[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 http://user.mc.net/~moeller/ .] **********************************************
If Good Teaching is a Dialogue, Why Does the Little-Red-School-House Method Survive?
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 them."
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) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org