Why AI is the future of Socratic learning

Debate in education is incredibly important, and AI-powered edtech has the power to enhance discursive learning

Education has changed dramatically this past year. In the new digital landscape, the rise of teleconferencing platforms and asynchronous learning have brought up a host of new challenges for educators when it comes to keeping students engaged remotely.

From early years to higher and further education, the ‘University of Zoom’ education model has been met with varying degrees of success. Although a necessary change, according to a recent survey, many students in higher education settings believe that their education will be less adequate than those who previously studied on-campus. Meanwhile, the parents of 60% of students in another report said that their children are learning less in the remote learning climate than would be the case with no pandemic.

There’s one overriding reason for this: at the moment, few online learning models can adequately replicate the efficacy of discursive, active learning methods that are usually offered in-person – and this is an important lesson for educators to learn going forward.

Re-tracing the Socratic method

Many modern teaching practices stem from ancient models of education. Harking back to the world of Ancient Greece, one of the oldest and most noteworthy of these came from one of the founders of Western Philosophy, Socrates.

In essence, the Socratic method is a form of co-operative dialogue between learners, based on posing and answering questions in order to stimulate critical thinking, challenge ideas, and promote a process of open-ended, lifelong learning. In the modern classroom, the Socratic method has been used by educators to engage students in critical questioning, developing their own ideas and perspectives.

As educators will know, often the best way to encourage students to reflect on their own learning process is to provide prompts. It’s not unfamiliar to hear, for example, a History professor ask their students, “Can you think of how x has changed throughout the years?” at the beginning of a lesson. Although they might not have studied these topics before, these memory aids signal that students should draw upon their prior knowledge to reach conclusions and expand their awareness. To push the process further educators will ask their students a series of follow-up questions, encouraging them to elaborate on their thoughts and promote further opportunities for knowledge retention and independent learning.

These methods are successful because they engage a student’s critical faculties, also ensuring that they are working at the right level of challenge. Ultimately, this is a trickier task when students are dispersed in different environments.

Although the Socratic method has been hailed as one of the most effective methods of knowledge transfer, this has been difficult to replicate in the remote setting. This is problematic; research has shown that as online learning becomes ubiquitous, it’s vital to improve teaching and assessment techniques in line with new developments and paradigm shifts.

Specifically, educators must employ a new repertoire of online tools and strategies to engage learners as the digital classroom persists in one form or another. As such, the Socratic method, as well as group projects and increased opportunities for collaboration, must come to the fore to enhance the online educational experience. 

Looking to new technologies to foster active learning

Looking ahead, educators must work to integrate new technologies into the curriculum that support and augment opportunities for Socratic learning. In the years to come, this will take the shape of artificial intelligence (AI) platforms that utilise natural language processing (NLP), as well as immersive tech like virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR).

“Looking ahead, educators must work to integrate new technologies into the curriculum that support and augment opportunities for Socratic learning”

Beyond the jargon, next-gen edtech solutions will increase student engagement with learning materials, and thereby improve understanding and academic success. AI-driven tools, for instance, will provide students with ample opportunities to question pre-supposed knowledge and develop their critical thinking skills in a way that’s specifically tailored to their individual academic journey.

NLP technologies in particular will be able to engage students with verbal prompts to further their knowledge and also answer their questions. Not only will AI act as something of a classroom assistant, it will also enable educators to provide a thorough and tailored curriculum to each student, whether they’re present in the physical classroom or working from home. This open-ended discussion should be an advantage to teachers who are overstretched with long hours and large class sizes. Further, these technologies provide sophisticated analytics that will give educators an insight into which of their methods are working most effectively.

Arguably, one of the most promising facets of AI-driven edtech is that these solutions have the ability to ingest knowledge and deliver on the Socratic ideal of lifelong learning. Instant recall and infinite memory enable edtech platforms to maintain a running record of interactions with learners, consistently saving insights and progress. Educators can always refer back to this data to see what is – and what isn’t – working, and students can consistently develop their knowledge without any unintended gaps in their learning.

Especially as the mass of information available online grows, this capacity for consistent questioning should improve learning outcomes for students and equip individuals with the skills they need to cut through the noise and take in the knowledge that really matters.

“In the future, AI stands out as one of the most transformational technologies available to educators, and one that I am confident will pave the way for more effective active learning”

In this regard, cutting-edge AI platforms will assist in the most difficult plight teachers face today, and one that they have faced for many years – the task of developing higher order thinking skills, like critical thinking and informed decision-making. No matter the century or cultural epoch, this will always remain a central concern for educators.

Ultimately, the past year has lifted the lid on a number of pertinent issues in pedagogical settings, and it’s vital that educators are on board with new developments, as well as drawing upon old and well-established learning techniques. In the future, AI stands out as one of the most transformational technologies available to educators, and one that I am confident will pave the way for more effective active learning.


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