The Socratic Method – Making a Comeback?

Socrates Louvre - Sting [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia describes the Socratic method as “form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.” (“Socratic Method,” 2016, “Definition,” para. 1).

In Chapter 2 of “A More Beautiful Question“, William Deresiewicz and Sebastian Thrun make mention of Socratic teaching. In relation to the online world, Thrun hopes that this method of teaching makes a comeback. The topic of Socratic teaching sparked my interest not only because it poses the question of being able to “teach ourselves to question” but also because it references the online environment which makes up 100% of both my personal learning education and professional teaching career. Food for thought: Is it easier for online learners to question simply because of the online environment? Are college institutions becoming more technocratic when it comes to education? Can we teach ourselves to be a better questioner? Is the Socratic method of teaching making a comeback?

Deresiewicz believes that the college education students are receiving now is more technocratic in nature. He states that, “They’re trained to develop expertise in a particular area–trained to solve problems that are particular to that area. It’s about jumping through hoops, and mastering what’s on the test” (Berger, 2014, p. 67). Instead, students don’t have the opportunity to stop and actually think about what and why they’re doing it let alone ask the “big questions about values and meaning and purpose” (p. 67).

According to Deresiewicz, professors that can inspire students to ask the big questions are rare. How did his favorite professor and mentor “spark inquiry”? Deresiewicz noted that Man with many questions - https://pixabay.com/photo-479670/his professor had “an ability to reframe things–to ask questions that got at something fundamental” (Berger, 2014, p. 68). Do teachers always have to the answers to every single question? How do learners perceive a teacher that doesn’t have the answer? Essentially, the Socratic method doesn’t always find the answers to every question, but rather may provoke additional questions for consideration, “…students find it really liberating t have a teacher say, ‘I don’t know the answer–so let’s figure this out together.'” states Deresiewicz (p. 68).

Sebastian Thrun, professor and founder and CEO of Udacity, is trying to bring the Socratic method of teaching as described by Deresiewicz, to online teaching. A Udacity course isn’t about broadcasting lectures while a learner absorbs information, it’s about interjecting “thoughtful questioning at critical junctures” (Berger, 2014, p. 68) so that it provokes the learner to really think about what they’re learning and to ask the big questions that can spark inquiry. Is questioning easier in an online environment? Thrun and one of his partners Irene Au, believe this to be the case and they believe that anonymity plays a role. Although Deresiewicz and Thrun don’t see eye-to-eye on the notion that questioning is easier online, they do both agree that questioning is critically important and necessary and support the Socratic method.

Since 100% of my everyday teaching takes place in an online environment, I am able to observe student interaction and questioning first hand within a higher education setting. A portion of the final grade is based upon discussion forum interaction and asking/answering questions related to the week’s topic. There is also a “help” forum that I highly encourage students to use for asking questions as well as for collaborating and assisting others. I participate within the weekly discussions and respond to students by asking questions about their questions to get them to think outside of the box and “spark inquiry”. Often I find that when I question, it has an avalanche effect and students follow my lead. When this occurs, amazing discussions take place! Whether it’s obvious to the students or not, they are essentially teaching themselves to be better questioner.

I also find that students are more open to asking questions in an online environment, giving credence to the statement made by Thrun and Au that anonymity plays a role. Comparing the discussion forums in my online classrooms to my traditional classrooms from previous years, the amount of complex, out-of-the-box type of questions, are greater in my online classrooms.

Is the Socratic method of teaching making a comeback and replacing more of the technocratic method of teaching in college institutions? If teachers are sparking inquiry within their students and students are critically thinking about what they are doing and the reason(s) why, and are encouraged to ask the “big questions”, then yes, the Socratic method of teaching is making a comeback. As a teacher will you always have the answer to every question? No, but that’s okay.

References:

Altmann, G. (2014, October). [People] [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photo-479670/

Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breathrough Ideas. New York City, NY: Bloomsbury USA.

Gaba, E. (2005, July). [Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos.] [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASocrates_Louvre.jpg

Socratic Method. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September, 8, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method#cite_note-0

 

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2 thoughts on “The Socratic Method – Making a Comeback?

  1. Hi Jacqueline!

    I think it is so cool how you have such a different experience within the education field than most! 100% online for both your own classes and professional career has to be quite the opportunity. I agree with you that there seems to be curiosity missing within our own learners today. I, too, struggle with determining how to increase this important piece within my curriculum. This is an area that has stumped me and I hope to continue to search and discover ways to do so. You also mentioned how you are able to question your learner’s questions and that there are greater out-of-the-box type questions in your online classroom. Do you think that the ability to have more processing time before needed to post their response allows for this, versus a classroom where students are sitting with a group and needing to responding more quickly? I am curious what you think as I wonder if I gave learners more time to think and wonder if this would aid to increase their own curiosity.

    Thank you for sharing your views and thoughts!
    Annah

    1. Hi Annah!

      Thank you for the feedback, it’s much appreciated. I think you really hit the nail on the head with your comment regarding more processing time when it comes to questioning in an online course. I personally believe that that does play a very important role in the online environment. Just as we have to complete some activity then create a blog post about that activity or a particular topic in this course, we have time to learn, process, and then respond accordingly. I think the online environment provides some of that structure simply because of the medium being used. In a traditional classroom, often learners do not have that luxury and time to process. Maybe learners do not want to participate, are afraid to ask questions, the environment may be distracting…there may be multiple factors at play. I would be very curious what you would notice in a traditional classroom if you did allow more processing time. That would be a great experiment!

      Jackie

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