kitchen table math, the sequel: constructivism, behaviorism, and the Socratic Method

Friday, July 24, 2009

constructivism, behaviorism, and the Socratic Method

The Humpty-Dumpty quality to the lingo of the education world, where words mean what he wants them to mean, often stymies the parents trying to get to the core of what their school, district, board, or teacher is actually doing. When the labels are "spiral learning", "constructivism", "child-centered" or "discovery learning", parents on this board become reflexively suspicious. Often these words are used as a foil against "traditional methods", a term equally devoid of clarity. Are we all meaning the same thing? When a teacher or curriculum espouses discovery learning, do they mean what we think they mean? Do any of us know?

So here's a word most of us have a pretty good agreement on: The Socratic Method.

For now, we leave aside whether Socrates used the method the same way, and leave aside if he thought the method was for demonstrating ignorance or if it can be used to generate knowledge.

Let's just use it as it is used in teaching, such as in law school: the Socratic Method is both a learning theory and a pedagogy, where the teacher and the student engage in a discussion, or a series of guided questions, in order to reach the truth. The student is expected to familiarize themselves with the basic issues at hand (by reading and studying the assigned materials), and from there, the teacher begins a series of questions that are designed to expose errors in the students' beliefs or reasoning. Once exposed, questions are then asked that can only be answered by using correct reasoning. In this way, the teacher guides the student along to the right understanding.

The advantages of this method are pretty clear: first, the student has been forced, effectively, to engage more actively with the material and the ideas than in a listen-to-lecture setting. With practice, this engagement would lead to understanding how to use the appropriate material to prepare better in the first place. That means shoring up mastery of the underlying knowledge necessary to participate competently in the first place.

Second, this method uses students' misconceptions as the guidestones for learning. Misconceptions are the real reason for failure to understand material, and unrecognized misconceptions undermine all learning placed on top of them. By going to great lengths to determine and categorize the likely misconceptions in the first place, teachers are much more aware of stumbling blocks for their students, and are more likely to recognize when a student has foundational problems in their knowledge.

Third, while the method uses students' misconceptions, it uses teachers' corrective guidance to move past those misconceptions. It does not rely on the student making that realization on their own. The corollary to this is that the method pushes inexorably towards The Truth. That is: there is a right answer, that can be reached by knowing true facts and then using proper reasoning.

There are still some problems with this method. It's unclear that it scales well: can one lengthy conversation tackle a classroom full of misconceptions? Another issue is how to encourage participation. Is this exercise just one of humiliation? Can it be made to be encouraging rather than stifling for a group of young children? young teens? older teens? how so? Can a teacher keep this method from devolving into tearing students' ideas down without building up correct notions?

There are many resources to help teachers to use the Socratic Method. There are even some books that teach entire subjects using this, and not just philosophy! (My favorite is a computer science book called The Little Lisper, which teaches LISP to a child using this method.)

So could discovery learners and instructionalists agree on the value of using the Socratic Method for math and science teaching? If this were the discovery learning method being employed, what would be the objection? And to constructivists, if we granted you that we approved of the Socratic Method for discovery learning, would that be good enough? or not?

What do the teachers think? Anyone using this method to teach math or science? Anyone doing it with their whiteboarding? Just how difficult is it to use the Socratic Method in a classroom?


Anonymous said...

I've thought about this a lot and the reason has to do with my after school experiences.

On reflection, I would have to say that after school I use the Socratic method. Usually I have 3-5 kids and I arrange desks in a circle with me as one of the desks. We have a running discussion and work on problems in a very fluid fashion. At any given time there's a shifting set of 'alliances' working problems. Sometimes it devolves into 5 seperate discussions abbreviated with times where the individual 'goes away' to work independently.

It rocks! This the only time of day that I really feel like I'm pushing through the misconceptions. Unfortunately this tends to be a pretty consistent set of kids. I would love to see a structural change that would accomodate this style and I'm convinced that 30 minute sessions with five (homogeneous) kids, 12 times a day, would be exponentially better than 3 100 minute sessions with 20 kids per session.

In my classrooms there is a 5 year spread in capabilities and you just can't have a Socratic 'discussion' over such a range. It's like playing basketball with Yoa Ming and Punky Brewster in the same starting five.

SteveH said...

Search for Harkness tables with or without the word "socratic".

One of the key requirements is that you have to have some way to force kids to come to class prepared. You also have to have some culture that encourages (forces?) all kids to participate. Some places grade based on class participation.

The next question is the exact roll of the teacher. Do you think that the teacher is a leader or facilitator? A comment on one site talked about how students complained about the teacher "hijacking" the discussion when he tried to get it back on track. In cases like this, there could be a lot of talk, but little direction - a bull session so to speak. The conversation might be interesting, but it might not get the job done.

