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The Socratic Method and Diversity in Teaching Styles:

There is much that I agree with in Orin's post advocating diversity in teaching styles. Certainly, Orin is right that no one teaching method is optimal for every professor and every class. Much depends on the professor's personality and on the subject matter covered. That's why in my original post expressing doubts about the Socratic method, I didn't advocate its total abolition, merely reducing its use. I also don't think that there's any one alternative that should replace the Socratic method across the board. I myself incorporate some elements of SM in my large survey classes, though in a limited fashion.

At the same time, I think that full-blown SM has systematic weaknesses that are likely to bedevil most professors who try it. Among the most important are 1) wasting of class time on flawed answers by students who are poorly prepared or simply make mistakes, 2) "hiding the ball," which makes it difficult for students to grasp the material covered (especially if it is complex or counterintuitive), and 3) the danger of creating an atmosphere of tension and antagonism between the students and the professor. It is telling that Socrates himself made the method work in a setting where he usually taught no more than a handful of students at a time, didn't have a large, detailed body of knowledge that he needed to convey to them, and enjoyed the luxury of virtually unlimited "class" time (his students were young Athenian aristocrats with plenty of leisure time). Modern academics teaching survey courses to large classes under tight time constraints aren't so fortunate.

Can a particularly skilled practitioner (perhaps Orin himself) overcome these grave disadvantages and still teach an excellent class using SM? Most likely yes. But I think only rarely will it be the best method available. Even some of those professors who can do well with SM might do even better with another approach.

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