glyph 434: Book: Michael Strong, Review: James Rhem, National Teaching & Learning Forum ... Socrates, Socratic method of education, teaching, learning ... exploration, discourse, questions, challenging assumptions (of the teacher's) . sources of knowledge and ignorance (Karl Popper) ... St. John's College ... collaboration among students: interested, questioning and unafraid of error ... how a teacher develops such collaboration begining with seemingly hopeless reticence among students


The Habit of Thought, by Michael Strong

From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice

Reviewed by James Rhem, Executive Editor, National Teaching & Learning Forum

Michael Strong's The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice remains unknown to most faculty and to many faculty developers. It's a small book published in 1996 by a small publisher in North Carolina (New View). Limited marketing may account for the book's low profile in higher education circle s, or perhaps the fact that much of Strong's work has been in the K-12 world. Whatever the reasons, the book deserves wider exposure among faculty not because it offers a "magic bullet" for improving teaching - it doesn't - but because in clear, no nonsense language it sounds a call to the most noble stance any teacher can take with students, that of "an honest, open, inquiring mind."

Most faculty believe they understand Socratic practice or "Socratic method," and most believe they practice it at least some of the time. Indeed, some teachers argue that Socratic practice is simply another name for class discussion. However, Strong reports:

"Teachers trained in Socratic Seminars ... believe that they are radically different from conventional classroom discussions, or from any conventional pedagogical technique. Many trained teachers, some with twenty years of experience, talk about how leading Socratic Seminars has caused them to question their entire approach to teaching. Some claim that the contact with Socratic Seminars has caused them to become angry at their own previous teaching and their own educations." (p. 47)

Though he encourages it at every turn and never waivers in seeing it as doable, genuine Socratic practice as Strong describes it seems very challenging, to say the least. But it works, and committed teachers at every level can and do practice it with success.

Strong's own devotion to Socratic practice began early. He'd heard of St. John's College (with campuses in Maryland and New Mexico) and visited there and liked what he saw. Still, he first enrolled at Harvard, but there he realized he wasn't finding the dialogue through which absolutely everything is taught at St. John's. He transferred.

No "Paper Chase"

Early in my interview with Michael Strong, I shared with him my long-standing disgust with the association of Socratic practice with the kind of student abuse portrayed so well by John Housman as Professor Kingsfield in the 1970s film "The Paper Chase." He laughs. Law schools have been describing this kind of thing as "Socratic" for so long, he says, that we're not likely to get them to give it up. He compares Kingsfield's approach to the violent martial arts versus the more philosophical or "softer" ones - Karate versus Tai Chi. Strong sees Socratic practice as essentially "softer." While some see an aggressive devil's advocate in the Socrates of Plato's Dialogues, Strong sees a playful imp committed to teasing out the implications of thought, to seeing the unseen assumptions and implications of what we say we think. "If the Dialogues were staged, I can imagine Socrates being played either way depending on the passage," says Strong.

Students do follow their leader. In classes conducted according to Strong's model, groups often start out enjoying aggressive argumentation, but over time it becomes tedious and they begin to value constructive dialogue instead. In "The Paper Chase" world, combat never evolves. Why? Because the teacher never questions his own assumptions, only those of his students. Though he asks questions, he's not staging a genuine dialogue, an honest conversation in which he too might learn something.

"A hostile sort of Socratic social interaction may be the de facto result of teaching students to 'question assumptions'," Strong writes. When one thinks of questioning assumptions, he says, one almost always thinks of the assumptions of others. "I maintain," he writes, "that it is most important to question one's own assumptions." Certainly, it's harder than questioning those of others, and, says Strong, while questioning is an essential part of the intellectual integrity Socratic practice seeks to develop, it leads to something even harder, the necessity of making judgments. "One could 'question assumptions' constantly and never recognize a gap in one's understanding," he observes.

More Than Cognition

Strong's emphasis on judgment, independent judgment cultivated through a sharpening of awareness, shouldn't be confused with a simple emphasis on developing cognitive skills. "Cognitive ability is not an overriding determinant of intellectual genius," he writes in discussing Einstein (p. 74). Understandings of teaching students to "think for themselves" often take an excessively cognitive focus, he says, while the kinds of insights and judgments that show genuine intellectual development involve intuitive, creative and social skills, all of which Socratic seminars develop. Strong's "ready for work" rubric for students (see ancillary materials at includes not only five academic skills (textual understanding, speaking, listening, knowing how to learn, critical thinking) but social skills (teamwork, sensitivity/good manners) and personal skills (honesty and integrity, willingness to accept criticism, responsibility and initiative!) as well.

