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A Socratic Method for Problem Solving

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on December 1, 2010

This is a method for problem solving that I have developed over some years inspired by Socrates’ demonstration with a slave boy in Plato’s Meno. It is a method I have found to be highly effective with a 100% success rate so far. It provides strong motivation in uncertainty and encourages collective intelligence and collaborative effort.

Have the children sit around a board in a horseshoe shape. Set a problem with an answer such as a logical problem but follow this model.

  • Tell the children that the problem may or may not be solvable. It is for them to decide.
  • Tell them that they can ‘give up’ if they want to but that you will only consider the class to have given up when there is nobody in the classroom who wants to ‘have a go’.
  • Emphasise that if they give up then no answers will be given by you: they will have to live with the inconclusiveness of having given up.
  • Make sure you that each attempt is witnessed by everybody in the room (by drawing on the board for example).
  • Strongly encourage them to get up and have a go even if they don’t solve it and keep reminding them that each go will in some way help the others by providing clues.
  • DO NOT INTERFERE OR TRY TO SHOW THEM THE ANSWER. Offer no advice but only tell them where they have broken the rules or stipulations. Say nothing more.
  • Answer no questions. If they ask questions then direct them to the board to try it out.

Provide a clue after a set number of goes but always try to find the clue in what has already been done by the others. Point out that the clue is not proof that the problem is solvable. It may be a red herring.

  • Make the clue as minimal as possible with as little explanation as possible (for example simply point to an attempt that includes an important clue).
  • Do not put anyone on the spot but try to choose people who have not yet had a go.
  • If they solve the problem then congratulate everybody who had a go and ask the person who solved it where they found their clues (very probably from other attempts).
  • Ask those who are familiar with the problem to remain silent for the task.

Variations depending on the problem:

  • You may decide to provide them with paper.
  • You may decide to let them talk it through with each other.
  • You may decide to have them solve it in silence simply by watching each other.
  • If the problem involves something on the board then all attempts should be recorded for all to see throughout the process.

(Originally published in Teach Primary magazine)


One Response to “A Socratic Method for Problem Solving”

  1. thephilosophyshop said

    A good problem to try this method out with is ‘the nine dot problem’. Draw nine dots on squared paper or on the ‘squared paper’ function on an interactive whiteboard so that you form a square. There should be three dots at the top, three dots in the middle and three dots at the bottom implying a square. The task is to cover all nine dots with four, straight, continuous lines. I shall leave it for you to work out before you try it out with a class.

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