3 May 2014

Basic-Socratic Learning Models

The category, ‘basic-socratic leaning models’, is almost entirely fabricated to provide a place for all those themes and ideas that do not fit into enquiry-based (EBL) or problem-based (PBL) learning. In this post, it should become clear that in some respects, a basic-socratic education is similar to problem-question-based curricula (see previous post, section 3.2). Basic-socratic techniques can work in concert with superior, enquiry-based learning paradigms. Whether readers consider the idea implied or ignored, I will discuss that relationship explicitly in a future post.


1.Category Three: Basic-Socratic Learning Models

If enquiry-based learning is the most open educational paradigm available, then which is the most restricted? To answer this, it is worth perusing EBL’s features once more: EBL lets students choose the question and the answering method. The opposite would not allow students to choose questions or methods. I label theories that accord with this restriction ‘basic-socratic learning models’ (BSLM) due to the potential inadequacies and an extension of socratic dialogue. Next, I explain this dialogue, and afterwards suggest why the extended title, BSLM, is apt.

1.1 Socratic Dialogue: An Introduction

Socratic dialogue is named after the famous philosopher, Socrates, whom other Greek philosophers quoted or used as an exemplary character in their moral sketches. For example in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates eats at a dinner party, listens to others argue, and probes and argues them into logical problems before providing the ‘best’ answer. Socratic dialogue therefore occurs when a teacher asks questions and manipulates answers to formulate antagonistic ripostes. The teacher’s role is akin to the devil’s advocate: whatever answers a student gives, the teacher is expected to offer a counter-argument, to force the learner to develop their reasoning skills and critical abilities.

Basic-Socratic learning models concentrate solely on this dialogue, intending to lead students to answers. In its worst form, where ‘basic’ is most attributable, Socratic dialogue will give students the ‘right’ answers either directly or disguised, perhaps in prose, and thereafter quiz the students with increasing accuracy back towards those answers. The illusion suggests to students that they discovered the answer. But in reality the students have little autonomy under this educational arrangement.

1.2 Return to the Umbrella Concept

The BSLM-process may therefore be based (albeit tacitly) on the small boosts to self-esteem that students are presumed to receive through the reward or praise associated with reaching the ‘proper’ conclusion. I say ‘proper’--with negative connotations--because learning should not be determined by the need to pass exams. To appeal to a brilliant mind, Richard Dawkins pithily states,
What matters is not the facts but how you discover them: education in the true sense, very different from today's assessment-mad exam culture. (An Appetite for Wonder (Bantam 2013) 132, citing his inaugural Oundle Lecture 2002.)
I am tempted to go further: if a single ‘right answer’ already exists to a problem, its place in a curriculum should not go un-questioned. Learning’s application in future life is a more important determiner for educational concerns. As such, because that life will not readily present neat ‘answers’, it is unwise to suggest the world is structured thusly--hence the partially-satirical and semantically-abusive label, ‘Basic-Socratic Learning Models’.

2. It’s Not All Bad

If executed well, Socratic dialogue may produce satisfactory results. Socratic instruction may help tackle enquiry’s difficulties (see section 2.1, earlier post): educators might use questioning interactively to show students how to follow a linked path of reasoning. That is, Socratic dialogue’s precise questions, and the changes to answers it encourages, might be mapped to illustrate a student’s argumentative progress. This mapping might be in class (in public) or in notes on an assessment. Either way, the illustration may become a blueprint for students' personal investigations, later.

Although basic-socratic learning models are depicted as the worst learning format, that state is influenced by the light in which it is cast--an EBL light. If all the worst features of education are amassed in one group, that group's accuracy is unclear. This is partly evidenced by the benefits illustrated in the previous paragraph: I initially framed BSLM as inferior to EBL but it turns out that BSLM may have merits, after all.

The topic certainly deserves more exploration. Further, as “models are myriad and open to intensive debate about their value and viability”, there is certainly cause to return to BSLM shortly (Bill Hutchings and Karen O’Rourke, ‘Evaluating Learning Change: How Third-year English Literature Students Adapt to Problem-Based Learning’ p 12). I therefore aim to delve, and to devise a plan to include BSLM in a hybrid enquiry-based learning paradigm, which I will write up and post later.

3. Conclusions

This post extends from several assumptions:
  1. Education may be categorised according to labels devised under EBL’s auspices;
  2. Education’s aim is to inspire learning in students; and
  3. The students’ learning is paramount.
There are surely other presumptions, but their inclusion here would be obsolete because the post intends only to introduce some primitive ideas. The most central of these ideas claims open enquiry should inform all education because it facilitates student-autonomy, thereby motivating and inspiring creative endeavour. BSLM may impede or facilitate this goal, and I will discuss both variations, later.

The next post, before further EBL analysis erupts without due attention to procedures, discusses the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s Benchmarks for Law. The forthcoming critique is to ensure that any suggestions I make are consilient with the regulatory demands placed on higher education institutions.


Created: 14 May to 5 September 2014. Version 1.0.





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