Written by Andrew Kern

Classical education rouses the student’s mind to action through two methods: the Didactic and the Dialectic. Let’s take a brief look at each of these modes of instruction.

The Didactic Method
If you have heard the word “didactic,” it was probably used for lectures or some other form of instruction in which the active teacher presented information to the passive student. That is not how the word was used in the classical tradition. In fact, didactic instruction engages the student’s mind and makes him an active learner.

Let me suggest a more accurate way to think about didactic instruction.

When a teacher engages in didactic instruction, she presents models to the students for mutual contemplation. For example, if I want my students to understand Renaissance art, then I place some Renaissance works of art in front of them and we contemplate them together. If I want my students to learn a proof in geometry, I place some examples of that proof before them and we contemplate them together. If I want my students to understand a poetic device, a noble soul, or a musical idea, I place before them examples of the poetic device, the noble soul, or the musical idea.

Note that in this approach to didactic instruction the teacher and the student are engaged in a mutual contemplation. Both are actively thinking about the models placed before them. As a result, both move toward a more accurate understanding of the ideas contained in the object.

To make didactic instruction effective, begin with an idea you want your student to understand. Find models of the idea and, together, analyze each model individually for its properties and qualities. Next, compare the models with each other to find common properties. Finally, compare the models with other models of different types. This enables you to establish what is unique to the idea you are contemplating.

This method is very effective when you want the student to understand an idea or interpret an artifact (e.g. a painting, musical composition, text, etc.). You can use it effectively in science, art, music, math, and languages. It is also a wonderful way to approach children’s reading, which should be dominated by Bible stories, myths, fables, folk tales, and fairytales–the staples of a young student’s mental diet. Because we are inspired when we contemplate great things, this method is inherently inspiring.

The Dialectic Method
The second method you will want to use as a classical educator is the dialectic method, more often called Socratic Method. In a way, this is a very easy method to use, but in another way, it is extraordinarily difficult.

Perhaps the easiest way to think of the Dialectic or Socratic Method is to think of it as the relentless pursuit of truth through unceasing questions. To engage in dialectic method, establish your goal to clearly understand truth and get on with it.

Once you’ve grown comfortable with questioning your students, you will want to refine your understanding of dialectic instruction. Socrates’ questioning usually fell into two stages, the ironic and the maieutic.

In the ironic stage, you use questions to probe your student’s understanding–to find the inadequacies in his thoughts. These inadequacies might include contradictions, insufficient definitions of terms, faulty logic (especially things like hasty generalizations and reversal of cause and effect), and other common mistakes that we make all too frequently. The purpose of the ironic stage is to weaken the individual’s confidence in an inadequate understanding of reality.

After the student recognizes the inadequacy of his original idea and wants a clearer apprehension of the truth, he is ready for the maieutic stage. In this second stage, you will make more suggestions than you did in the ironic stage, but questions still drive your student. In the end, the student and the teacher both better understand an idea. The purpose of the maieutic stage is to give birth (“maieutic” is Greek for “having to do with a midwife”) to this more accurate understanding of reality.

It is important to notice that both the didactic and dialectic methods of teaching are engaged in thinking about ideas by asking questions. There is no more effective method for training the mind.


Andrew Kern is the president and founder of the CiRCE Institute. He  co-authored with Dr. Gene Edward Veith the best-selling Classical Education, The Movement Sweeping America, now in its second edition.


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