Socratic dialogue at BI

Socratic dialogue at BI

Dr Pieter Mostert visited BI last week. He came to engage faculty and students in a Socratic dialogue, which classical education places a great emphasis on. What do we mean when we use this title? This was what Mostert wanted to show us. First at LearningLab, and then with students, we got engaged in Socratic dialogues, a way of seeking truths through question driven instruction. The teacher/facilitator has no predefined answers.

A Socratic dialogue is an enquiry into our understanding of the abstract question through the concrete example, and at the same time an enquiry into our understanding of the concrete example through the concepts of the abstract question.

This enquiry needs time, time to think, time to re-think, time to listen, time to question oneself and the other participants, time to write, time to enjoy. That is why Socratic dialogues last for at least some hours and nevertheless remain fresh and lively.

Finally, a Socratic dialogue takes place in a circle, so that the question and the example can be examined from all different angles.

A Socratic dialogue cannot do without two components:

  • a well phrased, abstract but fundamental question: “does risk increase with responsibility?”
  • a simple and concrete example from daily life: “I felt responsible to reply to the e-mail from the international office”.

Reflection on the Socratic dialogue

Socratic dialogue at BI LearningLab

Socratic dialogue at BI LearningLab

A Socratic dialogue is an enquiry into what we already know (or assume to know). In didactic terms, it activates previous knowledge, e.g. of the concept of ‘honesty’. Such an activation is a prerequisite for the process of learning ‘new knowledge’. That is why the students recommend to have Socratic dialogues on a specific issue / topic before it is dealt with in lectures or group assignments.

The art of a Socratic dialogue is the art of questioning, but asking questions that ‘work’, i.e. that contribute to the process of ‘examination’ is not an easy skill; it deserves practice and guidance. That is the main task of the facilitator: to establish an atmosphere in which the ‘proper’ questions are asked. It is as the students concluded: “questions are more difficult to formulate than answers”.

A Socratic dialogue is a way of doing ‘the hard work’ in an inspiring and motivating atmosphere.


Blogpost by Johannes Brinkmann, BI.

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