I would hate to teach a course like this for math, especially if I'm not carefully directing the process and it defined how every class worked. To some extent it reminds me of Everyday Math's "trust the spiral". But now, it's trust the Harkness Table. There has to be some evaluation of how well you are getting from point A to point B.

Ultimately, this should be a higher expectation form of learning, but that's not what much of K-12 education is all about. They want mixed-ability, child-centered group learning with the teacher as the facilitator. The talk of discovery is only a smoke screen.

Kai said...

As a homeschooler, this is my primary method of dealing with misconceptions. I can't imagine doing it with a classroom full of students. Then I can't imagine doing *anything* with a classroom full of students!

Allison said...

Steve, that's part my point.

Couldn't you drive home to parents and teachers the difference between "discovery learning as smokescreen for low-expectations/too-wide-an-ability range per classroom" and the socratic method pretty clearly? I think so. For parents who don't understand what's going on, I think this would help bring them up to speed, because while you see very clearly that smokescreen, most don't.

By saying "okay, principal/district/board, we'll grant you discovery learning ala Socratic Method is good. Let's make it work. Divide up the students by current mastery level and let's get the teacher to do misconception-fixing teacher-guided inquiry." and seeing the response, a lot of people might have their eyes opened.

In a sense, let's put the challenge on them. They want inquiry driven learning? "Let's do it! Let's demand it be the Socratic Method, carefully tailored to fix misconceptions in math! Let's require grades for preparation of the material, and preliminary material that can be learned to mastery so we can go from "just doing the rote stuff" to doing authentic problem solving!"

Real postmodernist constructivists who don't believe that there IS a single objective truth will be closer to being forced to admit it; teachers who know inquiry led instruction has a place will have common ground with parents.

Anonymous said...


In my experience most high school teachers who talk about the Socratic Method mean that they ask questions of the students. Frequently there is no correction for an incorrect response and no guidance. It is nothing like law school.

Looking into the various NSF grants that underlie the development and implementation of the discovery math and science curricula, one of the stated benefits is that the approach doesn't require subject matter knowledge from the teacher. The idea is that the teacher can learn math and science through activities along with the class.

To be successful, the Socratic Method requires great knowledge. The teacher or prof must not only know the material being covered. They must also understand common misperceptions and the fallacies of logic or mistakes of fact that cause them.

For the Socratic Method to be the compromise we need to move away from teachers with ed school degrees and some math or science coursework.

We need to move toward substantive degrees in math, not math education, and biology or physics or chemistry, not science education. These majors would then include some pedagogy coursework and some work on human cognition to guide what is effective instruction.

Ooops! Schools of education and discovery learning grants are cash cows to states and school districts.

I believe we have an intractable problem.

MagisterGreen said...

Anonymous has an excellent point. This past year I had a discussion with some of my students who told me that some of their other teachers used the "Socratic method". When quizzed about how the classes went, they said that the teacher asked questions and they answered them.

Me: "OK. What happens when someone answers incorrectly?"

Students: "The teacher asks if anyone else knows the answer or tells us if no one does."

That's not the Socratic method.

I think too many today, certainly no small number in education, think the Socratic method merely means that you ask the students direct questions, perhaps calling on students at random to answer. The entire notion of a dialogue, a true back-and-forth conversation, is missing, probably because that would require both student and teacher - but mainly teacher - to have mastered, or made a serious attempt to master, the material.

Even when the teacher is a master and the students are serious and hard-working, I find the Socratic method only really works among older kids, not because the younger ones are incapable of handling the intellectual rigor but because they cannot handle the emotional side of being proven wrong. Their entire young lives, these days, can pass by without anyone telling them "No", "You're wrong", or the like. So when I tell them their answer is wrong, it can go poorly. I find the process works best with students with whom I have built a rapport, usually as a result of having taught them for at least one year. That way, if they are forced to sit there while I lead them through a systematic demolition of their answers and ideas that led to them, they at least know that I'm doing it to help them, not humiliate them.

SteveH said...

"Let's make it work."

I've had this dream for a long time. Play their game but show them how to do it better.

"Divide up the students by current mastery level ..."

There's the rub. I can't even explain to our school how hiding things away in portfolios makes it more difficult for me to support my son's education.

I'm afraid that logic is not a good argument when it comes to K-12 education. In sixth grade, I tried to tell my son's teacher that using crayons to draw definitions of science terms (30+ minutes for each term) was not the best use of his time. His "learning style" is not art and he could memorize the information in a fraction of the time. I was using their terms and ideas to have them allow my son to learn the material using his own strengths. Isn't that the idea of learning styles? No. Drawing helps kids remember the terms better. So much for individual learning styles. They just don't like kids who memorize things easily.

