Socrates and Teaching: Past, Present, and Future

Image result for ancient greek vase painting

After a long (sort of) hiatus, I’m glad to be back. If you must know, I was focusing all my efforts on the Chevening Scholarship with its application process and interview at the British Embassy. So I have a favor to ask: If you think my blog is interesting and you like my posts, send me lots of positive energy to become one of the Chevening Scholars this year. If I pass, I’ll be given the wonderful opportunity of getting a Master’s degree in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol and the prospect of actually achieving this puts an ear-to-ear grin on my face besides lighting up my heart.

Let’s get down to business, shall we? This is a rather special week since I’m going to be one of the speakers at the BRAZ-Tesol Goiânia/Brasília joint event and the line-up of presenters is absolutely amazing. My session is about Ancient Greek Philosophy and Active Methodologies, how they relate and what this relationship can tell us about the trends in education, past, present, and future.

It’s worth mentioning that for hundreds of thousands of years throughout human civilization there was no formal education with specialized educational settings (e.g. schools) as we know today. Learning happened in a natural way in which children explored their environment, mimicked their family and other members of their community.

Socrates and his methods

When the father of Western Philosophy, Socrates, came along, Athens already had a modern educational system. Formal and informal settings where students (male citizens almost exclusively) could learn physical education, arts, music, mathematics, and philosophy. Schools and private tutors took care of the Athenian citizen’s education. Most of the subjects we study today have their origin in Old Greek: mathematics – fond of learning, physics – nature, biology – study of life, geography – writing or description of the earth, music – the art of the Muses, grammar – the art of letters, history – inquiry, and philosophy – love of wisdom.

It was, however, the method developed by philosophy, much of it credited to Socrates, that has something to do with active learning. But first, let’s look into Socrates’ last days to see how what and how he taught cost him his life. Imagine for a moment an old man with a long white beard standing before tens of people while an accuser tells everyone he had committed two crimes: 1) atheism; and 2) corruption of the minds. To help you visualize the scene, you can think of Anthony Hopkins as Socrates (they have a remarkable similarity if you look at Socrates’ bust in the Vatican). Anthony Hopkins listens to his accusations quietly and then starts defending himself proving that the claims against him are false. How does he do that? By asking a lot of questions. You see, one of the reasons Socrates was accused of corrupting minds in the first place has to do with a message his friend received from the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle said Socrates was the wisest man of Athens and, because he didn’t believe it himself, he decided to test the most intellectual men in the city-state to prove the Oracle was wrong. The problem was that he actually confirmed the Oracle’s “prophecy” by realizing that all the wisest of Athens, philosophers, poets, musicians, politicians, military were, in fact, blind to their ignorance and quite confident about the things they knew, which were fairly easily deconstructed by Socrates’ inquiry. Our Anthony Hopkins look-alike philosopher manager to irritate some powerful people and got himself into a lot of trouble.

Imagine now that during the trial Socrates was found guilty and asked by the jury what he considered a fair punishment for him. He said that, for the services he was providing the Athenian citizens, he should be paid and get free meals for the rest of his life at the Prytaneum, an important religious and political center in Athens. Because of his irony and the fact he had pissed off many people, despite his friends’ and disciples’ efforts to save him by offering to bail him out, he was sentenced to death. He remained in prison for some days waiting for the sentence, received visitors, among them many friends who wanted to help him escape, but he didn’t listen. His execution was carried out by himself. He drank poison hemlock, and Plato’s and Xenophon’s writings mention that he was at peace and glad to abide by the Athenian law, and died some moments after. His last words were for his friend Crito and are a matter of debate till this day. He asked Crito to sacrifice a rooster to the god of medicine and healing, Asclepius. Was he being ironic, desperate, nonsensical or all of the above? We’ll never know, but what we do know is that Socrates’ contribution to philosophy and teaching, despite never having written anything, will last forever and can help us understand why education has been effective or not over more than two millennia.

Socrates methods consisted of challenging his students to get to the bottom of their claims, stripping away the conflict in their affirmations and, thus, arriving at a more refined truth. His lessons were dialogues (dialectic, from Old Greek) based on inquiry and deeper investigation. Students were “forced” to think and use their reasoning to arrive at a consensus (synthesis) or discard the claim (refutation). To do so, there was a main question or claim, often presented by Socrates, which is called the THESIS and its opposite, which is called the ANTITHESIS. The idea is to have a dialogue with a lot of questioning to try to combine the THESIS + ANTITHESIS into a SYNTHESIS. His method is known as Maieutics or Elenchus.

Image result for dialectic
Look for Hegelian Dialectic to know more

See any similarity between his methods and modern science, academic writing, political debates or even arguing with your spouse? That’s right. Socrates is everywhere. His ideas were against indoctrination and promoted logical thinking. We should thank this 70-year-old man who died for his beliefs and became a symbol of wisdom.

Education Evolution in Europe and Northern Africa

From Socrates’ death until today there have been many educational systems and perspectives. Sadly, most of them were not based on inquiry and critical thinking. Quite the contrary, actually. From Ancient times till modern days we can see the influence of religious institutions, political ideologies, market tendencies shaping the way we view education and, for the better part of two thousand years, making our students subjects of impositions rather than co-constructors of knowledge.