Also early in our interview, I share with Strong both my frustration and my delight in the process of reading The Habit of Thought. The first half of the book is filled with clear, emphatic presentations of the solid philosophical grounding of Socratic practice, but as we are so used to books on teaching that focus on telling us "how" to implement this or that approach, I found myself impatient for exactly that, more nuts and bolts. In the second half of the book, Strong does explore the specific roles and strategies essential for Socratic practice, and it's a delight to read his descriptions precisely because, even there, he infuses the discussion with the philosophical importance of each. His nuts and bolts actually appear throughout in examples illustrating larger ideas. He gives specifics, but they are never far removed from the all-important "whys" of the practice. On "trust," for example:

"Obtaining trust is crucial to developing a group, and trust is founded on mutual respect. It is necessary to respect [students'] sincerely held opinions, no matter how false or abhorrent they seem to be. The leader is guiding their understanding, not imposing an understanding from the outside."

Roles and Paths

Leaders/teachers expect followers/students to end up where they (the leaders) thought the group should go, but in Strong's view the key to Socratic practice lies in keeping the discussion open, centered on the authority of freed thought. To do it well leaders must have more confidence in their own intellectual and social skills, their "fluency in reasoning," than in their positional authority.

Strong describes five main roles of the Socratic practice leader:

* Justifier of the activity
* Socratic questioner
* Provider of summary, synthesis, and clarification
* Process coach
* Genuine participant

Strong has led many workshops teaching the dynamics of true Socratic practice. When we talk I ask him which roles people find the most difficult, admitting I thought I'd have trouble with the last two. "It really depends on the individual," he says. "Some have trouble coming up with questions, others have trouble not getting angry, others with not being dogmatic, but remaining truly open. Each leader has a unique path to follow just as in becoming a great musician. Socratic practice is a 'path' and one will not move far down the road if they don't see that."

Socratic Seminars and Socratic practice differ. The seminars center on the close study of prescribed texts. Ideas spin out of, around, and back into discussion of the texts. Seminars utilize Socratic practice, of course, but with the text always acting as a governing point of reference. Socratic practice itself need not center on a text, but merely take off from a question or an idea. Texts act as a very useful brake. Personalization through anecdote and personal story acts as an accelerator. In Strong's view "reason" or the capacity for the kind of sound independent judgment we need to develop in students transcends mere logic. Citing research by Leda Cosmides reported in Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, he writes: "Our minds, in the evolutionary circumstances in which they were created, developed a sophisticated ability to 'reason,' when the object of our reasoning involved basic human relationships: love, power, trust, betrayal." Hence, once again, the importance of creativity, intuition, and social skills in addition to cognitive ability in developing a capacity for independent judgment.

Good for Women Especially

If our evolution affects how we think and learn, so does culture and acculturation. Female gains via Socratic practice were 26% greater than male gains in one study, Strong reports. In a four month trial, female students at an urban middle school gained the equivalent of two years of critical thinking skills from Socratic practice. Minority female students gained four years. When I asked Strong why this should be, he replied, "The American norm is against men talking." Socratic discussions often come back to ideas of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, he says, and "the social norm is against talking about these things these days, but people are hungry for it."

Coverage, Math & Science

So what about "coverage," and what about math? "Socratic practice does take leisure," says Strong. "It's about exploring, clarifying, but when it comes to coverage, it depends on how you conceptualize content. I understand the problems in the sciences, and I admit it's perhaps easier in the humanities to deal with these problems. The question is whether you are going for depth or breadth. In art history for example, will you teach more with 1,000 slides or with 40?" A good argument can be made, he says, that introductory science courses would teach more if they offered students an immersion in scientific method and thinking rather than flooding them with a sea of information. In the same way, Strong - who likes math and is good at it - believes that Socratic practice should be a prerequisite for all math education. Why? Socratic practice, whether it traffics in discussions of trust, love and betrayal or other ideas equally remote from square roots and tangents, improves students' facility with abstract concepts, and abstract concepts are the basis of mathematics, which is at root a way of thinking rather than a body of knowledge.

"Socratic questioning," writes Strong, "is an endlessly sophisticated art. It is the engine that drives Western thought forward. Socratic questioning is not a technique, it is an approach to conceptual understanding which contains within it an intrinsic craving for conceptual refinement at every level of understanding." (p. 149).

© Copyright 1996-2004. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc.
(ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide. — a source of the above review

Michael Strong, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice (Chapel Hill, NC: New View, 1996).

Available from:

New View Publications -
Post Office Box 3021
Chapel Hill, NC 27515-3021
Telephone: 800-441-3604

Michael Strong welcomes email from readers interested in discussing Socratic practice at
July 26, 2008; edited/updated November 26, 2015

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