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Scholar discusses educational benefits of Socratic method

The redoubtable Professor Kingsfield, played by John Houseman in the 1973 film The Paper Chase, scares the pants off his law students by calling on them at random. "I ask you a question, and you answer it," Kingsfield says, inaccurately describing his pedagogical approach as the "Socratic method."

Rob Reich, a real-life assistant professor of political science at Stanford, corrected the imperious don during a noontime presentation May 22 titled "The Socratic Method: What It Is and How to Use It in the Classroom," which he gave as part of the Center for Teaching and Learning's "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" series. The event was held in the Hartley Conference Center of the Mitchell Building.

The Socratic method aims to engage both teacher and students in an open-ended dialogue that examines their individual beliefs and assumptions, said Reich, who began his talk by showing a clip of The Paper Chase.

In an open-collared white shirt, khakis and blazer, Reich, 34, stood apart from Houseman's bow-tied stiff in about every imaginable way. He is the author of Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education (University of Chicago Press, 2002), and, among other prizes and honors, the recipient of the Walter J. Gores Award, Stanford's highest award for teaching; the Associated Students of Stanford University Distinguished Teaching Award; and a $50,000 postdoctoral fellowship from the Spencer Foundation and National Academy of Education. He recently was selected to participate in the Young Faculty Leaders Program at Harvard as one of 34 scholars considered rising stars in their academic communities who periodically meet to discuss how America's educational system can address challenges in innovative ways.

The aim of the Socratic method is a moral education -- or, as the character of Socrates emphasizes in Plato's Republic, the central question is how one ought to live. The Socratic teacher uses an ad hominem style of interrogation to probe students' core beliefs and values; the teacher is not interested in making arguments or asking questions designed to convince them of a particular view, fact or "truth," Reich said. Indeed, the Socratic method turns on a kind of philosophical cognitive dissonance: If students discover their beliefs or moral intuitions don't withstand scrutiny, "it's nothing less than the coherence of the student's life that is at stake," Reich said.


Socratic pointers

Reich offered some tips for practicing the Socratic method in the classroom:

First, set down conversational guidelines. Learn the names of students, and have them learn one another's names. Explain that participation in the course does not simply mean offering up one comment and then "sinking back into oblivion." In discussions, students should try to articulate concepts and principles without relying on first-person anecdotes (unless such illustrations truly help to deepen their arguments).

Learn to be comfortable with a prolonged silence after asking a question; silence can be productive. Sooner or later, a student, growing too uncomfortable with the silence, will step in. (Reich recommended that teachers allow 10 seconds to pass before nudging the discussion forward.)

Aim to produce an atmosphere of "productive discomfort" in the classroom. "In the best of Socratic dialogues, there's real tension among the interlocutors." Reich admitted that he often relies, like Kingsfield, on asking questions of students at random, but he said he tries to temper this approach by framing a question at the beginning of class and allowing students a few minutes to discuss it with classmates. "If someone is totally petrified in coming to class and participating, they can just parrot back to class what they just talked [about] with their neighbor," he said.

Teachers themselves must be open to learning something new. Hence, they should be prepared to "devalue or totally discard" lesson plans. If an interesting and unexpected idea arises in the course of a classroom discussion, teachers should be willing to pursue it, even if they have no idea where it may lead. Students and former students alike often recall that their best classroom experiences were spontaneous and unpredictable.

Be sensitive to welcoming "the totally crazy idea" while discouraging ideas that are really just "attempts to escape serious engagement."

Emphasize that brief remarks are more welcome than "short lectures."

Discourage "obsequious deference" to your status as a professor. "The fact that you teach at Stanford should not, in a Socratic discussion, give you any advantage whatsoever." Stanford students in particular are good at "playing the game of school" and "know how to suss out what the professor wants," but intellectual confrontation between a student and teacher is productive.

Find a good classroom space. "If the seats are bolted in place facing forward, you're already at a disadvantage."

Finally, don't shy away from practicing the Socratic method in big classes. (Reich said he has used it in classes with as many as 80 students.)

A woman in the audience asked whether the Socratic method is suited for science and engineering courses. Reich responded that it works best in demonstrating complexity and uncertainty rather than in eliciting facts, but that it still would be effective if the class in question aims to explore "underlying structures or competing hypotheses."

"[The Socratic method] is not just the province of philosophy," he added.



By John Sanford

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