Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reaquainting Socrates

In his article Just Whose Idea Was All This Testing? Jay Mathews writes:

In ancient Greece, Socrates tested his students through conversations. Answers were not scored as right or wrong. They just led to more dialogue. Many intellectual elites in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. cared more about finding the path to higher knowledge than producing a correct response. To them, accuracy was for shopkeepers.

Today, educators often hold up the Socratic method as the best kind of teaching.

So how did we go from that ideal to an educational model shaped -- and perhaps even ruled -- by standardized, normed, charted, graphed, regressed, calibrated and validated testing?

In today's classroom, a student would be hard pressed to go an entire year without writing a test, and a teacher would be hard pressed to find a curriculum that cares less about right answers and more about the pursuit of dialogue.

And yet, the Socratic method lends itself very well to the idea that we never need tests or grades to gather and report on student learning.

Reflecting upon one's beliefs can be a very productive use of time, and I can think of no better time to do so than when we have come to mindlessly accept something as a given truth. When questions are no longer answered because questions are no longer being asked - it is time to rethink what we are doing.

It's time to rethink the culture of education and reaquaint ourselves with the Socratic method.


  1. Joe,

    This whole concept is completely lost in education. I would also go a step further and say that people need "closure" more than they want to see a demonstration of learning. That's why a lot of people find a need to have a finite, exact answer rather than letting a conversation fester for a while and coming back to it later.

    We want kids to be lifelong learners yet we continually tell them that their knowledge should be demonstrated at an exact moment in time.

    Seems hypocritical to me.

    Awesome, as usual.

  2. Once is a typo, but twice? Reaquaint - Reacquaint

  3. @Aaron Fowles, if my spelling is what counts the most for you, then please feel free to read this: http://www.joebower.org/2010/04/spelling-implications.html

    @Aaron Eyler, how do we revisit this thousand year old pedagogy? Oh and thanks for getting past my spelling and discussing what actually matters. ;)

  4. A major problem is that we are using the wrong data. Tested provide skewed, flawed data. A good conversation gives us an enormous amount of valuable data we can use to help teach our students. I find that even teachers often underestimate the value of a good conversation and do take the time to try to optimally structure the conversations that they have with their students. Make no mistake, utilizing conversations well is a skill that I think we all could stand to brush up on.

  5. Sigh. Shame on me for my expectations.

    Regarding your content, how do you propose to align an ancient pedagogy with modern reality? A pedagogy is deeply contextualized in the political and socioeconomic reality of its time. The folks who got the chance to engage in dialogue with Socrates were pre-screened, in a way, by their ability to spend leisure time discussing philosophy and not working as a slave, a housewife, or a laborer. Furthermore, the men were, in many dialogues, friends of Socrates or other supposedly learned men, not anyone off the street.

    Now, don't get me wrong, the Socratic method is a sweet way to activate the mind, but I'm afraid that in its pure form it won't work in a modern school filled with children. The University of Chicago utilizes this method to great effect, but that's a highly selective university.

    I'll make one last point, and that is accountability. Were it not for standardized testing, it would be incredibly easy for a teacher to do very little in the classroom, assuming the students let him get away with it. Even with standardized testing, this is a huge problem in schools, particularly urban schools. While I don't think that measuring teacher effectiveness by student performance on standardized tests alone is a wise decision, there needs to be some measure of comparability to ensure that everyone is doing their job. Let's face it, most of us wouldn't do this job for free, and money motivation doesn't encourage peak performance.

    You and I probably agree more than is apparent. I have the same ideals, but I hold that those ideals must be tempered by on-the-ground reality.

  6. Some of today's modern reality doesn't have to be reality. In Alberta, we are making a move to eliminate standardized testing.

    There have been signinficant changes made from our provincial government which gives me hope that today's test and punish accountability will no longer be our reality - be it will always be that nightmare we wish to never experience again. http://www.joebower.org/2010/03/change-within-alberta-education.html

  7. I'll make one last point, and that is accountability. Were it not for standardized testing, it would be incredibly easy for a teacher to do very little in the classroom, assuming the students let him get away with it. Even with standardized testing, this is a huge problem in schools, particularly urban schools.

    You sound very sure of this, AF. Do you have any evidence at all that what you say is true?

    In my 2nd grade classroom we do a lot of talking, my students are excited to come to school, and I care that they understand stuff, not score well on a test (but they do because of all the dialog we engage in).

  8. Richard -

    You teach at a magnet school, yes? So your students have parents who care enough to put them in a magnet school, yes? Already, there's a pre-screening process going on. Your situation can't well be compared to average public education. Your school managed to raise 47k, and that's wonderful. In our latest fundraiser, I had parents take coupon books from their children and never pay for them. It's a different ball game.

    I'm talking about schools in the ghettos: schools where around 95-100% of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. These kids come to school hungry and receive sugary sweets for breakfast, coz that's what we've got. Not to mention the fact that these kids had to fend off crackheads and gang members on the way to school (can't take the bus because the district had to cut routes significantly this year).

