"Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here."
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Socrates believed that the purpose of education is to facilitate the self-discovery through dialogue and reflection. Education is seen as a dynamic process in which one must confront difficult questions and challenge traditional ways of thinking. Through spirited dialogue and inclusion in a community where we can share diverse thoughts and ideas, we are led towards an appreciation of knowledge as a continuous journey to understanding. As more individuals embark on this journey, the quality of our public discussions improves and we develop leaders of free societies.
Socrates’ wisdom has equal value in the 21st century classroom. Students must learn to converse intelligently with others in an environment of trust, in which they tolerate the questioning of their own views. A trusting environment gives birth to a collaborative mindset--- where deep respect for other people’s thoughts is engendered and personal courage to change is nurtured. Being able to adapt opinions based on the input of others adds texture to ideas, strengthening them in a way that is impossible without human interaction. A collaborative mindset also provides a foundation for good citizenship, for it promotes the rights of individuals to express themselves, regardless of differences in ideology. These values are indispensable to a democratic society.
The surest way for students to develop these skills is for adults to model them. It is the classroom teacher’s commitment to the Socratic ideal that must first be cultivated to lead the way to a just society.
Teaching is a profession of dialogue. There is interaction with students to stimulate intellectual growth and appreciation of the search for knowledge. But, too often, the teacher views herself/himself as the dispenser of knowledge and students as ‘empty vessels’ into which information is poured. Further, in the traditional confines of the classroom, hemmed in by time and scheduling constraints and often operating in isolation from other professionals, teachers often have difficulty developing new ideas to challenge students. Too often, the same ideas are tried over and over again with the hope that students will someday conform and see value in timeworn concepts. In the classroom next door or across the hall, colleagues may be experiencing the same arrested creativity and, ultimately, end up behaving in the same way.
With each missed opportunity for dialogue there is also a missed opportunity to reflect upon mistakes and make changes. A curious irony surfaces– teachers vigorously demand that students embrace the search for knowledge to become better learners, but their own lack of self-reflection -- aggravated by the constraints of habit and time -- impede their journey to become better teachers.
Socrates knew that for dialogue and self-reflection to take root, we must all be willing to become learners, prepared to engage in conversations with others and adopt new ways of thinking. But how can teachers facilitate their own self-discovery within an environment adverse to reflection and dialogue? More time can be carved out to converse with colleagues and use the latest technology to foster collaboration. Teachers can attend professional development events to broaden their knowledge base. Perhaps the greatest opportunities may lie in the classroom itself, with students, whose collective wisdom is a treasure from which to draw new ideas and perspectives.
Seeing students as learning partners necessitates a restructuring of lesson-planning approaches and an embrace of constructivist values. Whatever the combination of remedies chosen, one thing is clear -- the more teachers can view their colleagues and students as agents of their own enlightenment, the better leaders they will become and the more just a society they will leave behind.