Thursday, June 26, 2014

Socratic Dialog - A Dinosaur Approach or Quintessential Teaching?

A call was sent out by the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning for volunteers to offer sessions for their TA training the week before the semester starts.  I ignored it.  I ignore the vast majority of solicitations I get, though most are asking for money and that wasn't the case here.  There was another reason, one more substantive.  I've never taught a course which utilized graduate teaching assistants.  I've had graduate students as graders before, typically nice students with poor English skills.  I've used undergraduate students who've already taken my class as online teaching assistants.  And I've served as ed tech consultant on projects in courses large enough that they did have graduate students as teaching assistants.  So there is some experience but not enough of the relevant sort for me to feel competent to offer a session for TAs.  And in the solicitation, which gave examples of the sort of sessions they wanted, much of that wasn't how I think about teaching at all. For example, there was mention of lesson plans.  That approach (coupled with PowerPoint presentation to deliver the lesson) is critiqued by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick.  The problem is the entire focus becomes the subject matter. Typically, the audience will turn off to that.  The focus, instead, should be on the hooks the audience might create into the subject matter.  But if one does that, one either has to know the audience ahead of time or learn about them during the session in a way where those hooks become exposed.  If the instructor doesn't know the audience, how does the instructor learn about them?  Can that be planned ahead of time or must there be improvisation to get at this important information? 

A second call for volunteers went out from CITL.  Apparently, the response from the first solicitation wasn't adequate.  It seemed they were desperate for volunteers.  It occurred to me that my lack of relevant experience might not matter much under the circumstances.  I do have teaching experience, quite a lot of it actually.  So I offered up a session based on that.  In the 2000s when I was a full time administrator and taught as an overload, that was in seminar classes, mainly to Campus Honors students.  The first of these was in 2004 in Econ 101, Principles of Economics.  The class went remarkably well and throughout I used inquiry methods.   I wrote about that a few years later in a post called What's Next, which was meant for all of learning technology.  The stuff about that honors class is in the last third of the piece.  This is the operative paragraph:

Intrinsic motivation also enters via “clever assignments,” experiential learning, and classroom experiments. The first assignment I gave to those honors kids was for each of them to identify Principles of Economics textbooks that are in the top 10 by market share, with each student receiving 10 points of credit per book if they were the sole provider of the title and no credit at all if the title was offered up by another classmate as well. The assignment worked like a charm the first time I did this, when I had 15 students. The outcome was that they identified all books in the top 10 and then some, one student earned 10 points but otherwise all the titles that were submitted came in duplicates, and then they had to puzzle over why they put in effort but (except for that one student) got no credit for their travails. This assignment was my introduction to the core idea that economics is about incentives. It was a great introduction. I had them hooked for the rest of course. Is there a way to do something similar in a high enrollment course? Again, I don't know, but it seems worth investigating.

I taught two more CHP classes after that.   One was in 2006, a repeat of Econ 101.  The other was in 2009 and was not an Economics class.  It was a course on Designing for Effective Change that I wrote about in this piece in Inside Higher Ed called Teaching with Blogs.  After about two weeks of proceeding as I had done in the Econ classes, the students complained that I was monopolizing the discussion and requested that they lead the discussion themselves.  I assented to this request, though its implementation required me to bite my lip repeatedly.  During the next class session I had the urge to intercede, but suppressed that.  The class was discussing Atul Gawande's The Bell Curve, one of my favorite essays.  They never got to the gist of the piece.  They spent the entire time on some of the early facts in the setup and iterated on those.  Afterward I criticized them.  Using the metaphor of swimming in a natural body of water, I told them there was this beautiful lake but they never made it to its center.  Instead, they spent the entire time swimming in the reeds.  This outcome was rather disturbing.  CHP students are the best we have on campus and they weren't making good meaning of an essay that was written for a general audience.  I didn't know if the cause was their individual lack of reading comprehension or if, instead, the group dynamic kept those who did understand the piece from driving the conversation to the meat of the essay.  I never learned the true cause, but thereafter we opted for a mixed mode where sometimes the students would drive the discussion and other times I would drive.

Less than a year later I retired.  My teaching since has been in regular classes, most recently in an upper level undergraduate course on the Economics of Organizations.  I use Socratic methods part of the time, when we are discussing conceptual matters or when we consider student experiences that speak to those conceptual issues.  Ironically, I don't do it when we cover the math models for the course.  The irony is that I was first exposed as a student to Socratic methods when I took the graduate Math Econ course from Stan Reiter on Debreu's Theory of Value.  Stan favored a Socratic approach and utilized it throughout the course, which covered two consecutive quarters.  We graduate students were in awe of Stan.  His way of doing things must have rubbed off on me.  Indeed, in my first year teaching at Illinois, after I completely bombed with the lecture approach in Intermediate Microeconomics in the fall I had more success in the spring teaching Math Econ, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels.  In the graduate course we did Theory of Value and I did my impersonation of Stan.  It was a very easy role to play.

