Socrates on e-learning

2,400 years ago in ancient Greece, when the main medium for cultural transmission and learning was the spoken word, the philosopher Socrates warned that “the written word poses serious risks for society”. In an oral culture, writing was a new technology and Socrates had several concerns about its possible impact:

  1. He thought the written word was inflexible: “living” speech was dynamic and ready to be uncovered through questioning and dialogue. In the “dead discourse” of written speech words seemed to talk to people as if they were intelligent. Once written, they would go on saying the same thing forever whatever people thought. Written words could be mistaken for reality and readers might get a false sense that they fully understood something when they had only just begun to understand it.
  2. He thought the written word would destroy memory: memorising large amounts of orally transmitted material preserved cultural memory and increased personal understanding. Readers couldn’t “own” text on a page the way they could something they had memorised.
  3. He thought we might lose control of language and therefore of knowledge. There was no accounting for who would read something and how people might interpret it. Once a thing was put in writing it could drift all over the place, getting into the hands of those who didn’t understand it as well as those who did. Text couldn’t adapt to address different people and when it was abused it couldn’t defend itself.

Although Socrates didn’t believe in writing, luckily for us, his student Plato was prepared to keep written accounts, including a record of Socrates’ best arguments.

Two thousand years later, we are so dependent on the written word that it is impossible to imagine our modern world without it. Since Socrates’ day, the written word has become an essential part of cultural transmission. So after all this time are we in a position to respond to his concerns?

Faced with a 21st century Socrates, we might start by pointing out that it is now inconceivable for any single person or group of people to personally know everything that is known to humanity and we could demonstrate the vital necessity of written text to store the sheer quantity of human knowledge in a form which can be shared and referred to by skilled readers. We could also demonstrate that the widespread use of the written word has not stifled dialogue or debate and has in fact become the principal medium to propose, disseminate and contest new ideas. We would probably agree that the written word can be put to uses unintended by the author, but we could show that the development of widespread literacy and critical readership is the best protection against abuses.

Although memory hasn’t been destroyed, there is certainly much less learning of things “by heart” and much less need for extended memorisation except for specific purposes such as acting. But instead, we have developed a range of sophisticated research skills which help us find what we need from the mass of written sources available and weigh up its validity. The pleasure of learning a poem, a song or a favourite quotation by heart is still available to us and even if we’re not routinely reciting epic poems we do use our memories in all sorts of complex ways on a daily basis.

Socrates’ concerns about the negative impact of one new communications technology have been echoed during each successive communications revolution. Would printing encourage the spread of heresies and debase the culture? Would photography and then cinema bring about the death of painting and the theatre? Would the telephone and email undermine the “art” of writing? For each development there were fears that the losses would outweigh the gains, but once a new communications technology matures and settles down we usually find that it is both enhancing human interactions and allowing the “older” technologies to find a new place in our lives.

Today, we are in the midst of another revolution in the way we communicate and the combination of high speed global individual connectivity with easy access to searchable, interactive resources which integrate images, sound and text offers us fantastic educational possibilities. Teachers have always been keen to apply new techniques to support effective learning but it takes time for their usefulness to become evident. Some of us remember our early encounters with classroom computers which initially seemed to offer very little of educational value and only really inspired a minority of enthusiasts. The technology needed time to develop and we needed time to see how it could be applied to support learning effectively.

So, teachers need to embrace these powerful new technologies as part of our toolkit but we also need to ask the sort of questions Socrates raised: what might be lost and which aspects the “old” technologies should we preserve?

In their brilliant short essay “Questions for a Reader” published in “Stop What You’re Doing and Read This” (Vintage 2011) Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai outline some of the challenges of digital communication for learners:

“Will today’s novice reader learn to want things simple, quick and explained by others? Alternatively, will young people immersed in technological innovation become adept at prioritising, sorting and critically evaluating different types of reading styles based upon their purpose (finding info, understanding it)? …Will the flexibility of digital text … actually enhance the reading experience for many readers, propelling them into a deeper engagement with text, or will such enhancements serve as further distractions?”

Wolf and Barzillai’s suggest that successful learners will need to

“connect the existing expert deep-reading skills to the evolving information-processing skills in order to be able to use the resources of the twenty-first century external platforms of knowledge wisely and well. The task is to figure out how to get there.”

Learning is too important to be a passing fad or a lazy attempt to be “relevant”. We should not be dumbing down in an attempt to reach the on-line generation with their allegedly short attention spans. Good teachers who know their subject, have clear aims and understand the learning process should be designing and selecting the best possible e-learning materials and using them intelligently to enhance their students’ acquisition of knowledge and understanding; both broad and deep. They should also use the technology to share curriculum development and good practice in teaching and avoid reinventing the wheel.

In doing this we need to find time for concentration, thinking, speaking, listening, extended reading and writing in the learning process. We must be ambitious in our aims for e-learning. We want our students to be browsing the internet for book synopses and reviews as well as reading whole books and making their own minds up about them. We want them to be tweeting as well as writing essays, chatting with others about their learning as well as engaging in sustained individual effort. In short, we should be developing skilled learners who can use all the media available to them appropriately to enhance their learning and their lives.

And it may well be that one of the results of using new digital technologies could be to free teachers up to talk to their students more and engage in the very “Socratic” dialogue which the old man would most approve of.


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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