They do what they do and then dress it up with with fancy educational terms. If you argue about the fancy terms, then they will just morph into something else. If you want to tackle the problem of separating kids by ability, then you have to tackle that issue directly.

SteveH said...

"That's not the Socratic method."

I consider the Socratic method to be a variation of direct instruction. It requires a teacher that really knows the material and what the students should know. Otherwise, classes will waste a lot of time and may not go in the right direction.

I had a professor who would send students right to the blackboard in his office when they came in to ask questions. Then HE would start to ask questions. You had to be prepared. He was not mean, but he might let you stand there a while and squirm. The point was that you better be prepared. The Socratic method is not some sort of magical way to circumvent hard individual work. I would say that most of my "discoveries" were made during large homework sets that had to get done.

Anonymous said...

Being allowed to stand there and squirm was a regular part of my public elementary school years, starting in first grade. We were all given plenty of opportunity to go up to the board and demonstrate our knowledge/skill or lack thereof. Somehow, we all survived without having our self-esteem damaged by publicly missing answers and we could all see the number of red pencil marks on written work as it was returned to us.

James said...

What strikes me about the comment that "the kids really need to come to class prepared" is that the kids really need to come to class prepared for any kind of discovery or constructivist learning. If they don't, the discussion, mock debate or group project certainly won't teach them the content they didn't study in advance. The only difference is that when they're not prepared for the Socratic exercise, it shows.

Allison said...


I'm not suggesting that such a conversation would actually lead to a change at a school.

I'm suggesting that such a conversation would help define the boundaries of educators' words for parents.

One of the big problems with the inquiry/student-led/spiral/constructivist ideological discussions is anytime critics try to pin them down, the definition changes. Parents are forced into a kind of retreat where they can't seem to put their finger on the issue: they end up with yes OF COURSE problem solving is good; yes OF COURSE we learn more the 2nd/3rd/4th time we see a subject; yes OF COURSE we construct methods for solving problems in our minds.

By then, parents have lost focus on what was wrong with the methods being employed.

But a discussion where inquiry-driven/teacher guided/knowledge is constructed words refer to something concrete like socratic method is a way for parents to understand what they are NOT getting.

Allison said...

Telling students they are wrong isn't the Socratic Method either.

Neither is having them at the board demanding they perform.

The Socratic method need not be adversarial.

When someone says "we were forced to squirm and survived", the blunt truth is Lots of Us didn't.

Humiliation, whether intentional or not, was a great reason for us to drop courses, to quit majors, to give up on math and science, to walk away from grad school and college. John Holt catalogues the experiences of 4th graders and humiliation--it's enough to turn kids off of school, off of thinking they can perform in school before they even leave elementary.

What some of us experienced in college at the blackboard may have been a worthwhile trial, but for many, it was just pain and fear.

Pain and fear do not lead to understanding. Working memory is compromised by fear. Pain creates avoidance.

There is a difference between a temporary shame of being unprepared and the soul sucking shame of being at the board being made to feel that NO AMOUNT of PREPARATION WOULD EVER have made your answers acceptable.

But the Socratic method doesn't require that, because it doesn't require the teacher to act as if the teacher knows the answer! It doesn't require the teacher to psychologically lead the student as if the student is too dumb to get there. It requires the logical leading of the student.
And one of the most effective ways to do that is to act as if the teacher doesn't know how to do something, and needs the student to show them how. With careful guidance on the questions, the teacher can steer the conversation even while appearing to be taking instruction.

Fer*Cambe said...

Wow, some long comments today, that's great, let me follow up with a shorter one though...

I was raised around the world and able to experience different schools and different philosophies. When I went on my study abroad break from Duke to La Sorbonne, one professor I had really impressed me using the Socratic method. He would actively challenge us all in a snide, lovable manner every class to be masters of the material he assigned.

It was both incredibly scary (it was in another language) and incredibly rewarding (I was able to do this in another language). At the end of the day I think many other students I know wouldn't have really enjoyed it.

I think in teaching like elsewhere, variety is the spice of life..

RMD said...

One thought that Willingham makes in his latest book:

We shouldn't look to experts to inform our decisions about what we do with novices.

Experts operate differently than novices, and novices don't learn best by learning what experts do. Rather, people become experts by placing knowledge into long-term memory over many years so that, eventually, they see things differently.

So, for example, I wouldn't recommend using the Socratic method for teaching reading to anyone. But the Socratic method seems to work well for grad students who have mastered the "basics" of a particular topic and want to further their knowledge.

Catherine Johnson said...

The Masters School, which is nearby, uses the Harkness Method.

I wonder if they'd let me observe a class?