Socratic Backfire

In the article entitled Socratic Backfire? by Kaustuv Basu, a professor was denied tenure - at least in part - for using the Socratic method. As this article tries to demonstrate, there are different versions of the Socratic method.

The students in the article might have been lazy and simply wanted to be spoon-fed answers. As the article said, “Students can be increasingly impatient where the answer is not clear and when the professor is not giving it to them immediately.” A lot depends on how the professor was using the “Socratic method.” When used well, students feel that their ideas are being honored and respected. But it is also possible to use the “Socratic method” to question students that don’t have their hands raised in an attempt to belittle them or embarrass them into being prepared next time.

Time to clarify.

Socratic Method

Socratic Method is a general term used to describe a questioning format where the teacher or professor uses questions to arrive at specific information. This is an alternative to the basic lecture where the teacher or professor simply provides the information. As far as I know, there is no specific formula for the method. In practice, the “method” can refer to anything from just “asking a lot of questions,” to the use of directed follow-up questions, to any variation of Socratic Seminar. These variations include: Paideia Seminar, Touchstones Discussion, Shared Inquiry, Harkness method, Socratic seminar, and fishbowl discussions.

Brief: Socratic = question

Socratic Questioning

In many of the Platonic Dialogues, Socrates asks questions until essentially his conclusions are reached. In my mind, this is the version that receives negative viewpoints. It is, for example, the version that is used in law schools and in the movie The Paper Chase. In this version, the professor or teacher already has an answer in mind and uses the questioning format to steer the conversation to that answer. This is antithetical to the method that evolved into the Socratic Seminar format popular in K-12 schools.

Brief: questioning toward a right answer

Socratic Seminar

In the Socratic Seminar format, popularized by Mortimer Adler, the teacher or professor should not have an answer in mind. Instead, a text or artifact is matched with an interpretive question that has no right answer. In the ideal format, the teacher or professor doesn’t even have a specific answer in mind, so he or she cannot steer the conversation. Instead, the process is facilitated toward multiple viable answers (notice the plural) that are justifiable using the text.

Brief: questioning toward viable answers.

As the article concludes, “I think it is very important to find out what the student experience has been.” This is the crucial point. The professor could have used the “Socratic method” in any number of ways, for better or worse. If it was used to belittle or embarrass students, then perhaps being denied tenure was a natural consequence. If, however, the professor used an openended questioning method that required the students to actually think and work hard, then shame on those lazy students and the administrator.


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