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The Socratic Approach to Character Education

David H. Elkind and Freddy Sweet, Ph.D.




This classical technique leads students to recognize contradictions between values they avow and the choices they make -- and shows them that they have the power to choose.

Is it really possible to teach young people good character? And, if so, what’s the best approach to take? As producers of character education and guidance videos, we’ve pondered these questions for many years. If you believe, as we do, that character is best expressed in the kinds of choices that people make, then by teaching students how to make good choices, we are, in effect, educating for character. The question then becomes, can we teach young people to make good choices?

In our work, we have found that one approach works particularly well: the venerable Socratic method. In this time-honored technique, the teacher asks a series of questions that lead the students to examine the validity of an opinion or belief. This is a powerful teaching method because it actively engages the learner and forces critical thinking, which is just what is needed in examining ethics, values, and other character issues. The method is also dramatic and entertaining, and it triggers lively classroom discussion.

Planning a Socratic Lesson

This plan is designed specifically for discussions regarding ethical choices and moral values. It is a way of using Socratic Method as a tool for helping young people know and do what's right.

  1. Define the lesson that you want the students to learn. Decide beforehand what idea you want them to come away with.
  2. Think up a hypothetical situation to use as a point of departure.
  3. Devise a line of questions designed to pull the students in the desired direction.
  4. Make the students take a position by asking, "What would you do if...?"
  5. Plan for a dialogue to move in several different directions.
  6. Complicate the situation by throwing in a monkey wrench: "What if this happened, what would you do then?"
  7. At each step, raise the ante: "Now what would you do?"
  8. Expect to be surprised. Be prepared to think on your feet.
  9. If all attempts to achieve a satisfactory conclusion fail, play your trump cards:

"What if the hero of a movie did that? How would you feel about the character?" (Pose an objective, hypothetical situation.)

"Remember, you’re the hero of your own movie." (Compare the position with the students self-image.)

"Would that be the right thing to do?" (A consensus will probably develop. The kids will usually know what’s right when pressed.)

Facilitating a Socratic Lesson

  1. Give something of yourself — share something personal. Don't just take.
  2. Let the students know you don't have all the answers — that you, too, have fears and insecurities.
  3. Take a nonjudgmental attitude. It is important to appear nonjudgemental so that your students feel safe in expressing their ideas. Without their true thoughts and feelings on the table, the dialog is pointless. However, you should not give the impression that anything they may conclude is okay, or that all conclusions are equally valid. This is, after all, about distinguishing right from wrong.
  4. Listen.
  5. Be honest with the students.
  6. Take the students seriously and show respect for their thoughts and opinions. When necessary, disagree respectfully.

A Kinder, Gentler Dialogue

The Socratic method derives from the Socratic Dialogues of Plato, in which Socrates made people jump through intellectual hoops trying to defend a "truth." He would ask a progression of seemingly innocent questions that ultimately led the respondent to a logical conclusion that was incompatible with that person's originally stated belief.

What people have usually overlooked or been unaware of is that Socrates used his method more to shred people than to educate them. His Dialogues, were adversarial and ended with the respondent confused and demoralized - not exactly a formula for building self-esteem. Nonetheless, for use in contemporary classrooms, we can apply this technique in a kinder, gentler way.

Consider this spontaneous, unrehearsed dialogue from our high school video series, The Power of Choice.

Facilitator:You're offered a $500 bike for $100. You know it's hot. What do you do?

(One boy in the group takes the bait.)

Boy: I would buy it.

Facilitator: What would you do if you got caught?

Boy: I bought it. I would just refer them [the police] to the person who sold it to me.

Facilitator: All right, you're in court, and you say, "Well, it really wasn't me. I didn't know it was stolen."

Boy: I didn't.

But wouldn't that be a lie?

Boy: I did buy it. I paid for it. I paid $100 for it.

: All right, but didn't you know that it was stolen? You're on the witness stand right now.

Boy:I’d have no choice but to say I knew it was stolen.

Facilitator: What if You weren't on the witness stand, and you were just talking to the cops, and they came over to the house, and they said "Hey, what about this bike you've got here. Did you know that it was stolen?"

Boy: Spur of the moment, I may just say, "No, I didn’t know."

Facilitator: Okay, what would make you say that?

Boy: Initial fear of being locked up. (laughter from the group.)

: What would you think of yourself now that you’ve said that you would lie to the cops out of fear, that you would probably be the kind of person who would say, l’ll go for this. $500, $100. That’s not a bad deal at all. I need a bike." What vision would you have of yourself at this point?

: Well, nowadays , from what I’ve been learning, I personally would feel low. In a yesterday sense, I wouldn’t have cared. I was younger. I was more immature. I didn’t care.

Facilitator: Do you have a different image of yourself now?

