Friday, November 22, 2013

Socratic Dialog in Face to Face Instruction

I like to teach with a Socratic approach and try to make class more like a conversation.  There are some challenges when doing this with undergraduate students.  Sometimes I'm unable to frame a question in a way where the students see what I'm driving at.  If in a second framing there are still blank stares, then I'm prone to answer my own question to break the logjam.  Also, in my approach students volunteer their answers by raising their hands.  I don't call on a person if the person doesn't have a hand raised.  Participation is not universal this way.  In particular, Asian students seem more reluctant to participate, though I'm unsure whether the explanation is language or difference in cultural norms.

These limitations notwithstanding, I think the approach continues to have merit, and I will elaborate on why below.  But first note that our current rhetoric about instruction - active learning, flipped classrooms, online micro-lectures, etc., doesn't seem to embrace Socratic dialog in the process.  Let me conjecture why and then use that conjecture to discuss flaws in our current approach, particularly with regard to General Education.

There are size limits for the class if a Socratic approach is to be employed.  I've got 23 students now and not all come.  It certainly works in that setting.  In a flat classroom perhaps the upper limit is 30 or 35 students.  In an amphitheater style classroom with tiered seating perhaps as many as sixty could be in the class, though the issue of broad participation would be exacerbated in that case. 

It certainly can't happen in a large lecture setting.  But it probably also can't happen in a TA-led discussion section.  The approach requires the instructor to be confident enough to temporarily cede the agenda to a student, which happens when the student responds to an instructor-posed question.  The student response itself demands a response.   Further, all students who have their hands raised must be given turns to chime in.  This gives some unpredictability to how the class discussion will unfold.  The instructor has to contribute responses aimed at illuminating how the subject matters speaks to the points the students have raised.  If the instructor either doesn't sufficiently react to what the students say or doesn't create ties to the subject matter while reacting, the approach will be ineffective and the students might very well be frustrated by it.  So it is cognitively more demanding on the instructor because the Socratic dialog requires a certain type of thinking-on-your-feet.   A straight lecture can proceed more according to script, even when there is Question and Answer time allocated in the lecture.   That lecture is more scripted contributes a lot to why it remains a common approach even in smaller classes.

In contrasting the two, straight lecture is typically full of conclusions.  Socratic dialog is peppered with, "why?"  Young kids have no problem posing the why question, but they typically don't have the wherewithal to answer those questions.  As students get further along, many students stop asking the why question and content themselves with absorbing what the instructor and textbook says. To a certain extent, Socratic dialog is putting the shoe on the other foot.  It has the further benefit of students seeing a bit of a struggle in coming to a satisfactory response to a question.  My class is definitely better at doing this now than they were earlier in the semester.  But still there are many times where they meander around a satisfactory response rather than get to it straight away.  And then they get to see how one question with a satisfactory response leads to another question.  Ideas unfold in stages and students get a sense of that.  There is also that students who have given responses have contributed to the discussion in a way that gets them to have ownership in what the class is doing.  All of this is for the good.

It takes some time for things to gel - perhaps a month or two.  Part of this is my learning who they are - matching names with faces - and being able to connect on occasion what they respond in class to what they've written in their blog posts.  The posts are sometimes taken as the basis for the discussion.  It is also necessary for the students to get a sense of how I will respond to them.  I don't believe in giving praise when I find a response off base.  Early on, some of the students expect to be congratulated merely for their participation.  On the other hand, I value the making of certain mistakes, especially those that help to illustrate the issues we are studying.  So once in a while I will actually give a very enthusiastic response to an error.  It takes a while for the students to understand all of this, that it is not personal, and that what we're really after is a coherent narrative about the economics we are studying, one that has been constructed from the basics on up.  

I don't want to oversell what I've been able to accomplish in class.  Indeed, I'm somewhat frustrated that I don't see more of the dialog approach to thinking in the blog posts that students write.  Those tend to address the prompt I pose, but to not otherwise be based on a line of inquiry.  The students offer up responses there, but don't look for additional questions or puzzles that stem from the response they've provided. In my comments on their posts I will try to bring in some of those questions.  But the students haven't figured out yet that it is really their responsibility to do that.

I'm now going to guess at why and in the process offer my critique that I mentioned above.  There is so much socialization that students have had in their prior courses that cuts the other way.  Last year I wrote a long tome about the evils of memorization, which I view as THE LEARNING PROBLEM, particularly for students in the social sciences.  I don't want to repeat the argument here.  I simply want to reiterate that large lecture classes tend to encourage the students to memorize and produce a teach-to-the-test mindset in the instructors.   I also want to note that these large lecture courses are the mainstay of General Education at big public universities like Illinois and are what the students mainly confront in their courses during the first year or two.  Habits about how students go about their studies are formed during this time.  Those habits are very hard to break. 

So there is a question of whether we can do better, not just in my class but for the students over their entire trajectory at the university.  My friends and colleagues in the learning technology arena may be surprised at me saying this - I don't think technology is the answer.  I'm not sure what is the answer.

Instead I'll offer up a fantasy.  Make clones of me who like teaching with Socratic dialog and are comfortable with it and have those clones teach modestly sized sections that freshmen take.  Do it in great enough numbers that is serves as a realistic counter force to the large lecture approach.  Then do it again for the sophomores.  Perhaps after that, by the time I see them in my class, the students will have figured out how they should go about their learning.

I know that fantasy doesn't help in coming up with a solution.  But we in learning technology have a tendency of coming up with solutions without discussing what problem it is that we're solving.  The fantasy does help with that.

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