10 February 2006

Socratic Method Revisited

There are times when The Jenius, in full conversational flight, is asked: "Are You a reporter?" Sometimes the question is framed: "Is this an interview?" And time and again, in the middle of business meetings or work-related discussions, The Jenius interjects for a few seconds...and gets blank stares.

The Power of Questions is undenied. The simplest way to absorb information from another person is to ask them questions, granted that they answer them intelligibly and honestly. But questions are also the easiest way to get someone to absorb information from you, mainly by eliciting the answers from within themselves.

Socrates developed this method some 2,500 years ago. By asking questions, he would get his students to follow a line of reasoning and arrive at a conclusion. The method was so powerful that Socrates gained a reputation for turning his opponent's arguments against them without ever once having uttered a statement. In the Greece of his day, this was the equivalent of being heavyweight champ of the world without throwing a single punch.

Using the Socratic method as a daily tool, The Jenius has taught junior high school students about why Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor (after actually convincing them that World War II really happened); taught college students about how Italy lost the chance for colonial empires in the New World; business men and women have polished their concepts and launched numerous companies after Socratic sessions and, in an unforgettable highlight, actually had a Fool reverse his decision to oppose much-needed environmental protection for Puerto Rican wetlands. (He is still a Fool, but a bit enlightened.)

Not once in these exchanges did The Jenius have to resort to books or other outside authorities: the entire engagement was managed through questions and the answers given by the other party. Most significantly, once the conclusion was reached, the people invariably commented on how they "knew" most or all of what was asked. For therein lies the power of the Socratic method as a teaching tool: it expands the listener's knowledge by adding new connections to his or her information base. As mentioned before in these writings, data is not information and information becomes knowledge only when a personal context is applied to that information.

The Socratic Method makes personal context the sole criteria for eliciting and connecting information. What isn't known is derived from the person's own level of knowledge, or presented to fill that exact gap. Someone once said that what you teach a person could be easily forgotten, but what a person teaches himself or herself is owned forever. Through the Power of Questions you can help others own greater knowledge.

For a transcript of a session using the Socratic Method to teach third graders binary math, click here.

The Jenius Has Spoken.

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