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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Socratic questioning

I'm really digging this article I just came upon ("The role of Socratic questioning in thinking, teaching, and Learning" Elder & Paul). It's one of those articles that feels like something you've always wanted to write, if only you had the experience and education and erudition. The article, for me, is like a field guide for how to boost critical thinking skills in the classroom. It reminds me, teaches me, shows me that the best answer is often a question. Why? Because answers aren't end points (at least not to the philosophically minded). Answers require scrutiny. That is, do our answers withstand close inspection? Or do they collapse? Why? How so? Under what conditions? In other words, each answer contains (raises?) its own set of questions. Thus, the critical thinker is just the person who can see what those questions are and how best to pursue them.

Now all of this has huge implications for me as a writing teacher in general and as a leader of classroom discussions in particular. Look, classroom discussions are easy when you have a bunch of bright kids who care about the material. Classroom discussions are also easy (by easy, I mean productive, rich, engaging) when you have a deep rapport with the students (no matter their IQs). But, well, let me be brutally (insert curse word) honest: classroom discussions are soul-crushing when the students don't care and haven't done the reading. And oooooooooh how the two are related!

So how do you get the kids to care and how do you get them to do the reading? And which comes first (see also: Chicken or the Egg)? I don't know. And nobody does. All we can do, as my BFF and fellow teacher Jabiz Raisdana says, is "create a quality environment and hope for the best." So here is my vision of a quality freshman composition environment:
  • students closely read a short but provocative text
  • discuss it with their classmates
  • and write about it both in and out of class
Now, of course, they're going to need guidance along the way. So I model annotation and "close reading" strategies: summarize, question, predict, critique, respond, etc. I also teach them (what I consider the foundation of quality) writing: be clear and direct, coherent and organized, thorough and complete, natural but polished. My weakness, however, is in fostering student engagement in classroom discussions (especially when up against deeply ingrained apathy). Which is why I found the Elder and Paul's article so helpful. To wit:

If we want to engage students in thinking through content we must stimulate their thinking with questions that lead them to further questions. We must overcome what previous schooling has done to the thinking of students. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called "artificial cogitation"--the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration.

Elder and Paul's approach to brain-to-brain resuscitation calls for a heavy dosage of Socratic Questioning. But before I go any further, let me say this: Socratic question is NOT calling on students to see if they know the answers. You are not a using the Socratic method (ha! as if I'm the arbiter) if instead of telling your students that a peninsula is piece of land surrounded by three bodies of water, you say, "So . . . who can tell me what a peninsula is?" Or, "So what's the difference between velocity and acceleration?" Or, "What point of view is The Great Gatsby told from?"

Socratic questioning is "a keen interest in assessing the truth or plausibility of things" and, importantly, cultivating such a disposition in a public forum. Happily, the article provides the following guide to help teachers effectively use Socratic questions in the classroom. Make of them what you will.
Teachers engaged in a Socratic dialogue should
respond to all answers with a further question (one that calls on the respondent to develop his or her thinking in a fuller and deeper way)
seek to understand--where possible--the ultimate foundations for what is said or believed and follow the implications of those foundations through further questions;
treat all assertions as connecting points to further thoughts;
treat all thoughts as being in need of development;
recognize that any thought can only exist fully in a network of connected thoughts. Stimulate students-through your questions-to pursue those connections;
and recognize that all questions presuppose prior questions and all thinking presupposes prior thinking. When raising questions, be open to the questions they presuppose (see the section below on prior questions).
Teachers engaged in Socratic dialogue should systematically raise questions based on the following recognitions and assumptions:
Recognize that all thought reflects an agenda. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the agenda behind it. (What are you trying to accomplish in saying this? What is your central aim in this line of thought?)
Recognize that all thoughts presuppose an information base. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the background information that supports or informs it. (What information are you basing that comment on? What experience convinced you of this? How do we know this information is accurate?)
Recognize that all thought requires the making of inferences, the drawing of conclusions, the creation of meaning. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the inferences that have shaped it. (How did you reach that conclusion? Could you explain your reasoning? Is there an alternative plausible conclusion?)
Recognize that all thought involves the application of concepts. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the concepts that define and shape it. (What is the main idea you are putting forth? Could you explain that idea?)
Recognize that all thought rests upon other thoughts (which are taken for granted or assumed). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand what it takes for granted. (What exactly are you taking for granted here? Why are you assuming that?)
Recognize that all thought is headed in a direction. It not only rests upon something (assumptions), it is also going somewhere (implications and consequences). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought unless you know the implications and consequences that follow from it. (What are you implying when you say that? Are you implying that . . . ?)
Recognize that all thought takes place within a point of view or frame of reference. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the point of view or frame of reference that places it on an intellectual map. (From what point of view are you looking at this? Is there another point of view we should consider?)
Recognize that all thought is responsive to a question. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the question that gives rise to it. (I am not sure exactly what question you are raising. Could you explain it?)

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