What Socrates Taught Us About Brain-Based Learning


Once upon a time, learning theory was limited to the imaginings of scholars. No one had any way to study what went on inside the brain during any kind of learning process. In the last twenty years, the advent of sophisticated imaging technology and massive computing power ushered in an explosion in rigorous scientific research on brain-based learning.

Long before the onset of this scientific investigation of how the brain actually learns, people all over the world have been challenging the traditional approach to educating others – the teacher-tell model.

“Teacher-tell” is an efficient means of transferring knowledge in the mind of the expert teacher into the minds of large numbers of novice students. University classrooms in every corner of the planet feature auditorium seating for students sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Students sit patiently in their seats while the teacher spews forth his or her knowledge in the expectation it will stick to the students’ brains.

The teacher-tell model was based on a master/apprentice approach that some say dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks, beginning with the philosopher and teacher, Socrates. Some would argue that Socrates did not follow a master/apprentice model. Could we even today learn something about brain-based learning from the Socratic Method?

Critics argue that although teacher-tell may be efficient, it is far from effective. Students remain passive during lectures and short attention spans have long been known to be a problem. It would be difficult to prove, but odds are there is not a single person walking the face of the earth who never fell asleep during a lecture at some point in their lives.

As a consequence, group discussion techniques, case studies, and problem solving exercises gained in popularity to fill the void. Research into brain-based learning should shed some light on what kinds of teaching methods best facilitate what actually goes on in our heads that enables learning.

If you search the Internet for information on the findings of research into brain-based learning, you are likely to run across the term synaptic plasticity. A brain science research website at prestigious Brown University in the United States tells us synaptic plasticity may be the fundamental basis of learning and memory.

They go on to tell us synapses are in non-technical language connecting pathways between nerve cells in the brain. In addition, they are the primary means the brain uses to store and exchange information. Finally, these synaptic connections are not fixed; rather, they can become more effective depending on the type of activity to which they are subjected.

All this scientific language is complex beyond belief, but old-fashioned common sense seems to say this all boils down to this — learning function can be improved by stimulating the brain. It is doubtful students shuffling through the exit doors after an hour-long lecture would describe the experience as stimulating.

You can search the Internet further for practical teaching applications of brain-based learning research and you will actually find some concrete approaches. At their core, they all appear to have something in common with the Socratic Method, which today you will find as an educational technique only in a few Law Schools.

Supposedly, Socrates once said the only thing I know is that I know nothing at all. Certainly, this disqualifies Socrates as an early proponent of the teacher-tell method of education. In actuality, Socrates did not tell; he asked.

The heart of the Socratic Method is asking questions. It does not take a degree in some field of neuroscience to realize what happens to your brain when someone asks you a question. Questions stimulate the brain to respond.

Questions actively engage the brain.

It may be an overly simplistic conclusion, but is it possible today’s brain-based research learning is corroborating what Socrates knew to be true thousands of years ago? To teach, one must actively engage the mind of the pupil in some way.

Source by Bryan West Ph.D.