Boy: Yes. Prideful. I think more of myself today than I would have yesterday. Because I know that there’s better for me out there instead of just running around stealing. You know, that’s no good, that won’t get me to where I want to go. Okay, I’ve got big dreams, hopes. I feel like this: I can make it.

(One of the participants in the group discussion can’t contain herself. She speaks directly to the boy.)

Girl: But you still bought the bike! (All the kids laugh. The boy gets the point.)

We suspect that even Socrates would have smiled at seeing such a clear contradiction between the boy's stated beliefs and his behavioral choices. As the boy wends his way through the challenging process of making and then justifying choice after choice, he, as well as the rest of the group, is getting a natural lesson in character.

Know Where You're Going

When conducting such discussion, you must have clear vision of the lesson you want your students to take away from it. It is essential to have your endpoint in mind so that you can always be angling toward it. Then, launch the discussion by asking something provocative. This will force the kids to take a position that you can use as a point of departure. For example, you might ask, "Do You agree or disagree with the following statement: 'Finders keepers, losers weepers'?" Regardless of their response, you will find yourself well positioned for a spirited discussion.

As the above dialogue shows, a good hypothetical situation is a powerful springboard for discussion. Here is another example from our middle school series, Big Changes, Big ChoiceWhat if you saw an elderly woman in a department store unknowingly drop a $50 bill and walk away? You are the only person who saw it. What would you do?

You can usually count on a lot of disagreement over whether to keep the $50 or give it back. Those who favor giving it back typically take the position that keeping it would be wrong. When a student gives a "right" answer like this, we ask questions such as:

How did you arrive at that choice?

How does that choice make you feel?

What makes you the kind of person who can make such a good choice in the face of negative pressure?

Questions like these almost always make children feel like heroes and reinforce their better instincts.

Of course, there will also be those students who would keep the $50 and consider themselves lucky. This is where the Socratic method shines. instead of telling students that they made a bad choice, we ask a series of questions designed to bring the students around to that conclusion on their own:

How do you justify that choice?

How would you feel if it happened to you?

Aren't you taking something that belongs to someone else?

What's the difference between that and stealing?

Raise the Ante

If a student sticks by the unethical choice, we raise the stakes and introduce consequences:

What if the woman was very poor and that was her grocery money for a whole month?

The student may try to rationalize the decision: "I had to do it because my friends were depending on me." But we keep the pressure up.

If the student seems fixed in this position no matter what, it's often helpful to turn the spotlight onto the person making the choice:

Let's say you were watching a movie and the hero of that movie made the same choice you just made. How would you feel about that character on the screen?

Or, you might ask the student to reconcile the position with his self-image:

How does that choice fit in with your vision of who you are as a person? Don't forget, you are the hero of your own movie.

By now, the student almost always becomes unglued from making the "wrong" choice. In the dropped $50 discussion, our final holdout admitted, "I'd think he was a scum."

This progression of challenges to the student's position will eventually lead the student to a recognition that he initially made a bad choice. But instead of taking the authoritarian approach and saying it was a bad choice, we ask a series of questions designed to bring the student around to that conclusion on his own.

Adjust for Age

Hypothetical situations like these work very well with older students, whose abstract thinking skills are well developed. For younger children, we've found that a dramatized situation involving characters they can see and hear is more meaningful.

In making our elementary school series, Getting Along with Groark, You Can Choose, and The Six Pillars of Character we used puppets and appealing live action characters the children could identify with. In each of these videos, one of our characters gets into a dilemma and has to make a tough choice. It's up to the children to figure out what that character should do - this is where the discussion (and the leaming) take place.

Regardless of age, kids like to respond to these kinds of decision-making challenges.You might also ask, "What would be the right thing to do?" If you ask kids what they would do in a certain situation, their responses will range from noble and altruistic to selfish and calculating. But if you then ask them what's the right thing to do, a consensus develops. Kids usually know what's right, they just need the confidence and the encouragement to act on it.

Because the Socratic method triggers fruitful group discussions, children get to see how their peers are thinking and feeling about these important issues. Very often, they are relieved to learn that others are having the same thoughts and feelings that they are.

Of course, all this presumes that you want to teach children how to make good choices for themselves. Some parents and teachers believe that children should simply be told what to choose. Our aim in our videos is to teach young people that they have the power of choice, that they are responsible for the choices they make, and that they owe it to themselves to choose the best. We are also encouraging students to think critically.

By discussing real-life dilemmas now, we are preparing students to make better choices in the future. Our experience with the Socratic method shows it to be a highly effective approach for helping children become ethical, respectful, responsible people who think critically, solve problems nonviolently, and make choices based on what's right instead of what they can get away with. That's character education.

Copyright (c) 1997 by David H. Elkind and Freddy Sweet.

David H. Elkind, a television/video producer and educator, and Freddy Sweet, Ph.D. a television/film producer and a former Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, are co-Presidents of Live Wire Media and Elkind+Sweet Communications, Inc. (e-mail: and