Socratic Method and the Church?

Call it what you will, but my preferred style of teaching is discussion based. The last thing I want to have to do is get up in front of a group and impart knowledge upon them in true lecture style. Maybe it’s a little selfish, but as a teacher I want to get something out of my classes too, so I tend to formulate questions that I think will lead to a discussion in which we can perhaps question our understanding and interpretation of a given subject. Sometimes it works wonderfully and sometimes it fails miserably. It is largely dependent on the group.

Back in college I took a course called the Great Books Colloquium. The course was based on a similar style of teaching called the Socratic Method. What I loved most about the course was not the books we were asked to read and discuss, but the method in which we discussed those books.

One of my favorite teachers of all time had this practice down pat. Each week he would take some sort of stance on a topic and force us into a discussion in which we would apply what we had just read to either justify or refute the validity of that stance. It was an exciting, engaging class that has really helped to shape who I am today. I don’t think I would be as interested in a discussion based teaching style if it weren’t for this class and that teacher in particular.

So, you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with the church. In short, nothing. In our churches, and I’m speaking in generalities here, we sit and listen to a sermon, we sit and listen to a teacher in a Bible class, and more often than not we sit and listen to yet another teacher in our small groups. There is a lot of being talked at in our church experiences. That’s great if you are able to learn that way, but for a portion of us, and I’m probably speaking mostly for myself, it doesn’t work. I can only handle so much listening. I need to be engaged in another way.

Here’s my solution. Let’s try another method of teaching and learning at least part of the time. Let’s be more purposeful in how we attempt to engage our students because we know that everyone learns a little differently. I’d like to see a Bible class in which we discussed topics and passages using the Socratic Method, or a similar style of teaching. What do you think? Would it work?

Part of the problem with a class like this is that we have been conditioned to give church answers. Answers like: Jesus, God, Forgiveness, Love, and Resurrection. We answer questions like mindless zombies, not stopping to think about what we’re really saying. For a class like I’m talking about to work, we would have to let down our defenses and admit that we do not know it all. We have to be willing to have a discussion.

So, perhaps the real question is not would the Socratic Method work for Bible class but are we willing to have honest, open, discussions? What do you think about that?
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3 thoughts on “Socratic Method and the Church?

  1. And I think teachers (often staff and/or elders) get nervous moving away from an explanatory style of teaching because that means (gasp) the inmates are running the asylum, and an opinion that’s “out there” or, God forbid, a DOUBT may get voiced and lead weak minds astray.But I would love to be part of a class for which the teacher’s preparation was not, “What do I understand about this text and what can I impart?” but rather was “What do I NOT understand about this text and what are the questions I can ask to get us talking about it?”I’ve been in classes where the latter was the case, and sometimes they’re hopelessly circular, but we need to not be afraid of asking questions that we don’t know the answer to, or maybe are afraid of what the answer might be.

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  2. Hmmmm…. I’m a little confused. We have many discussion-based classes at church. The only differences I really see are the preparation of the teacher and lack of preparation from students. For example, I prepared questions for the class I did for the Young Adults group a few weeks ago without any further thought so we could discuss and find areas to be studied. A balance of discussion and instruction is ideal. When I think about it more, it seems I simply don’t understand where your frustration is coming from.

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  3. I don’t know that I’d call it a frustration necessarily, maybe just an observation, or perhaps a dream. I think we spend a lot of time in one teaching mode. When I say “we” I mean all churches, not just the one you and i happen to attend. Of course there are plenty of instances where other methods of teaching are used, and you are correct in pointing that out, but I think that “we” tend to stick to what is the easiest: lecturing. My desire is a place where we can honestly discuss topics from all sides and are willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers. Perhaps that’s a scary ideal that can never be fully obtained; but, that’s an ideal I would like to see all churches striving for. I think gone are the days when people expected churches to have all the answers. Admitting we don’t have it all down and are still seeking ourselves will speak more loudly to the coming generations from what I’ve been able to observe. However, with that said, this is just my opinion so feel free to disagree.Thanks for the question Matt. I hope I helped clear up any confusion i may have caused.

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