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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Socratic Teaching

The Socratic method involves some complications. Ideally, it would be the method I always used, but I find myself sometimes lecturing, sometimes doing the group activities that the students like, sometimes using Socratic questions but not doing so well with them. I think if I outline the problems I am having maybe I will find a solution.

The instructor in this method either does not know the answers to the questions or pretends not to know, or knows but isn't saying yet. The Socratic method for a discussion often becomes a guessing game or fishing expedition rather than a true discussion. Socrates himself badgered his interlocutors until they came up with his own conclusions. The Socratic method is ineffective if the results are those reducible to matters of fact. It only works when the true aim is to teach the students to think better than they do, and where the students could conceivably come up with answers surprising to everyone in the room.

Students sometimes don't have enough to say. They need the questions in advance. Even graduate students, who you would expect to be able to discuss a text just by virtue of having read it, need a lot of initial prodding or advanced preparation.

The gap between the professor and the students can be too great. There has to be way of finding a middle ground, taking the students beyond the kind of answers they would typically give by prodding them a bit.

Finally, the language issue. Students don't feel that they can express their ideas in Spanish. What they say is often unclear, simplified, or otherwise modified by a process of interior translation.


Anonymous said...

I never figured out how to do this in an interesting way - .

Clarissa said...

I recently heard the following piece of advice at a teaching workshop. It sounded very trivial and simple but when I tried it, it did wonders to my classroom discussions.

The advice was to ask your question and then wait. Give the students time to respond and do not get antsy or frustrated or start reformulating the question. Apparently, one should stay silent at least up to a minute after asking a question. The same as for an actor, our workshop instructor said, the greatest skill for a prof is to learn to pause.

So now I ask a question and slowly count to 60 in my head. And it really helps.

Jonathan said...

I've heard that advice about leaving pauses, but I haven't done it. I'm going to try this today since I have a discussion planned.

Anonymous said...

Here everyone is Latin and extroverted. They wouldn't stay silent for 3 seconds, let alone 60, unless you gave a test.

Andrew Shields said...

I notice when I'm fishing for an answer, and I rarely like the feeling.