My Socratic Adventure – Why I’m Going Socratic
In less than a week, I jump in with both feet. As a college professor who loves teaching, I try to vary up my pedagoy every year or so to keep things fresh. This summer, I’ve done a lot of research on Socratic pedagogy and the more I’ve read (and talked with those who’ve used it) the more I like what I heard. So, in less than 1 week, when the Fall semester starts, I will be taking the plunge and running one of my classes in almost its full entirety Socratically. So that I can track (and let others in on) my experiences, I am going to blog about my experience doing this throughout the semester (and maybe the upcoming school year)
What is Socratic pedagogy? Well, in brief, it is running the class in a highly discussion driven way. While I generally keep lecture to a minimum anyway, this semester, I will do as little lecturing as possible. The course will be centered around texts I have students read, and my role will largely be confined to crafting discussion questions that we can have conversations about in class. But even beyond that, it won’t resemble the traditional “discussions” we see in most classrooms, where the teacher stands at the front of the room and calls on students, who do their best to craft answers to the discussion questions that the professor/teacher wants to hear. Socratic pedagogy generally demands that the students face each other during discussion and talk to each other rather than the teacher, while the teacher either sits and discusses with the students, or stands outside the discussion, occasionally jumping in to move conversation forward. Quite literally, Socratic pedagogy is about as student led as things can get.
So, why am I so excited to try this? There are a few reasons. First, I have noticed over the past few years of college teaching that college students are really good at two things: (a) they are quite good at absorbing what teachers lecture and remembering it well enough to repeat on exams or papers, and (b) they are good at expressing initial reactions to arguments. What I want to help them practice – and what I think Socratic pedagogy could help them practice – is the ability to really analyze and think about (and rethink about, in light of conversation with others) texts and arguments.
Now, I want to be clear: I do not for one second think that students’ general lack of comfort with this kind of higher level thinking is their fault. You will not see my reading and cheering along with such books as The Dumbest Generation or elitist hooey like that. Quite frankly, I think that students are simply doing what we’ve demanded of them and haven’t developed skills that (GASP!) we’ve never expected them to grasp in a school setting. For 12+ years, they have been grade in school primarily on exams and papers that (like most of the k-12 curriculum) prize breadth over depth (how big your bibliography is and how clear your sentences, more than how sustained the analysis in the paper).
Thus, we talk a lot about teaching critical thinking, but very seldom teach students how to think critically by practicing that sort of thinking with them. The developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky has a sociocultural theory of how we learn to reason that I find quite attractive. Reason, he wrote, develops by students being able to internalize the type of dialogue they hear out in the world in their heads. This requires generally that, first, students are exposed to hearing instances of reasoned dialogue between individuals. Second, students learn to participate in that type of dialogue with other individuals. Lastly, once they get the hang of that, they start to have those types of dialogues internally. (So, when I read a book and reason through its arguments, a Vygotskyan account would suggest that I am basically questioning my account of what the author is saying as if I were having a dialogue with someone else about the author’s argument, only I am doing this all in my own head.
So, by that account, it would stand to reason that the more we ask students to enter into this type of sustained rational dialogue with others (teachers and students), the more they will become adept at and comfortable with sustained rational reflection (that goes beyond their first reaction to an argument) themselves.
Secondly, I want to make my courses as student-centered as possible because it does seem that the best learning is generally the learning where the direction is dictated as much as possible by the students. Socratic pedagogy, of course, doesn’t give students complete freedom – I still choose the readings, I still have the gradebook, I still serve as discussion “leader” – but it does allow students a good amount of freedom within those constraints, more so than a ‘traditional’ classroom.
And to be honest, one of the things I dislike most about my teaching self is that, as libertarian as I am in spirit, I have control issues within the classroom. After several years of teaching, I’ve realized that I really dislike not knowing where the class is going to go or where discussion is going to veer. I like to have my lessons fairly well planned out, not minute to minute, but I like to have a good idea of what we are doing and where we are going.
I am hoping that adopting Socratic pedagogy will help me give up some of my control to students, because I think that the less control I have, the more authentic learning will take place. What they learn may be less predictable that way, but I am betting that they will learn more that way.
And that leads me to my final reason: I think it will be exciting as hell, both for students and myself. I don’t like to lecture, and do not want to be the professor whose days become repetitive teaching the same courses the same way year after year. I have a feeling that adopting Socratic pedagogy will give each class a certain excitement factor. Like a jazz performance, I may know the overall structure of what we’re doing and the reading we’re discussing, but I won’t ever really know in advance where the discussion will veer. And there is something kind of, well, sexy about that.
So, I’ll keep writing about how it goes, both for my benefit and hopefully yours. I have less than a week before this adventure starts, and I’m very excited.