Socrates: Guided Discovery Learning

Socrates: Guided Discovery Learning

You have something within you, Theaetetus, that you're bringing forth.

—Socrates, 425 B.C.

The Kingdom of Knowledge Is Within: Early Constructivism

In contrast to Moses, who trekked across the vast deserts of the Near East carrying two giant stone Tablets of Learning, Socrates, 400 years later, traveled light. Sounding more like a Zen Buddhist or early Gnostic Christian, he held that the kingdom of knowledge was nowhere but within. The question, he added, was only how to call forth this knowledge from the learner. The learner, he pointed out, simply needed to be "awakened" to knowledge.

What is of interest to learning designers today is not the content of Socrates (the abstractions of mathematics), but the sophisticated method that he created: the dialogical model of learning that came to be known as the Socratic method. Twenty-five centuries later, transmitted by learning theorists such as Comenius and Herbart, the method has become the basis for modern constructivism and, in part, adult education—the theory that learners learn best when they reconstruct the truth through their own hands-on experience. The method works as follows.

Guided Discovery Learning: The Socratic Method

I don't "teach," I just ask questions.

—Socrates on the Socratic method, in Plato's Meno, 400 B.C.

From my teacher Parmenides I learned the teaching method of "question and answer," rather than delivering long lectures.

—Socrates, in Plato's Sophist, 400 B.C.

The process through which Socrates elicits learning from his students is called dialectical or conversational learning and is best described as a form of guided or prompted discovery learning. The student undergoes an open-ended question-and-answer process, with the teacher functioning as a coach or prompter. Socrates demonstrates the method by guiding a new student through the elementary rules of geometry.

Instead of having the boy memorize abstract mathematical definitions, such as "a box is a square with four equal sides" (which would remain a meaningless abstraction), Socrates asks a question while pointing to the drawing of a real square: "Tell me, boy, did you know that a figure like this is called a square?" The boy answers "I do," and Socrates then calls forth the next concept: the definition that the area of a square equals the length of one side multiplied times itself. This is done again through direct observation rather than through memorization. Socrates draws a square on the ground, divides its interior into four boxes, and permits the student himself to count the squares in the area:

If one side is two feet long and the other side is also two feet long, what is the area of the square? Isn't it two feet times two feet? How much is twice two feet? Count the squares and tell me, he tells the boy.

The boy counts the squares himself, and answers correctly, "four, Socrates"—and on it goes. At each step of the learning process there are embedded prompts by the teacher, each of them eliciting the next learning point. It should be emphasized that Socratic dialogue is not free-form dialogue, as is sometimes presumed. It is guided learning or prompted experiential learning, a method that still remains one of our most powerful learning tools, particularly for adult education.


400 B.C.

Plato: Meno.


Thomas Davidson: Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals.


Robert Ulich: History of Educational Thought.