Saturday, September 29, 2012

Experiment by Argentinian Neuroscientists Suggests That “Socratic” (Correction: “PLATONIC”) Dialogue Is an Educational Failure

Some blog followers might be interested in a recent discussion-list post “Experiment by Argentinian Neuroscientists Suggests That ‘Socratic’ (Correction: ‘PLATONIC’) Dialogue Is an Educational Failure” [Hake (2012)]. The abstract reads:

ABSTRACT: Argentinian neuroscientists Andrea P. Goldin, Laura Pezzatti, Antonio M. Battro, and Mariano Sigman, in an article titled “From Ancient Greece to Modern Education: Universality and Lack of Generalization of the Socratic Dialogue” at, describe an experiment in which the questions posed by Plato’s “Socrates” in the Meno are put to contemporary students. Goldin et al. found that most of their students made the same errors as did the slave boy in the Meno. However, they conclude that the Socratic Method Is A Failure because, “after following every single question including Socrates’ ‘diagonal argument,’ almost 50% of the participants failed to learn the simplest generalization when asked to double the area of a square of different size.”

But is it really the Socratic Method that fails? The late classics scholar Gregory Vlastos (1991), wrote (my italics) : ". . . . throughout this first phase of his writing Plato remains convinced of the substantial truth of Socrates' teaching and of the soundness of his method. . . . [but] when [Plato] finds compelling reason to strike out along new paths, he sees no need to sever the personal bond with Socrates and when these lead him to new, unSocratic and antiSocratic conclusions, as they visibly do by the time he comes to write the Meno, the dramatist's attachment to his protagonist, replicating the man’s love for the friend and teacher of his youth, survives the ideological separation.”

Therefore, in my opinion, Goldin et al. should have titled their article “From Ancient Greece to Modern Education: Universality and Lack of Generalization of the Platonic Dialogue." That the Platonic Dialogue is the polar opposite of effective instruction is well known to most physics education researchers. For example, Robert Morse (1992) pointed out the pedagogical weakness of the Platonic Dialogue in his insightful parody of the Meno in “The Classic Method of Mrs. Socrates” at I also question the assertions by Golden et al. that their observations (a) extend a broad literature which has questioned the efficacy of unguided education, and (b) question the efficacy of the modern educational system.

In my opinion, the dialogue of the historical Socrates as utilized by the late Arnold Arons, in stark contrast to that depicted in the Meno, has been demonstrated to be relatively effective. See e.g.: (a) “Promoting Student Crossover to the Newtonian World” [Hake (1987)]; (b) “Professors as physics students: What can they teach us?” [Tobias & Hake (1988)]; (c) “Socratic pedagogy in the introductory physics lab” [Hake (1992)]; (d) “Interactive-engagement vs traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses” [Hake (1998a)]; (e) “Interactive-engagement methods in introductory mechanics courses” [Hake (1998b)]; (f) “Design-Based Research in Physics Education Research: A Review” [Hake (2008a)]; (f) “Helping Students to Think Like Scientists in Socratic Dialogue Inducing Labs” [Hake (2012a)]

Will Goldin et al.’s (2011) demonstration of the educational failure of the Platonic Method as depicted in the Meno deter law professors from utilizing the Platonic Method as notoriously used in law schools Probably not judging from the opinions of law professors Stephen Ellmann (2011) in “The Socratic Method Tested” and Robert Dinerstein in “Limitations to the Method” But don't abandon all hope. See e.g., Stephen Bainbridge (2008) in “Reflections On Twenty Years Of Law Teaching” and Brian Leiter in “The ‘Socratic Method’: The Scandal of American Legal Education”

For those wishing to learn more about Socrates: (1) Socrates [Nails (2010)]; (2) Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher [Vlastos (1991)]; (3) Plato's Meno [Scott (2009)]; (4) YouTube videos: (a) Bryan Magee (2008) discusses Plato with Miles Burnyeat; online in 5 sections:,, especially,,; (b) M.M. McCabe (2011) on Socrates; (c) Bettany Hughes (2011a) on Socrates and The Hemlock Cup

To access the complete 67 kB post please click on

Richard Hake, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Indiana University
Links to Articles:
Links to SDI Labs:

“I am deeply convinced that a statistically significant improvement would occur if more of us learned to listen to our students. . . . .By listening to what they say in answer to carefully phrased, leading questions, we can begin to understand what does and does not happen in their minds, anticipate the hurdles they encounter, and provide the kind of help needed to master a concept or line of reasoning without simply ‘telling them the answer.’. . . . . . .Nothing is more ineffectually arrogant than the widely found teacher attitude that ‘all you have to do is say it my way, and no one within hearing can fail to understand it.’. . . . Were more of us willing to relearn our physics by the dialog and listening process I have described, we would see a discontinuous upward shift in the quality of physics teaching. I am satisfied that this is fully within the competence of our colleagues; the question is one of humility and desire.”
- Arnold Arons (1974)

“If Confucius can serve as the Patron Saint of Chinese education, let me propose Socrates as his equivalent in a Western educational context - a Socrates who is never content with the initial superficial response, but is always probing for finer distinctions, clearer examples, a more profound form of knowing. Our concept of knowledge has changed since classical times, but Socrates has provided us with a timeless educational goal - ever deeper understanding.”
- Howard Gardner (1989)

“We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did.”
- Bettany Hughes (2011a,b)

“[I] am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.”
- Socrates in Apology [Plato (399 BC?)]

REFERENCES [URL’s shortened by ‘’ and accessed on 29 Sept 2012.
Arons, A. 1974. “Addendum to 'Toward Wider Public Understanding of Science,” Am. J. Phys. 42(2): 157; online to subscribers at

Gardner, H. 1989. “The Academic Community Must Not Shun the Debate Over How to Set National Educational Goals,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 November.

Hake, R.R. 2012. “Experiment by Argentinian Neuroscientists Suggests That ‘Socratic’ (Correction: ‘PLATONIC’) Dialogue Is an Educational Failure” online on the OPEN AERA-L archives at Post of 29 Sep 2012 14:00:28-0700 to AERA-L and Net-Gold. The abstract and link to the complete post are being transmitted to several discussion lists.

Hughes, B. 2011a. YouTube talk “Bettany Hughes on Socrates and The Hemlock Cup,” online at Hughes does not mention the Meno in her explanation of Socratic questioning. As of 29 Sept. 2012 16:44-0700, this video had been viewed 13,483 times. I thank Mike Klymkowsky for alerting me to the work of Bettany Hughes

Hughes, B. 2011b. The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life. Random House, publisher’s information at information at, note the searchable “Look Inside” feature. See also

Plato. 399BC? Apology, translated by Benjamin Jowett (2008), online at, thanks to the Gutenberg Project.

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