June 26, 2019
Stephen A. McCoy
The Socratic method is all about asking questions of the world around us. At its core, it is simply asking questions of things until that thing is understood. Children are naturally curious and want answers to the world around them.
We can use that curiosity to make students consider everyday things in new ways. In effect, ask an interesting enough question of something students often take for granted and they will not only want to know the answer, but also become invested in probing more deeply into the subject.
We are talking about the Socratic method… who was Socrates?
Now, that is the question you should be asking!
Socrates lived during what we now call “The Golden Age of Greece” in the city of Athens. He was known for questioning everything. He understood that the more you learned and understood, the more you would realize how little you know when compared to the scope of what is out there to learn. This led him to declare, “The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything.” No matter how much you learn, compared to what there is to know out there, you can only know an infinitesimal amount of it, which truly amounts to nearly nothing. For some, that is depressing. For Socrates it was exciting, there is always something new to be learned!
It is all about nurturing curiosity and making discoveries. To be able to do this effectively for our students, we should get in the habit of asking questions like this in our daily life. It sounds simple, but we so often overlook and accept these things ourselves that it can be tricky to get the hang of it initially.
The following are good examples:
- How did the days of the week get their names?
Thursday is named for the god Thor. Wednesday is named for the god Odin (Think “Wodin’s day”). But Saturday is named for Saturn, which is from a different culture and pantheon all together!
Why are the days named this way? What does that say about our cultural past?
- How did America get its name?
It was based on the name of an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who realized the Europeans had not reached Asia by sailing across the Atlantic but actually a “New World.”
The continent would have likely been named Columbia by the Europeans (from Christopher Columbus), but the name America caught on, even if Vespucci is often forgotten.
- What is the reason our local sports team has its name?
I live in Maryland, and asked students this question regarding the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens got their name from Edgar Alan Poe’s Poem, and because Poe was from Baltimore. This line of questions led me to read The Raven to a group of genuinely interested 6th graders.
Some team names can be a lot of fun; the L.A. Lakers were originally from Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”
- We have New York, what is “Old York?” (This can work for any place named “New —”)
- Valentine’s Day is actually St. Valentine’s saint day, which is marked as the day he died by beheading. Why do we celebrate this day with flowers and chocolates?
- Why does a prominent street in your city have that name?
I used to live in Orlando and routinely drove on the “Osceola Parkway.” Only later did I learn that Osceola was an important chief of a powerful Florida tribe, the Seminoles, which is where Florida State got its team name from.
Some of these questions can even turn into puzzles:
- The letter “A” was created to represent the “a” sound, but it took its original design from something had that same sound. Can we look at the letter and figure out what it is?
- If you turn the letter A 90 degrees, it resembles an ox’s head, which was, in fact, the pictographic origin of the letter.
Look around, there are so many things that we and our students seem to just accept, but there are wonderful opportunities for learning, given we ask the right question. As I finish writing this post, I look down at my keyboard and think, “Why is it a QWERTY keyboard?”
Stephen McCoy has worked as a teacher, tour guide, historian, writer, and pirate—at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. He earned a B.A. in History from Elon University, an M.A. in History from Loyola University Chicago, an M.Ed. from Lesley University, and an M.A. in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. He runs a history blog at historicalperceptions.com.
Related: The Socratic Questions Card Set available at Teacher’s Discovery!
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