Everything Old is New Again: Rethinking the Socratic Method for the 21st Century

Blocks with head and lightbulb

My professional career centers around helping educators create engaging learning environments for their students. Often, that entails uncovering how best to use the available educational technologies. Over the course of that experience, I’ve learned something that more educators (not to mention more technology developers) should take to heart: the best tools aren’t always the newest ones.

Using technology for technology’s sake is rarely a path to deeper learning. It’s pedagogical practices that drive student engagement and student learning outcomes; edtech is successful when it complements best teaching practices. In fact, the most effective edtech tools are the ones that put a 21st-century spin on principles that have been the bedrock of education for centuries—or even longer.

The Socratic method, for instance, is a 3,000-year-old teaching strategy that involves carefully questioning students until they discover answers on their own. A professor might ask, “How did you arrive at that answer?” Or “What could we assume instead?” Ideally, the questions prompt students to explore their own thought processes while they’re coming up with the answers.

The method is widely recognized as one of the best ways to encourage critical thinking and self-directed, effective learning. It not only holds students at rapt attention, it asks them to question their beliefs and assumptions, skills that they’ll need for the rest of their lives.

Today, the Socratic method and other inquiry-based pedagogies are increasingly implemented in classrooms—both in-person and virtual—through digital technologies. And a growing body of research suggests that these tools can help bring an age-old teaching method to life for a new generation.

For starters, these emerging technologies emphasize student-centered strategies, which make students active participants in the learning experience. Research shows that students learn best when they’re engaged, active partners in the learning process. Instead of sitting quietly, taking notes on their laptops while the “sage on the stage” talks for an hour, they’re the ones leading the discussion—aided, of course, by their instructor.

In inquiry-based instruction, an English literature professor might ask whether Hamlet’s act of revenge for his father’s death was justified, then challenge their opinions and assumptions with further questions. This question-and-answer sequence functions as a type of formative assessment, a low-stakes moment when multiple key things happen. First, students have an opportunity to demonstrate what they do and do not understand about the content. Second, peers have an opportunity to gauge how their understanding aligns with each other’s. Finally, the instructor can see which elements of the content are taking hold and which are not. They can then redirect the instruction as needed, ensuring that students are catching onto key concepts.

Importantly, inquiry-based tools also offer new ways to involve students who have something to share but are reluctant to raise their hands during class. Many such platforms have chat functions that let a generation of multi-taskers hold sidebar discussions while the class is in progress (synchronously) or offer forums where students can debate topics when class is over (asynchronously).

Some tools even let students record short video clips of themselves answering an instructor’s questions. Others, like Packback, feature artificial intelligence that can facilitate inquiry-based instruction in an online discussion forum even without hands-on moderation from an instructor. Even in courses where these tools aren’t present, students commonly establish their own course “back channels” in the form of group chats or even Discord servers. That, more than anything, shows how much students value peer-to-peer interaction in 21st-century classrooms.

Many of these tools also help students build community, which is more important than ever for students navigating an increasingly digital education experience. For many, the college classroom is their first exposure to ways of thinking that differ from their own. This gives them an opportunity to pick up one of the most valuable skills in the workforce and in life: learning to learn from others. It also teaches them the fine art of agreeing to disagree—the ability to carry on respectful discussions while avoiding conflict.

Given the proliferation of edtech resources in the last two years, it’s easy to lose sight of the strategies that have served students well for millennia. But the effectiveness of inquiry-based teaching technology is an important reminder that administrators and educators must think first about pedagogy, then complement it with digital tools that support those teaching strategies—rather than the other way around. Doing so will enable more students to join in the long tradition of curiosity that has always been the foundation of effective learning experiences.

Jeremy Van Hof is director of Learning Technologies at Broad College of Business. In that capacity he oversees accessibility, instructional design, and pedagogy initiatives for online, blended and face-to-face courses. He most recently served at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as the assistant director of Academic Technologies. He has also served as chair of the Big Ten Academic Alliance Teaching and Learning Liaisons committee, and as a board member and as president of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association.