Socrates and Respectful Discussion

I recently had the chance to watch a YouTube video of M.M. McCabe’s lecture at King’s College, London. She discussed the “Crisis in the University” and Plato’s dialogues. She argued that, in the dialogues, Socrates undertakes his investigations in a certain way and makes knowledge a good for the public.

The lecture has stuck with me because of the former part: how Socrates investigates and seeks to learn. He talks to people. He makes inquiries into their ideas, he tries to understand their ideas, and he respects their ideas. This respect for and honest engagement with others’ ideas, McCabe proposed, were important to Socrates’s learning and investigatory program, and they should be a greater part of scholars’ research agendas.

McCabe focused on how her analysis of Plato’s dialogues could guide research by academics, and I will focus on how they could help us guide research by our students, or even just guide our students’ learning.

Respect the students’ ideas and experiences.

In a class discussion, you may be trying to make a point about one thing but a student raises another issue. Run with their idea and then come back to your own idea. The discussion may even return to where you originally wanted to go.

When advising students about classes, find out more about their prior experiences with the topic. A student may have had Latin classes before, but he may not be comfortable enough with syntax and morphology to flourish in a more advanced level. See what experience he has had and how comfortable he is. Maybe the review of Latin will be useful and give him more confidence, but leave the door for conversation open.  If he later feels comfortable enough to move up to a higher level, discuss the options for changing levels with him. Trust their hesitation, but also trust their confidence.  You don’t want their confidence to jeopardize their success because they are in too high of a level of Latin.

When advising students about a paper topic, let them write about what they are interested in. Several times in meeting with a student, I found myself pushing their topic towards somewhere I was more interested than the student. I had to check myself, stop hesitating about a paper about the “public” nature of Roman houses’ decoration because John Clarke and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill had covered this topic well, and talk through the ideas and evidence so the student could develop a better interpretation of a specific house.

When discussing students’ or scholar’s opinions in class, do so fairly. If you do not agree with a student’s interpretation, ask her to support it with evidence or to supply the logic. If you do not agree with a scholar’s interpretation, do not set him up as a straw man. Share his opinions and why it is wrong in your opinion, and please don’t beat a dead horse. I know from experience how awkward that is for students and how much it seems like a waste of time.  Alternatively, offer both opinions and ask students which makes best sense of the evidence.

Finally, ask your students about how they have learned well or what has not worked well for them. If you can adapt to fit these ideas, you’re students will be learning more and hopefully be happier.  These mid-term surveys are very useful to make sure the students feel like their opinions matter, and to make sure that you are helping them learn most effectively.

Asking other teachers and conversing with them about good strategies is also a good practice, especially if they know the school or students better than you do.

Similarly, in the spirit of this post, please ask any questions about my posts or suggest any topic you’d like me to write about or investigate further and I will see what I can do.

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