The Socratic method in the SaiU classroom

At SaiU we love questions and arguments and believe strongly that every concept can do with some serious scrutiny. This, we think is fundamental to creating thinking and responsible individuals who are capable of forming well-informed opinions and have the courage to act on them. The three pillars that frames our mission, in our Vice Chancellor’s words– ‘empowering people to liberate their minds and realizing their potential, sparking the imagination to spur discovery, innovation and creative work, and unleashing education and research through action, for the betterment of our societies’ — rests on the individual’s ability to think and act responsibly and confidently.

We draw inspiration from none other than the founder of Western philosophy, the Greek philosopher Socrates. His convictions –  that human wisdom begins with the recognition of one’s own ignorance, that the unexamined life is not worth living, that the ethical virtue is the only thing that matters, and that a good person can never be harmed – have guided and shaped the Socratic method, also known as ‘elenctic method’. The Socratic method is often used in medical and legal education, in order to help students tap into more difficult concepts and/or principles. The hypothesis elimination a core Socratic method, in which better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions is at the core of legal education 

Socrates was a pioneer in creative methods of teaching and learning and his legacy continues in the creative freedom that our contemporary educators employ. SaiU classrooms are safe spaces for cooperative argumentative dialogue between students and teachers and between students themselves. Asking and answering questions helps stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. We take pride in introducing our students to not merely complex issues, but also, sensitive issues and equip them to dissect them by preparing them with background information that will help them further their understanding. Our students are familiar with a range of readings, classical and contemporary, conformist and controversial.

The examination of commonly held ‘truths’ that shape beliefs and to determine, if indeed they are consistent with other beliefs, is at the core of ‘Critical Thinking’. The investigation is done, by asking a series of questions based on logic and fact, with the aim of discovering the beliefs about a topic of a person or group, to explore definitions, and to characterize the general characteristics. This, we believe is fundamental to the evolution of the citizen of the future who will have to deal with issues that cut across communities, nations, regions and cultures.

Our range of assessments— the essays, quizzes, presentations or debates — demand argument of disproof or refutation, cross-examination of thesis and testing them. The dialogic approach to understand information in a text which is the essence of the Socratic seminar, shapes our pedagogy. The method is based on the belief that all new knowledge is connected to prior knowledge, and that all thinking comes from asking questions. The purpose is not to establish a winner or loser, but to collectively probe into the issue at hand.

An ability to think on one’s feet is an enviable skill, not just for those in the legal profession, but also in many of the fast-evolving fields in humanities, sciences and technology. SaiU students trained to think in different ways about various subjects begin to wonder how things could be different. And thus take the first steps to effecting change.

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