The test regarding effectiveness of the approach, however, is not whether the instructor is comfortable as a teacher.  It is whether the students learn, in a deep way.  I want to get at that from a different angle.  But before I do let me explain why I don't use Socratic methods when doing the math with my undergrads.  Students need to make some penetration on their own before an ensemble discussion via Socratic dialog has value to them.  While a handful of my students can penetrate the math for my course, many seem unable to do this.  Moreover, they seem to expect that their initial foray into the subject will come via lecture, rather than them working through the textbook and/or the end of chapter problems.  So I lecture to them on the math, either online via screen capture movies or in class using chalk. Typically, I have them first confront the math via an online homework in Excel that is dialogic in its design.  Those are either too Spartan or the students are not aware that afterward they should be doing a lot of filling in the blanks on their own by making their own derivations of the general results.  My lectures end up doing that. 

* * * * *

While Socratic dialog is other than lecture, in a non-seminar class setting it is still very much in the "sage on the stage" mode.  The use of the expression "dinosaur approach" in my title is meant to refer to that.  For years and years we've heard that the sage on the stage should die off in favor the "guide on the side."  The critics, obviously, were focused on the lecture, which they pooh poohed, favoring active learning techniques instead.  If they had a long and hard look at Socratic dialog would they feel likewise?  I will return to that question in a bit.

Here's a different question.  How much of teaching should be personal modeling of learning behavior, with the students via their imitation following the instructor's lead?  In the broad discussion about teaching and learning so much has been said about critical thinking.  For whatever pitfalls it has, Socratic dialog does model critical thinking and may be the closest thing to what students will ever see of how professors go about their own inquiries, in their research and in their service work.  That's certainly a plus.  Whether the students pick up on that modeling then becomes the heart of the matter.

I mention this because I feel a need to bring my own biases out in the open.  I'm very skeptical of active learning techniques for other than very narrowly defined problems especially when students are not otherwise very far along in their own critical thinking.  Further, it often doesn't work well with adult learners.  When I've been at conferences where the table I'd be sitting at was supposed to have some group discussion that the presenters tasked us with - and these were all adult learners who presumably were quite interested in the subject of the session - the level of the conversation would typically be pretty low and I'd get little out of the discussion on the substance, though sometimes the table discussions served as a way to meet colleagues from other campuses.  And I recall one reading group I was part of on campus devoted to the book Group Genius (the author had been the featured speaker at the Campus Active Learning Retreat) where again I didn't get more from the group activity then I could have gotten individually and in some instances I was better able to solve group tasks on my own.

Part of this was that group member selection was haphazard - simply based on who showed up.  I believe groups can be very effective when each member has some comparative advantage on which to base her contribution.  I have been part of many such productive groups.  Absent this sort of comparative advantage, however, I'm afraid the group might produce mush - much like my Honors class had with that swimming in the reeds experience. Others may feel differently about small group work done during the live class session and believe that to be the source of real learning.  It is for these others that I felt it imperative to get my bias onto the table.  

One of these others is Norma Scagnoli.  She and I worked together in the College of Business when I was the Associate Dean for eLearning.  As part of trying to encourage a Luddite professor to embrace blended learning Norma and I attended his MBA class, taught in a classroom with tiered seating in an amphitheater style.  While the chairs in this classroom do rotate so students can face their neighbors when paired for discussion, the ensemble mode encourages a faculty centric approach, especially when the instructor abandons the podium and use of the resident computer by walking down to the floor in the center of the room.  Then all the student eyes abandon the screen and look straight at the instructor.  This instructor was engaged in Socratic dialog with his class.  He talked a lot of the time, because each of his questions required substantial setup ahead of time.  Then when he posed a question a few students raised their hand and it was mainly the same students from one question to the next.  What of the others?  Were they getting anything out of the session?  Norma thought they weren't getting much.

How would one know?  Since that 2009 class, which had only 17 students all of whom were very bright, I have been very conscious about teaching quiet students and whether students can learn as much simply by listening to the discussion as they would if they participated in it.  In that 2009 class I arrived at the conclusion that if the students have other means for expressing their ideas that may be sufficient.  It gives one rationale for having a writing component to the course.  I have a blog post on that theme composed after the course concluded. A moment's reflection, however, suggests that it is possible that students will express their thinking in venues that are unavailable to the instructor.  They will miss getting the instructor's feedback that way, but that does not preclude that they are learning.  Yet even recognizing this possibility, Norma's view might still be right for most students.  Observers of only the live class session don't have enough information to make a precise determination on this matter.