Let’s take a quick look at how education worked in Europe and Nothern Africa in the Middle Ages. In Europe, especially France and England, schools were restricted to noblemen, monks, kings ,and royalty. Private tutors were common and their job was to teach kids the classics, Latin and Greek through grammar-translation, and how to be obedient. In the fields, farmers taught their kids as early as 5 to help with the plantation and house chores. Questioning authorities was punished harshly. Physical punishment was part of their daily lives. The few men and even fewer women who dared to investigate a little further, propose new ideas, were frequently accused of heresy and burned alive or beheaded for their “satanic” ideas.

In Nothern Africa, the Arabic world, thousands of years ago, algebra came about. Till this day we use Arabic numerals and many expressions that are originally from the Arabic language. Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses how this Golden Age of science in the Islam faded because of religious indoctrination in this video. Numbers and calculus were considered devilish things and those who wanted to practice them could be sentenced to death. The consequences remain until today.

In the Middle and Modern Ages we can mention many entrepreneurs, explorers and scientists who were persecuted or killed because of their ideas: Christopher Columbus, Galileo Galilei, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and the many women who were considered witches by the Catholic Church.

When the Industrial Revolution came in the 1700’s in England, a form of public education, paid by the government, started. The idea was to teach children basic math and language skills (writing), besides obedience, so that they could work in the dirty factories for more than 10 hours a day, subject to infections, horrible working conditions and psychologic abuse.

For the better part of the last millenium, with a few exceptions such as Martin Luther who wanted people to learn to read the Bible to practice the teachings and save their souls or the Enlightenment movement that questioned authority and dogmatism, favoring free and critical thinking as well as human rights, education meant imposition and teacher-centeredness. And the irony, to honor our friend Socrates, was that many of the noblemen and members of the elite read Plato’s accounts on the Socratic Method and Ancient Greek philosophy and poetry, but didn’t apply his methods.

And now? Active Learning

In the last one hundred years, give or take, authors who have directly or indirectly looked for inspiration in Socrates have established a new era of teaching. Vygotsky, and Piaget discussed learning through a developmental and interactionist perspective. Montessori taughts us how children learn naturally through discovery and interaction with their environment. Paulo Freire showed us that students are often oppressed by the educational system and forced to memorize facts that come in small deposits provided by the teacher as if they were a tabula rasa. Medicine and business taught us how to use a problem or project-based approaches to investigate and solve challenges. A revolution in education happened in the 20th century and we can certainly blame Socrates for this accomplishment.

Active learning puts the student at the center of the learning process. It assumes that knowledge is constructed by both teacher and student and that interaction is key to effective learning. It welcomes students’ interest and questioning and hopes to make them think critically to get to the bottom of the problem. It has everything to do with dialectic and maieutics. It has to do with Socrates’ famous sentence after questioning Athens’ wisest:

“I know that I know nothing”


And knowing nothing is not a problem if we are eager to find things out. Curiosity plays an important role in active methods of learning. So, having said that, I’d like to invite you to use your curiosity. I’d like to ask you to do a little research on some methods or strategies that are part of active learning. If you already know them, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean you can’t dig a little deeper. Here they are:

Flipped Classroom

Project-Based Learning

Montessorian Pedagogy

Team-Based Learning

You can use the comment section below to share something you found. After all, knowledge is co-constructed.


There were, and still are, dark times when it comes to education in the world. The more we drove away from the teachings of Socrates, the more we hindered the potential to create critical thinkers with creative solutions to local and global problems. Remember the 4 Cs of the 21st Century Skills? Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. If you believe that you should base education on those four words, like I do, you can definitely see that Socrates still has a lot to teach us. That’s my take on education anyway. What’s yours? I asked some friends and peers to send me a picture of them in class or a selfie answering the question “What’s Education For?”. I got excellent answers and put them together in the video below for you. Join us and answer the question.

And, since knowledge is co-constructed, I asked the attendees of my session on this very topic to write their answer together so that we could share it with the world. That’s what education should be for.


#btgynbsb2018 #btgynbsb2018





6 thoughts on “Socrates and Teaching: Past, Present, and Future

  1. Dear André,
    This is a very nice post to read . Well done. And yes, learning is co-constructed. Anyone who thinks differently nowadays is probably preventing learners (and him/herself) from being a more well rounded citizen.
    And all my good vibes and good luck for the Chivening scholarship.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the lovely feedback, Adriana. I knew you’d agree with it. And I owe a huge part of the professional I’ve become to you. I’ll never forget the time we spent together and how much you’ve contributed to my professional development. If I do become a Chevening Scholar, be sure you were part of it.


  2. Interesting piece, but remember that Socrates wrote nothing. All we have is an idea of what he thought as relayed to posterity by his pupils Plato and Xenophon, the parody of his thoughts in the comic playwright Aristophanes, and later tradition. In this sense, Socrates is a bit like Jesus, and for similar reasons: a blank canvas on which to paint what you will. But bravo, all the same, for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Iain. You’re absolutely right. Socrates has become sort of a legend. I believe I did mention in the text that he had left no written accounts of his teachings. Nevertheless, during my research, most scholars and philosophers who know anything about Ancient Greek Philosophy agree that he did exist and is one of the founders of this inquiry-based method. I do believe much of what is attributed to him is a matter of controversy and debate. Once again, thanks for the feedback.


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