    You take 32 of these kids, cram them in a room fit for 20, and you wanna have a chat with them? We have loads of TFA and NTP teachers who set off to do just that, then wind up curled up in a ball in the middle of the classroom by the end of week one because they just don't understand what they're doing wrong and why the students don't care about their carefully prepared lessons.

    I teach ESL and have small classes, so I can't really compare my life to the lives of the regular teachers down the hall. Most teachers, of course, work their batooties to the asphalt and don't stop teaching until the last bell rings. Other teachers, though, give up the ghost quite a bit earlier in the year. A measure of accountability helps identify these teachers and reminds them to grind away. These are people who entered the profession full of enthusiasm but have been worn down by environmental factors. My only evidence, though, is my own observation.

    Objective data like the data these test yield can be valuable. Far from perfect, but valuable. The emphasis placed on these tests is ridiculous and self-defeating.

    By the way, just because you don't care so much about test scores doesn't mean that your school doesn't. Thankfully, y'all did pretty well compared to the rest of the state. Slipped a little bit in math, though.

    While we're questioning, do you have any evidence that your students scored well because of your dialogs, and not due to any other causes? Do you only talk?

  9. Berkeley Arts Magnet is not a magnet school, so there go your assumptions.

    And considering I am their only teacher, I think my style has something to do with how well (or not) my students do on state tests.

    And when you say "[my] school" cares about test scores, do you mean the principal? the parents? the other teachers? the kids?

    We slipped in math because we adopted Everyday Math. It is a bad program.

    I am not sure how your experience in what you describe as a clearly dysfunctional arrangement has anything to do with your point about teachers being lazy if given the chance.

    Could you clarify?

  10. Of course your style influences the students' achievement, but how much of that style is purely dialogic, that's all. I'm sure you do other things with them, or the school requires you to do other things with them, such as Everyday Math. Just as it's hard to say, without a good deal of study, that a conversational classroom yields higher test scores (for whatever that's worth), it is also hard to say that Everyday Math alone is responsible for the dip in math. In both cases, I severely doubt that everything else in the environment was kept stable. Even if the school were 100% reproduced, the kids' home lives would clearly influence their achievement on those tests (which is why, incidentally, I don't think we should put ALL of our eggs in that basket).

    Sorry for the magnet assumption.

    As per lazy folks, it's a point of observation and reasoning. One: I've observed it with Social Studies and Science teachers, whose scores are measured but not figured into AYP, so nobody really cares. Thus, the teachers do make an effort to teach, but not enough to make an impact. You can measure that any way you'd like. Many of our kids think Africa is a country and that it's somewhere in Europe. This is middle school and, yes, it's sad.

    I'm not going to fault the teachers because I can't begin to know what their lives are like. What we have are data that show that these kids are scoring significantly below suburban kids on standardized tests in Social Studies and Science (...and Language Arts and Math). Were each teacher free to abandon standardized tests all together, any and all teachers would be held accountable by only their conscience. I'm not optimistic enough to believe that teachers would grade their students fairly if bad grades would reflect badly on them.

    Maybe I'm just institutionalized and I can't see the light outside the cave of high stakes testing and the heavy weight of low scores.

    At this point in time, certain kids DO need grades and tests. Teachers need them, too. The Socractic method is great, but Socrates didn't have to deal with 125 brawling kids every day. The "strategies" that we're given in professional development were often developed in conditions totally unlike those we teach in, which just isn't fair to the students. This is not to say that our kids don't have the same capacity, because I believe they do, but smaller steps must be taken to actualize that capacity. Thus, rather than chastising ourselves for grading our students and giving tests, we must formulate real, concrete ideas about how to move our students to a point where they are more capable of guided or even free inquiry.

    It's coming, but I fear it's going to be a long time coming. My personal belief is that in order to achieve this heightened state of learning, a large share of the day-to-day responsibility for school functionality must be handed over to the students. In my ill-formed opinion, I think online-style learning (modular, self-paced, inquiry-centered) coupled with guided interdisciplinary work is going to be the path to success.

    Now, how to get started..... :)

  11. Thanks for that link on poverty. Poverty is even more of an issue than the curriculum.

    Point well taken, my friend.

  12. Hi it is Sharon from EDM 310 in the U.S again. I'm a big fan of the socratic method and I am so glad I found this post of yours. The best way for me to learn is by open dialogue/question answer rather than the more common sit down, shut, up, listen, take notes, and tell me what you memorized on the test on friday. When I begin my career I do not want to lose sight of that mindset. I believe that the use of Socratic method teaches our students how to think and how to express their ideas. Also it gives the teacher and students a great time and place to get to know each other

  13. great post Joe. thank you for your constant focus on solutions.

    have you guys read Dennis Littky's the big picture, ed is everyone's business?
    Deb Meier writes in the foreword - on the importance of talking and doing. http://monkblogs.blogspot.com/2011/04/deborah-meier.html

    poverty, kids seeming to be lazy, teachers being lazy or cutting corners, or doing it for the money.. all of these people are screaming for authentic engagement. i'm thinking that will only happen per choice..

    Joe, on this:
    In Alberta, we are making a move to eliminate standardized testing.
    tell us more please.. have you posted on it?


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