This past fall I was having issues with quiet students and it seemed to me many of them were Asian, so might be struggling with my approach for both cultural and language reasons.  Since I did require student blog posts and would make comments on those, and since one of my exceptionally quiet students proved to be an excellent writer, I asked him about it.  He informed me he was quiet in all his classes, not just mine.  He said he didn't think it was either cultural or a matter of language.  He just preferred it that way.  It's a sample of one only, so I don't want to over interpret it.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to hear a student articulate the point.

* * * * *

I've gotten some positive feedback to my use of Socratic dialog, from sources where I didn't expect it.  It is impossible for me to separate out the cause - the method, me, or the method and me in some combination.  After mentioning the sources of this feedback I want to conclude with other ideas about Socratic dialog that have not been addressed above.

One source happened during my first year as a faculty member at the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Program in summer 2007, when it was in Madison Wisconsin.  Kathy Christoph was the host and I believe she and Perry Hanson conducted the closing plenary session the last morning, when there was a debrief of the week.  Kathy and Perry asked the attendees to recount highlights, offer up other reactions, and give suggestions for how the week might be done better the next time around.  One woman, whom if I recall correctly worked in the area, was emphatic that my session on interacting with faculty was the high point.  I had also been assigned to her Making the Case group. She seemed particularly defensive at first and I believe I was somewhat critical of that.  So I was pleasantly surprised by her reaction.  After the Institute one of my co-presenters, who was rotating off after that summer, emailed me a thank you note.   Mainly she was grateful that I embraced LTL fully even though I was a pinch hitter for somebody else.  He had gotten seriously ill and couldn't continue with the institute.  Undoubtedly it is harder to be an Institute faculty member when not there at the beginning of the planning.  She and I ended up experimenting with an approach not used the year before.  The experiment was a success.  Mostly her note was about my willingness to try something different.  But in her note she also took mention about my Socratic inquiry approach.  What I garnered is that the Socratic approach was somewhat rare, for participants and colleagues alike, and at least for some they appreciated the way I applied it.

The other sort of feedback is even stranger.  My undergraduate class is available to graduate students, who can take the course as an elective.  The Economics department has a professional masters program for big bucks tuition aimed as an alternative to an MBA for an international audience of mid level administrators.  The last two times I've taught the course I've had a woman from China in my class who was in this program.  This was an act of bravery on their part because of the writing requirement.  They seemed to embrace the challenge.  In their final blog posts, which are meant as a self critique and a critique of the course, they each commented about the energy exuded in the class discussions and the sense of openness that these discussions created.  They said neither was present in their other courses.  The feedback is strange because in planning for the course I didn't consider graduate students at all.  This is an undergraduate course and undergraduates were the focus. I didn't cater to the graduate student needs at all, yet somehow that ended up happening anyway

The issue of energy in the classroom (I would call it intellectual intensity) matters.  If the students don't find it threatening it should serve as a source of motivation.  Having the classroom be open also matters.  If students feel comfortable that they can express their views and those views will be well considered, they are much more apt to participate.  This would seem desirable.

I should conclude.  First a remark that Socratic dialog is not Shangri-La.  Each student may perceive it differently and students may have different expectations about the response the instructor will give after they have responded to an instructor-posed query.  For the first time in my teaching, last fall I had a student tell me that I was rude in responding to her.  I really don't know if I was of if she overreacted to what I said.  What I do know is that such feelings persist long after the incident that generated them.  I had a different student who generally liked the course but said we went off on tangents too often, and sometimes never returned to the topic under consideration.  As with the previous student, I'm not sure if this is a fair criticism or not.  But it does point to that Socratic methods are more art than science, that if inquiry is to be followed seriously then one needs to understand it is not linear, and therefore that some straying off the main path is absolutely necessary.  How much straying, however, is anyone's guess.

Socratic methods work for me, if not always for my students.  They make a session unique, even if I've taught a similar session the year before, because the students responses can't be anticipated in advance and one does have to improvise a meaningful response to them.  That means I'm on my toes figuratively and learning from the students while I hope they are learning from me.  It means part of teaching is listening to the students with the hope of spotting stumbling blocks as well as getting students to provide the insight. 

It may not be a method that works for all teachers and it may be hard for a first time TA to employ it, for much the same reasons as a student driver has difficulty having a conversation while at the wheel.  There may be too much other stuff to concentrate on.  Yet for those TAs who'd like to try something different, I'd encourage them to do so.  I'm eager to see how this session in August works out.

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