Witnessing harmful behaviours at school mean different things to different people – for some observers, harmful student behaviour is interpreted as a flaw in character, to others, the same behaviour is interpreted as a flaw in thinking. To gather some insight into this vital argument, maybe we should look back to the Fifth Century BC, to one of the most famous teachers of all times. Socrates is credited as being the philosopher who laid the foundations for Western thinking. Although a full analysis of his doctrine is beyond this document, one of his most powerful beliefs was surrounding the connection between knowledge and morality. In short, Socrates suggested that the degree of morality shown by individuals was little more than a reflection of the level of wisdom enjoyed by that individual.
“…. for no one knowingly prefers what is evil; and, if there are cases in which men seem to act against knowledge, the inference to be drawn is, not that knowledge and wrongdoing are compatible, but that in the cases in question, the supposed knowledge was after all, ignorance.”
Hence, the suggestion therein is that the students in our schools who do harm are in fact ignorant, rather than inherently evil - anyone who has facilitated many restorative events will accord with this concept. It could be said that the key focus of a restorative event is the stripping away of erroneous assumptions - personally I have witnessed many students in conference situations whom others have labeled as ‘bad’ reveal ignorance as their core deficiency. The cure for ignorance can never be force, but education – and restorative events are inherently educative in nature.
The Socratic Questioning Style
There is a universal law that states that force can never resolve ignorance. So too in the classroom, punishment alone can never build understanding within a student who is blind to the hidden harm that they are doing – force will only ever suppress that behaviour that is associated with that ignorance (at best), for it to reappear at a later date, maybe with renewed vigour, and with more damaging consequences.
So, how does an educator get inside a teenagers head to address damaging attitudes? - should we have subjects like 'empathy' and 'remorse' in our curriculum? I believe that it is unnecessary - because we can use every moment of wrong-doing as a moment of learning. But hard-working teachers may say, "How do I turn conflict into learning? - I'm not a psychologist!”
Socrates contribution to the restorative cause continues. Perhaps his greatest gift to restorative justice is his theory about the manner in which wisdom can be best gathered.
Socrates engaged in questioning of his students in an unending search for truth. He sought to get to the foundations of his students' and colleagues' views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption. This became known as the Socratic Method, and may be Socrates' most enduring contribution to philosophy.
So, asking questions may initially seem like a powerless position to take in the face of student behaviour that is rooted in ignorance, but in reality, it is one of the most powerful. There is a website that gives a transcript of how a Maths teacher gives an entire lesson on binary arithmetic by Socratic questioning – and all without ‘telling’. It makes fascinating reading and can be found at http://www.garlikov.com/Soc_Meth.html
So, Socratic questioning is understood by many to be the basis for the communication pattern that is associated with many Restorative Practices models – questions such as, “Who do you think you hurt when you did _____? - in what way?” (etc.). You may wish to pursue your own reading about the Socratic style but even in the commercial world the power of this approach is recognised – the implications for education and conflict in the classroom are very clear from the following account.
When your clients discover answers to their problems, rather than simply hear them from you, they will own the answers. Their ability to hold onto the concepts, apply them, and improve their situation will skyrocket. Improving your ability to help them discover (through the use of Socratic questioning), is a critical, though often overlooked skill.
Using more questions will cause you to lose the feeling of power that you are providing the “right” answer. But the client gains far more than you lose. While you may feel like you are losing emotionally, you win with the client, and probably strengthen your relationship with them too.
Although the above quote is from a sales perspective, it acknowledges that it feels unusual to adopt this style – but reflects the success that it brings if a person persists in incorporating this style into their personal communication repertoire.