What can Socrates teach us about cognitive science? (Pt. 2)

For the historical backing and considerations that contextualise this discussion – check out part 1!

The Myth of Meno, and Meno’s house-boy

Socrates, or rather Plato’s version of Socrates, relates the story of the slave-boy during his discussion with Meno on virtue. The discussion has taken a left-turn and has evolved into talking about learning. While backed into a corner, as one often found themselves in a Socratic discussion, Meno challenges Socrates to prove the strange claim that ‘learning is recollection’:

Socrates picks a slave from Meno’s entourage to help him prove his point. This slave boy had confidence in his own ability to speak ‘well and fluently’ on geometry.

Learners are frequently overconfident regarding their learning status, and test performance provides diagnostic feedback to inform them about the gap between their anticipated and actual learning level (Szpunar, Jing, & Schacter, 2014),

However, the slave boy is not able to generate a satisfactory response on how to create a square that is double the area of the original.

Through questioning the boy, securing an answer to a question that is ostensibly true, using mathematics, Socrates then asks another, and another.

Socrates goes on to explain: There had been some seed of recollection there, which he had ‘stirred up’. He had brought it to the forefront of the boy’s mind with a series of questions that caused the subject of the thought-experiment to
think hard.

Key takeaways and considerations

Granted, since the days of Socrates, our thoughts about where ideas come
from has shifted, largely due to the advent of cognitive science. We now know
that in psychology and cognitive science, thoughts and ideas are arranged into
schema, which organise categories of information and the relationships between
them. A mental structure that perceives and organises new information.

Regardless of how our ideas about ideas are worlds apart, in Platonism literally, there are still things we are able to learn from Socrates’s discussion with Meno about the nature of learning:

  1. The boy’s confidence in his own geometry was misplaced. As teachers, we pick out students and ask them blankly – What is your knowledge of X like? Are you confident at Y? For them simply to respond with ‘yes’. Since Meno’s boy’s knowledge of geometry fell flat, we must allow our students more time to think metacognitively. How do they know what they know? Additional exposure to this sort of thought may help to avoid flawed self-perceptions.
  2. The importance of good questions – each question does not necessarily have to call upon any background knowledge in order to produce knowledge. If you start from something that is true, thoughts can be developed further by positing further questions, allowing the learner to take cognitive leaps for themselves. In doing so, Socrates allows the boy to add to his own schemata.
  3. After a discussion with Meno again, Socrates returns to the boy, asking similar questions, but differently. Clearly an ancient parallel of what we know as the ‘testing effect’, which is the idea that frequent testing, verbal or otherwise, boosts the retention of the tested information. This allows the boy to strengthen the schemata used to accomplish the solution to this paving tile problem.
  4. Socrates talks the boy through the problem, using information previously asked about by him to inform how they would proceed with the problem. This shows how Socrates has supplied the relevant information in order to perform a skill. Rather than ‘practising a skill’, as we often ask students to do, Socrates has shown how to do the skill, given the necessary knowledge and tested beforehand on how to do the skill, and then allowed time in which to practice the skill. Again, this can refer back to our schemata – which Socrates has deftly built, and allowed to strengthen with self-directed practise. In this way, we can see Socrates and the boy benefitting from something known as the ‘worked example effect’ (Ticot & Sweller, 2013) – Upon seeing an expert (Socrates) manipulate the problems, while asking questions that test and solidify procedural knowledge, the boy is given time to participate in self-directed practise.Therefore, can skills be summarised simply as knowledge (information required, and procedural knowledge) and the time to practise: Skill = knowledge + Time
  5. Socrates’ process then of starting with known information, securing it, and asking further questions to develop the original ‘true’ hypothesis can therefore be seen as a literal parallel with the schema-building that it represents. This is how schemata are built – put down a solid foundation, while questioning and additional practice build and secure the levels of knowledge. Socrates, due to being already an expert in the field of geometry and mathematics (philosophers often were) is able to furnish the boy with enough ‘domain-specific’ knowledge: Tricot and Sweller, (2013) state that: We will argue that teachable aspects of problem solving skill are entirely Domain-Specific Knowledge dependent on large amounts of domain-specific information stored in long-term memory, rather than on other factors such as domain-general skills.” This means that the boy is able to succeed simply because he has been furnished with enough domain-specific knowledge in order to engage in problem-specific problem solving. This final point supports recent discoveries in cognitive science which have since been picked up by the education sector, often termed as ‘retrieval practice’. Retrieval practice, well-founded in cognitive science is the focus on retrieving and rehearsing information, purposely drawing it out from the long term memory into the short term memory. Each time this is done, both retrieval speed and strength are consolidated and strengthened. If retrieval practice is undertaken frequently, the retrieval process becomes automated, freeing up cognitive space for higher-order thought, such as problem solving. In essence: enough domain-specific knowledge by itself can lead to effective problem solving even without specific instruction on how to solve a particular problem.

Socrates’ conversation

Soc. Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?”


Boy. I do.

Soc. And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?

Boy. Certainly.

Soc. And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?

Boy. Yes.


Soc. A square may be of any size?

Closing Statements

“There is nothing new under the Sun”

There is some dispute over what Classics has to offer the modern world – It is hotly debated in staff rooms across the country.

However, by looking backwards, we are able to see glimpses of the wisdom of ‘those that came before’ and how well-established concepts in the present had seedlings of those same concepts planted many millennia ago.

If one amateur Classicist can look at a dusty dialogue from epochs ago and find relevance to the modern world, imagine what we could collectively do if we were to but look for it.


Ticot, A & Sweller, J (2013), Domain-Specific Knowledge and Why Teaching Generic Skills Does Not Work


Landry, E (2012), Recollection and the Mathematician’s Method in Plato’s Meno


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