"In a contest, David scored 101 points. Daniel scored 25 points short of 120 points. How many points did they score in all?"
"That's easy," she said. "That's adding. But first I need to subtract…" She began to work out 101-25 on her paper.
"Wait a minute. That's not right," I thought. I resisted the urge to point this out to her directly. "So why are you subtracting those numbers?" I asked aloud.
"Because I want to know how many points Daniel scored. I need it to solve the problem."
"Right. So, what is 101-25 going to tell you? Is it going to tell you what you want to know?"
She looked at it for a minute, puzzled. Then all of a sudden her face brightened up and she began scrubbing out 101-25 with her eraser. "No!" she smiled. "101 tells me about David's points. I need to do 120-25 if I want to know Daniel's."
"That's right, kiddo. You've got it now."
This conversation took place between 9 year old Michelle and I the other day as we were working through a page of math problems. Math has never been her strong subject, and problem solving especially not so. We've actually gone through a couple of different math curricula trying to find a good fit with enough emphasis on teaching problem solving strategies since she isn't a naturally 'mathy' sort of thinker. I've always been at a bit of a loss knowing how to help students with poor problem solving skills – this was as true in my classroom teaching days as it is with my own daughter. I'm afraid that I often have the bad habit of jumping in and doing the thinking for her – telling her what she was doing wrong and what she needed to do to fix it. I'm not even sure exactly what it was that stopped me from doing so this time and using thoughtful questions to help her realize and correct her own error instead. But something did stop me, and after the fact I realized that I had successfully guided her using the Socratic mode of instruction.
Say what?! Hang with me here for a few minutes.
The classical modes of instruction have come up a lot recently in my reading and listening. Over on the Teaching page at Expanding Wisdom, Jennifer explains these three modes: narration, mimetic instruction, and Socratic instruction. (I encourage you to head over there if you want to read up on these in more depth as I don't have time to delve into that here.) Narration – we use this all the time as it is a cornerstone of Charlotte Mason's methods, which we have followed more or less from the beginning of our homeschool journey. No problem there. Mimetic instruction makes sense to me – to teach by drawing on the student's prior knowledge, and then showing them examples of the new concept you want them to learn. Got it. But Socratic instruction has often left me scratching my head. It has always felt to me that the Socratic mode is something associated with big theoretical and philosophical ideas, and as such something difficult to wrap my mind around. Maybe in a big literature discussion, probably with students older than mine are? But not something to be used in the nitty, gritty every day working-on-math-with-my-third-grader moments.
In her article on Socratic instruction, Jennifer offers some helpful distinctions about what the Socratic mode of instruction is not:
"True Socratic dialogue is not a literature discussion. It is not a predetermined set of questions used to analyze a text, and it is not a circle of students discussing a book or topic, these situations are simply discussions. They are good, beautiful, and valuable discussions and many times lead to situations where a Socratic dialogue is called for, but they are not Socratic dialogues. In addition, a Socratic dialogue is not a planned lesson; one never knows when it will come up."
She goes on in the article to describe in detail what the Socratic mode really is – the ironic stage in which questions are employed to help a student understand they are making an error, the metanoia or "aha" moment when they realize it, and the maieutic stage where their minds are guided back towards truth. (Does that terminology intimidate you a little bit? Yeah, me too. Maybe another reason why the idea of the Socratic mode scared me?)
So, in other words, the Socratic mode of instruction involves the use of questions to help guide a student away from falsehood or error and back towards the Truth.
It's really that simple. It's not that big complicated thing I had built it up to be in my mind. And it is highly applicable to every kind of teaching situation, as I discovered when I unwittingly used it to guide my daughter in solving her math problem the other day. It was natural – the questions I asked weren't the result of intense lesson preparation, they came to mind in the moment, suggested by the nature of the problem and the mistake she was making. It was powerful – it put the onus of thinking through the problem squarely back on her, rather than her waiting for me to point out her error. (Perhaps this is the key to our problem solving woes?) And now that I've seen in played out in a simple, everyday situation I finally understand what the Socratic mode is supposed to look like so that I can begin to apply it elsewhere.
Who knew that a simple math lesson could be so profound?