The SAIL Teaching Framework

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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.

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