Where is our Socrates?

Sophists in ancient Greece were characterised as philosopher-teachers who travelled the country teaching (those who could pay) how to succeed in the society of the day. The skills they taught were highly prized at the time (rhetoric and public speaking). Sophists lost their respect when the people began to look at what and how they taught. The people realised that sophist’s teaching used powers of persuasion to impress and flatter the listener, often to support a point of view or belief that was detrimental to the listener. Sophists had no devotion to the pursuit of truth, only the pursuit of self interest. Sounds incredibly familiar, doesn’t it?

Socrates led a reaction to this pursuit of self interest through a method of teaching that involved dialog. The asking and answering of questions that would allow the participants to uncover flaws in their logic, and develop their skills of critical analyses. The cycle of asking, answering (often with a question), and asking again has been called the Socratic method of teaching/learning.

Today’s world embraces sophistry in media and business, while modern higher education has abandoned the Socratic method in favour of the didactic method of the teacher (authority) telling the student what they need to know, and then the student returning that knowledge in the form of an assessment. The most successful (from a worldly point of view) learn to be sophists on their own, and go to acquire power and wealth. I have never seen anyone who is really dedicated to the pursuit of truth obtain either (let me know if you know any).

Although the didactic method is good for transferring raw knowledge from one person to another (memorisation), it is not good at fostering thinking skills such as critical analysis or synthesis of information. These are the very skills that the world desperately needs today. The shallow learning that is passed off as the best HE has to offer today is what is in the greatest demand – probably because thinking skills are difficult to learn and difficult to practise, and the sophists of today are all about pursuing the easy life.

Here are a few examples of how learners are so enamoured by todays shallow approach.

Our own experience, here at Bangor, is that when you push students into a thinking environment, the students are split, with about half enraged that we are not telling them what to learn and the other half enjoying the experience.

I was discussing an idea I had with management yesterday. Simple idea about moving the required content for our degree into a mastery type, student centred, learning environment – supported by tutors with very small groups (about 5). Meeting once a week, a tutor could guide the students, lead discussions, and work through thinking exercises (my preference would be blog writing) with their students, while tracking the students content mastery through Khan Academy type tools. The manager I was talking to loved the idea, and agreed that  the learning experience would be immensely better than what they currently get in large lectures – but said that it is doubtful that we will seriously consider it because of the threat to our NSS ratings from those students who want a passive experience.

Where is our Socrates?


Learning and Education

When did education stop being about learning and turn into a performance art?

I was reading over some of my students’ blogs from last semester, and one of the things that jumped out at me was their observation that education was about grades, degrees, and getting ahead and not about learning (they weren’t happy about it – often pointing out that this is what is wrong with education today).

I blogged last year about how Bjork talks about the conditioning cycle that moves both students and learners into a self reinforcing cycle of performance and reward. Students are rewarded for doing what the teacher wants (high grades) and teachers are rewarded for increasing the number of students who achieve high grades (promotion opportunities, institutional acclaim). This becomes a virtuous (vicious) cycle of mutual rewards as students learn to perform (who said passing a test had anything to do with learning), teachers recognise the performance with academic currency (grades) and institutions reward “good” teaching with recognition and praise. Who is fooling who?

Jack Rogerson (one of my students) blogged about student cheating and why. He noted work by Dweck & Vandewalle who identified performance goal oriented students as:

  • Maladaptive Students – Quickly become disillusioned with tasks and tend to discourage themselves from developing their academic abilities/skills. They instead focus their attention on the opinions of others – they are mindful of negative judgement and are therefore more likely to resort to cheating as means of maintaining a positive image of capability amongst their peers.

It is all about appearances.

I believe that there are many students who start their studies actually excited about learning, but eventually, most find themselves caught up in the performance and reward cycle.

For me, this is one of the damning features of lectures. I will stand up and tell you something that I think you should know (and/or record it as a podcast and post it to the world), and then, in the name of assessing your learning, ask you about what I told you. The better you are at fetching the information (including some tidbit that I didn’t actually share with you), the higher the reward you will receive.

I wonder what Socrates would think of our civilised approach to learning today?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Present something both interesting and useful, care about the students success, empower them to direct their own learning experience, and help them believe that they can succeed. Provide learning tasks that allow students to match their ability with your expectations, and then reward real success, not a momentary performance.

We have the know how and the tools to liberate the learning experience. We can really have students centred learning – for which lecturing is the antithesis – at every learning  opportunity. Using an information abundance model to underpin learning design, I have scaled student centred learning up to 60+ students at a time. We don’t need to have seminars and discussion of >10 students to have a real learning experience, it can be available now with reasonable resources.

Given what we have available and what we can do now, I despair at the cost of inertia.