The SAIL Teaching Framework

This is a condensed version of the complete chart, but it's a good place to start.  Click for a larger view (and to download).

February 21, 2013

The Socratic Method

It should be one of the functions of a teacher to open vistas before his pupils, showing them the possibility of activities that will be as delightful as they are useful.
-Bertrand Russell
I love using the Socratic method when I teach. So much happens simultaneously, with no more investment than a certain respect and trust between teacher and student. It's the ultimate improvisation - you have a goal in mind, an idea or concept, say, and you start with a question. If you use the method correctly, you'll have no idea what will happen next. This makes the method exhilarating, but also nerve-wracking, for both the teacher and student. The interaction is risky, because it doesn't always work out the way you or the student hopes. Maybe that's why it can build such a nice collegiate atmosphere between you and your students - you're all going through the experience together.

When it does work, you learn a lot about how your students are thinking, and they get a better grasp on what you want them to understand. I often couple the interaction with some sort of worksheet that we all work on together. I move from small group to small group, having quick, concise Socratic moments centered on particular questions or exercises. If I see that everyone is struggling with a particular point, I'll pull the class together and we'll work on that as a class. And I'll make a mental note to review what I did or didn't do that resulted in the confusion.

I have been wondering lately how one would teach a teacher how to use the technique. I've never tried to analyze how I do it, though I imagine that I could. I do prepare by playing out in my mind how students might respond to certain questions. For now I will close this post by quoting from the article where I found my opening quotation. I found this article recently at the University of Chicago Law School website, based on an essay by Elizabeth Garrett, a former professor there.
We are teaching reasoning skills, and the process of discovering a right answer is often more important than the answer itself.  Mistakes - or perhaps, more accurately, tentative steps toward a solution that lead us down unavailing but illuminating paths - are part of learning.

. . . students can sometimes be frustrated by the uncertainty . . . when the Socratic Method is the dominant teaching style, because they are confronting a new vocabulary, unfamiliar logical analysis, and the unusual form of narrative found in [any new discipline] . . .  But to provide certainty where there is none or to give a neat framework where the [discipline] is messy is to teach dishonestly.
Read the whole article here.

February 17, 2013


Governments want efficient technicians, not human beings, because human beings become dangerous to governments – and to organized religions as well.  That is why governments and religious organizations seek to control education.
- Jiddu Krishnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life

February 16, 2013

My Math Teacher is Psycho!

I was helping a student with her math homework. I asked her how her teacher had shown her to do a particular kind of algebra problem. She expressed some dissatisfaction with her teacher, and I asked her about it. She dramatically replied, "My teacher is psycho!"

Well. "What do you mean?" I asked. "She's very calm and nice and helpful when we're trying to do math, and then all of a sudden she just starts yelling and screaming." "What does she yell about?" I ventured. "Who knows? Something gets her going, a student says something, whatever, she just yells and screams. Then she tries to go back to being all lovey-dovey. But you know she'll start screaming again. It drives me crazy."

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this. Here was a student who was inclined to like and trust her teacher, but felt violated by the teacher's sudden and harsh attempt to "discipline" the class. I'm sure the teacher had no idea how much her behavior unnerved this student. It was also striking that the student had no idea what the teacher was responding to - "something, whatever" - so the teacher's outburst seemed arbitrary and unpredictable. The student, understandably, was unable to place her trust in the teacher, and thus her ability to learn was compromised.

I am always struck by how unaware of themselves teachers seem to be. They don't understand what they look like, what they sound like, what messages they telegraph. They can leave behind a trail of confused, hurt, scared, angry students. Teaching in a classroom is a particularly difficult kind of performance, precisely because it is NOT entertainment; there is meant to be a specific outcome, an outcome that these days needs to be measurable and demonstrable.

Here is what most puzzles me. I think you'll agree that "yelling and screaming" is a common experience for both teachers and parents. And it doesn't work. No, really, it doesn't work. As a way to vent your frustration, it does make you feel better. Your students might respond by temporarily avoiding the behavior that brought on the outburst. But even this avoidance doesn't guarantee that your students have learned anything except that you yell and scream. And that's what your students tell me after you are through yelling at them: my teacher hates me, or my teacher is psycho.

You wouldn't teach math by yelling or screaming. You might be frustrated that your students don't know what you wish they knew, but you don't take it out on them. Even if you like punishment as a technique, you know not to punish ignorance - your job is to correct ignorance. Why wouldn't you use the same techniques that you use to teach math to teach your students how you want them to behave?

February 3, 2013

Teaching or Filtering?

I have taught physics to children of all ages, from 3rd graders to high-school seniors.  Some people find this improbable - of course, whatever is being taught to, say, middle-schoolers in the name of physics must not be real physics.  Why not? I ask.  Well real physics is complicated and requires advanced math, like calculus, they say.

But aren't there concepts in physics that can be conveyed to younger students?

Concepts are fine, but physics isn't real without the math.

But math taught to middle-schoolers is real math, isn't it?

Yes, but that's different.  These students will take math for many years, getting better and better at it.

So there is no point in introducing students to the basic ideas of physics?

Well, why bother?  You won't be able to say that they really KNOW physics.

But I'm not trying to claim that they will become professional physicists through my class.  I just want them to have experienced how physicists see and think about the world.

Unless they plan on pursuing science in college, there isn't any point.  And if your students get good grades in your class, you will, in fact, be claiming that they KNOW physics.

I'll be claiming that they know what I've asked them to learn, basic physics concepts.

And that will be a misleading claim.  Everyone knows that only the smartest students can really learn physics.

That last notion is a back-handed compliment, I guess.  I certainly did learn physics in high school and college, so apparently I numbered among the "smartest" students.  As a teacher, though, I reject the notion, and if I'm so smart, why is my assertion about the ability to teach physics to everyone not accepted?

The answer lies in deeply-held but foggy notions about "smartness," and what it means to know something, about the capacity to both teach and learn.  Ultimately, the question needs to be asked; what are we doing in our schools, are we teaching or are we filtering?  Which function does our society most want from its schools?

As a high school physics student, I was the product of filtering.  Physics was a high-school course that only the brightest students were allowed to take.  The filtering process began in middle-school with students being grouped into divisions based on academic ability.  From that point on, expectations both low and high became reality.  In high school we were separated into tracks that were to guide us to the appropriate socio-economic outcome.  The requirements for taking physics were steep - we were the final filtrate, the ultimate refinement.

I completely understand my interlocutor above.  There exists a sense that physics is an elite study.  I had a friend who insisted that I must understand the whole universe if I understand physics.  But is it elite only because the bar to entry is set so high?  Is physics, or anything else for that matter, so fundamentally difficult to understand that a teacher can only throw his hands in the air in despair?  If so, then we are left with filtering - separating the wheat from the chaff, the elite from the common, the deserving from the disqualified, the good from the bad, the smart from the stupid.  Filtering may be an understandable, even natural, practice, but imagine what good, effective teaching could do.