In praise of the teacher’s ignorance – Considerations on the Socratic method

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This article is a translation by Valentino Valitutti of the original Italian work “Lode  all’ignoranza del docente – riflessioni sul metodo socratico” published for RadiciDigitali on June 23, 2017.

The Heuristic or Socratic lesson is dialogic: the teacher alternates short explanations with questions or incomplete sentences.

Bruner illustrated the difference between an explanatory and algorithmic teaching (as a sequence realized by subsequent blocks of knowledge) and a hypothetical or heuristic one (moved by stimulating questions and oriented to the research of meanings). In the first case decisions about the method, the pace, and the explanatory style are determined mainly by the teacher, who introduces the contents linearly and completel while the student listens to him. In the hypothetical approach teachers and students cooperate.The student is not just a listener, but he takes part in the formulation of the contents, in the interruptions, the spaces, and the problematizations moved continuously by the teacher.

In my experience as a teacher I have often thought about the apparently destabilizing, yet remarkable and fascinating concept of ignorance.
We often avoid the word ignorance: as synonim of social inferiority, it conveys feelings of disdain and denigration in those who do not know exactly the answers to the common questions of the contemporary society.The main problem is the misinterpretation and the consequently oblivion of the real meaning of the word “ignorance”, that is “mother of all knowledge”.
Ignorance, as stated by the French philosopher Jacques Rancier,

is the pure practice to reach knowledge: as the basic structure of every learning, it strongly invades our life, representing the aesthetic fascination of primitive man, the uncivilized individual with no cultural background, yet equipped with a deep deal of initiative and motivation to live (or better said, to survive) in the world, so the symbol of the research and the construction of knowledge. (cfr. Rancier Jacques, Il maestro ignorante, Mimesis, 2009)

As a precious resource to use best, and indispensable instrument to discover domains of action and incompetence, ignorance is the most meaningful approach to intelligence. The duty of the teacher in the contemporary educational system would be the proposal of images of his own ignorance to students.

It is a hard and prejudicial action for the traditional paradigm of the teacher, considered by most the deus ex machina in the canonical transmission of knowledge, the wise promoter of a unique and unidirectional pedagogy. However, it is an indispensable action: it opens the school system up to a shared and constructive didactic project, in which the teacher and the student are coworkers in the processes of teaching and learning.

Reconquering ignorance is the main step to be able to grow together, to receive, listen to and accept the Other. From the awareness of not knowing arises the impulse to learn , to behow to learn, to become conscious of one’s own characteristics and limits, to start a path of ascension leading gradually to self-enrichment.

Embracing ignorance in its Socratic dimension is the most authentic and complicated act in contemporary life in order to deconstruct a false conviction: the unawareness of not knowing, as a condition originated by an accomulation of knolwedge impiding one’s creativity and authonomy. We must admit first to ourselves, then to the others, that we are not machineries equipped with prompt answers to every question, but people, naturally incomplete beings yet with the natural will to personal improvement.

Ignorance could be a source of treasure if taught and implemented by the teacher, as it helps deconstructing false fears about losing the master’s traditional social role and about stigmatizations by the students. Ignorance could open the door to a progressive liberation from outer restrinctions in the relationship teacher-student, buliding an innovative didactic approach based on new and shared parameters.

The teacher and the student will cultivate the spirit of collaboration during investigation, selection, and knowledge construction times, starting off a shared and sharable pedagogy, in which the man could put himself in the ignorant’s shoes, learning from his students, their voices, their idiosyncrasies, their passions, their nature, in order to be a real teacher. At the same time, the student should come out of the idea of his traditionally assumed inferiority, and pushed by his will he should go beyond his limits and difficulties, in order to be able to teach to his master and to hopefully become one day an active and resposible citizen of the world.

In the heuristic lesson, the slogan “the man who never has to ask” is replaced by Gordon Pask’s words

If you want to know, ask(cit. Pask Gordon, Conversation, Cognition and Learning, Elsevier, London, 1975)

in a spirit of liberation and opening to new horizons.

The student’s question is licit as it is the starting point to share and create knowledge at school, and it lets him show his identity to his teacher during the process of learning. At the same time, the teacher’s question is licit as it represents the incentive for the student to start a personal research and metareflection on his answers, enclosing the will to meet his interlocutor.

In this way, the teacher can teach and learn what he still does not know, leading the student to use his own intelligence.

The master and the pupil have to overcome together the true/false dichotomy, the concept of a measurable knowledge, in order to continuously interrogate theirselves on their own ignorance, on the daily and enriching practice to their lifelong improvement.

Finally, as stated by professor Keating in the movie Dead Poets Society, “Just when you think you know something, you have to look at in another way”.

Author: Valentino Valitutti
Revision: Alessandro Ardigò

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