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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 15,669
Registered: 12/3/04
If good teaching is a dialogue, ..."
Posted: Mar 23, 1999 5:36 PM
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[Note: The following is shared with you with the permission of Mr. Victor
Moeller. I recommend the reader take a look at Mr. Moeller's homepage, at .]

If Good Teaching is a Dialogue, Why Does the Little-Red-School-House Method

By Victor J. Moeller -- Jacobs High School -- Algonquin, Illinois

Robert Benchley once remarked that "There are two kinds of people, those
who classify things and those who don't." Since I belong to the first
group, I tend to classify teachers according to those who still employ the
little-red-school-house model of learning (lecture) and those who daily
engage their students in active learning. I do so not only because most of
my former teachers assumed that they were the most important part of the
learning process but also because the lecture method still survives among
too many teachers even today. In contrast, the so-called Socratic teacher
knows that the student is the most important part of the learning process.

Take my high school American Literature teacher, Mr. Prosser. He began
most lessons by stating the objective ("By the end of this class you will
be able to identify the characteristics of the 'code hero' in Hemingway")
and then anticipated the so-what-look on our faces by explaining what he
believed to be the relevance or importance of this knowledge in our lives
("Hemingway's concept of the 'code hero' will give you standards by which
to judge your own ideas heroism"). The class then proceeded as a lecture.

Mr. Prosser knew what a code hero was and he was going to tell us, tell us
that he told us, and then ask us to tell him what he had told us. He
called this last step evaluation, or "To find out if we had learned
anything." Our job as students was to "pay attention," that is, to be
receptive and passive and to take careful, detailed notes. We were not to
interrupt his lecture with questions or comments; however, we were allowed
to ask questions for elementary clarification. For example, "What do you
mean by 'pragmatic'?" or "Who is James L. Roberts?" or "Why do you call
this stuff "literary criticism ?" and the like. We would learn what a
"code hero" was because Mr. Prosser knew what it was. His authority and
testimony were sufficient; after all, he had a Master's degree.

In the end, we were to trust that Mr. Prosser knew best even when we did
not know what he was talking about. "Someday you will understand and all
will be clear," he would reassure us. Since he had "to check for
understanding," his lesson concluded with an objective test ("I am the
tester and you are the testees"). However, before the test at the end of
his lecture ("To be fair," he would say), he "entertained" questions if we
had any. Those students who did ask questions soon became pariahs among
their peers for being obsequious and Mr. Prosser seemed to gauge the
success of his lesson by the lack of questions.

In contrast, take my college Contemporary Literature teacher, Kenelm Basil.
He began each lesson not by telling us what we were going to learn (he was
not certain that we would learn anything although that was, of course, his
fond hope) but by posing a major problem about the meaning the the day's
assigned reading. He began always with a basic question of interpretation,
wrote it on the board, and then asked each of us to write down our own
initial answers on scrap paper. For example, "According to Vonnegut's
story, ("Harrison Bergeron"), is the desire to excel as strong as the
tendency to be mediocre?" The lesson focused on this problem of discussion
since the question had the vital element of doubt about the answer. Because
he never gave his own opinion during discussion (he was not a participant
but the leader) and asked only follow-up questions to our answers, Mr.
Basil convinced us, over time, that he did not have a single "correct"
answer in mind. Indeed, the group soon realized that more than one correct
answer was possible because elements from the story supported both sides of
the issue. In short, our teacher began the discussion with a real question,
the answer to which he himself was uncertain.

As students, we had to be active: Clarifying our answers, testing others'
answers for supporting evidence, resolving conflicting answers with
evidence, and listening for more opinions. Learning in Mr. Basil's
classroom was not a reception but a conflict of 3 ideas. The test of truth
was reason and evidence, not teacher authority. The lesson concluded with
a resolution activity since, after all, questions are quests for answers.
We were asked to review our original responses and then to write a one-page
essay stating our comprehensive answer to the basic question. Mr. Basil
strove not for group consensus or truth by vote, but rather for individual
understandings: "Given the answers that you have just heard in discussion,
what is your present conclusion or resolution to the problem?"

At last. Liberation! No longer did I have to sit dutifully silent while
someone was telling me something that I could just as easily have read for
myself, found in a library, or researched on the internet. No longer did I
feel as though I was parroting the thoughts of the teacher. No longer was
someone telling me what I was supposed to have learned. More importantly,
Mr. Basil gave me the opportunity, indeed the challenge, to think for
myself independently and to become responsible for my own ideas. The
responsibility for learning had been placed in my own hands and, along with
it, the joy and personal satisfaction of arriving at my own insights. I
had learned to live with doubt and to uncover questions that answers hide.
In short, I had learned how to learn.

Do not misunderstand. Some so-called Socratic teachers, who have not
mastered the method of developing the habit of reflective and independent
thinking in themselves and their students, do not conduct discussion in the
manner of Kenelm Basil. For these, classroom discussion is too often no
more than a bull session where every opinion is given equal respect and
when one idea begins to sound as good as another. Such teachers confuse
the right to express an opinion with the notion that any opinion can be
right. Toleration of any and all ideas has become the goal and
brainstorming (that pathetic analogy) has been enthroned as the process.
"After all, don't we all know that everything is relative and that there
are no absolutes?"

At the other extreme, pseudo Socratic teachers engage in the sophistry of
the disguised lecture. These teachers pretend to conduct shared inquiry
but eventually it becomes evident to a perceptive student or observer that
the leader-teacher does have a single, correct answer in mind. These
teachers tip their hand in several ways: by asking leading questions ("How
can you honestly think Vonnegut would agree with you?"), by allowing
opinions that the teacher agrees with to go unchallenged or
un-substantiated, by developing a single line of argument or side of an
issue, by injecting their own opinion into the discussion ("I believe that
you have all overlooked important information on page six"), by commenting
on student answers ("That's very good, James. I'm so proud of you." or,
"Maria, I think you had better reconsider your answer. You are missing
something"), and finally, by attempting to arrive at group consensus ("How
many think the desire to excel is [or is not] as strong as the tendency to
be mediocre?").

If what I have said about these Socratic charlatans is not true, how else
can anyone explain some of these common student and teacher behaviors?

Teacher: "Whenever I try to have discussion, my students clam up. Only one
or two
contribute. They just don't get the point. I have to tell

Student: "My answer is correct, isn't it Mrs. Jones?"

Teacher: "Discussion is a waste of time. I have to cover the curriculum."

Student: "But Mrs. Jones, what is the right answer?"

Teacher: "My students' test scores have to improve. I don't have time for
the luxury of
endless discussions. I have 120 students. Get real."

Student: "Why do you keep asking questions when you know the answers?"

Teacher: "Students don't know how to ask good questions and anyway,
discussions are
just too chaotic."

Student: "Just let me alone and give me my C. I don't mess up your class."

Teacher: "My students cannot be trusted to think for themselves. They keep
coming up
with silly answers."

But isn't that just the point? The master-disciple teacher fails to
understand that wrong answers are a necessary part of the learning process
when real thinking takes place. The genuine Socratic teacher recognizes and
accepts false turns and "silly" answers as inevitable when students have
the freedom to be wrong. And right. After all, thinking IS difficult and
students resist it like a plague: "I don't know." "Why did you call on me?
I wasn't doing anything." "Who cares?" "What difference does it make?"
"Ask somebody else."

In the end, if thinking were easy, there would be more of it.

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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