutors.

Critical Thinking: The ability to acquire knowledge or understanding through a self-reflective process of thinking.

Action Research: A type of research, often done by educators, that seeks to solve problems through observing and collecting data on environments, programs, or human interaction for the purpose of addressing an issue.

21st Century Pedagogy: Teaching methodologies that are learner centered. These pedagogical practices emphasize collaboration, dialogue, problem-solving, creativity and synthesizing information.

21st Century Skills: A set of skills (critical thinking, global competence, imagination, communication, collaboration and ethical decision making) that are necessary for the global challenges of this century.

Elenchus: A dialectical activity in the Platonic dialogues where an initial argument held by the interlocutor is refuted through a dialectical exchange with Socrates; the following positions held by the interlocutor cannot then logically follow from the original argument.

Socratic Method: A teaching methodology that emphasizes dialectical exchange among students. The method uses probing questions to guide a dialogue about a text or concept.

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