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Protagoras and Meno Learning Theories of Plato

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Plato’s Theory of Learning in Meno

The Greek philosopher Plato is considered one of the greatest thinkers, as his teachings regarding politics, mathematics, and education are still highly influential today. One of the core ideas of Platonic epistemology is the belief that knowledge is innate and one learns by recalling this knowledge. In Protagoras and Meno, Plato (1956) depicts a conversation between Meno and Socrates to emphasize this notion that students learn through recollection and must seek new knowledge through questioning the world around them. This theory of learning is later corroborated by authors Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000), who assert that humans are born with an innate understanding of the basic principles of life, which are then used to build new knowledge for themselves.

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In Meno, Plato dictates Socrates’ words as he philosophizes with Meno about the nature of virtue. “So we need not be surprised if [the soul] can recall the knowledge of virtue or anything else which, as we see, it once possessed. […] seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection” (Plato, 1956, p. 130). When Meno questions him and asks Socrates to show him how there can be no such thing as teaching, Socrates fetches a slave boy and asks him a complex geometry question. The boy answers several of Socrates’ questions confidently and boldly, yet the philosopher’s questioning allows him to discover on his own that his answer is wrong, thus confusing him. Socrates then turns to Meno and asks, “So in perplexing him and numbing him like the sting-ray, have we done him any harm? […] In fact we have helped him to some extent towards finding out the right answer, for now not only is he ignorant of it but he will be quite glad to look for it” (Plato, 1956, p. 135). Through asking questions instead of teaching the boy, Socrates assists him in reaching the right answer. He explains to Meno that the boy, despite never having any formal education, has strong opinions about a subject he has never been exposed to; thus, he must possess internal knowledge. This innate knowledge, which Socrates believes is connected to a previous life, ultimately begets learning.

In their book How People Learn, Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) encompass a broad range of views on both learning and teaching. One central principle of their arguments concerning education is the idea that “Fundamental understanding about subjects […] contributes to individuals’ more basic understanding of principles of learning that can assist them in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learners” (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000, p.5). Their primary theory of learning states that humans possess an array of pre-existing knowledge, skills, and beliefs which, “in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge” (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000, p.10). Students and teachers alike should take care not to ignore these initial understandings in favor of new information, as they provide a framework that assists in constructing new knowledge. This framework, or scaffolding, provides assistance in learning new things and prepares children to “transfer what they have learned to new problems and settings” (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000, p. 13). While the existing beliefs that they hold about the world may be crude and naïve, such as the assumption that the world is flat, they serve as a starting point for learning. Bransford et al. (2000) firmly believe that preconceptions must be addressed in order to change these beliefs and achieve a deeper, more mature understanding of the subject matter.

Like Plato (1956), Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) state that knowledge is, to some extent, innate. Children enter the world understanding a great deal of basic principles of life, and they learn through recalling this information. They need to seek the knowledge that lies within them, according to Plato (1956). Likewise, Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) expound on the meaning of knowledge, saying that it “has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it” (2000, p. 5). Finding knowledge, however, does not mean reading a book in order to study facts about history or literature. Instead, the student needs “to ask meaningful questions about various subject areas” (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000, p.5) in order to be an accomplished, self-sustaining learner. By asking meaningful questions, students use their pre-existing knowledge to arrive at a more thorough understanding of the subject they are trying to learn. The importance of questions is central to Plato’s philosophy of learning. He proves this in Meno (1956) by pointing out the role of questioning in the education of the young boy. The knowledge the slave displays “will not come from teaching but from questioning. He will recover it for himself” (Plato, 1956, p. 138). The teacher may provide an opportunity to learn, just as Socrates does when he shows the geometric figure to the slave boy, but learning itself comes from within the student as he recollects his pre-existing knowledge. As Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) claim, “For the scientific understanding to replace the naïve understanding, students must reveal the latter and have the opportunity to see where it falls short” (p. 16). Students need to have the chance to learn, to test their own current understandings and see where it fails, in order to learn new concepts. This is very similar to Socrates’ experiment; the young boy learned only by being able to work with the geometric problem and seeing his pre-existing opinion proven false.

The contemporary theory of learning proposed by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) is similar to Plato’s ancient philosophy of learning through recollection. However, the passage of time has resulted in changes in thinking. Modern belief holds that “new knowledge must be constructed from existing knowledge [and] teachers need to pay attention to […] the naïve renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject” (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000, p. 10), while Plato argued that “there is no such thing as teaching” (1956, p. 130). While the role of the teacher is debatable, the same basic principle holds true over the ages: learning comes from within, and one who learns needs to recall and work with their innate understandings in order to arrive at the truth.

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