What’ll It Be?

Next week my grade 11 students will face a deadline to do for the first time something called a “ToK Presentation” and to produce something called a “Presentation Planning Document.” Much can be said about these two productions, but for now I want to focus on their difficulty. Success requires that students simultaneously balance and handle some rather complex intellectual demands of a kind they have not had to handle before.

Of the three basic kinds of learning—knowledge, skill and understanding—this work demands more than the usual amount of new and detailed understanding from students who hope to do well. As these postings have frequently pointed out[1], understanding is more likely to come from Socratic questioning, which works on each individual student’s needs and helps him find the understanding needed to meet them. The original and greatest Socratic questioner usually did his teaching in small groups or with individuals. Plato’s dialogue the Symposium takes place at a dinner-and-drinking party, the original meaning of the Greek word. The guests are few, the conduct is temperate, the wine is cut with water, and each claim made by one of the guests receives Socrates’ undivided attention for as long as needed. The Crito takes place in Socrates’ prison cell as the time approaches for him to take the poisoned chalice that will kill him. At the end of each piece the participants understand something they had not understood before.

It is possible for understanding to come to a listener, but it is less likely than to a participant. We may be happy to hear what others say, and we may get something from it, but we will be surer of understanding if we have our own chance to ask and be questioned. In these circumstances a teacher must “read” the group or his collocutor, moving things along or slowing them down at need, so that everyone, listener or speaker, may achieve an understanding.

It should be unnecessary to say that for teaching purposes, the best conditions for such a colloquy exist in a live classroom with a small number of students paying close attention to each other and to the teacher. Physical proximity does wonders for attention, and distance diminishes it. When students are arranged in a circle, everyone is in the front row and on the spot. When students are arranged in a display on a Zoom screen, everyone is in the back row and at ease. Why, they may even be looking at other material than their assigned reading! When work in a live classroom divides into small groups, the teacher can divide attention between the group he’s talking to and the other groups, moving from one to another at need. When the students are arranged in Zoom “breakout rooms”, the teacher completely loses touch with other groups than the one whose “room” he has entered, and “movement” becomes arbitrary. Obviously, the other groups lose touch with him, too, and that can have its consequences, as one of my “rooms” found out two weeks ago to the utter embarrassment of one of its members.

It is therefore troubling and exasperating to hear people argue in favor of online lessons, not as a necessary stopgap in time of pandemic to be abandoned as soon as possible, but as a positive alternative to live lessons. Such was the position taken by Jeannie Suk [sic] Gersen, a professor at the Harvard Law School who also writes for The New Yorker. She asserts that Zoom makes lessons “more personalized, not less”. Now, it turns out that the class she teaches has one hundred and ten students in it. I mention that number because Gersen says she conducts her class using the “Socratic method”. I don’t recall any Platonic dialogue with one hundred and ten participants, and that is no accident: the Socratic method demands fewer participants than one hundred and ten. Gerson’s Socratic questioning involves not a close examination of the state of an individual’s understanding, but asking dozens of her students questions during single lessons in order to have a “dialogue” with them. What kind of “dialogue” is possible with dozens of individuals in a two-hour lesson? What kind of examination? Think of Crito. Think of Thrasymachus. Think of Alcibiades. It is hard to avoid concluding that the governing genius of this dinner party is not Socrates but Howard Johnson.

Masha Gessen is less sanguine. Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting professor at Amherst College, thinks there is big trouble with online lessons, though in the linked article she voices many other concerns in addition. She notes that her students prefer live lessons and gives reasons why that preference is sound. Of course, she is at Amherst, the home of close colloquy, the opposite in technique and intention from remote and massive lessons. It is the place where Robert Frost could seek signs of students’ understanding so subtle that in a less intimate setting he might have missed them altogether. 

And it is a place like my own, at least in ideal conditions. One of the ways I’ve tried to imitate the closeness of colloquy typical in Socratic teaching is by establishing “office hours” during which students may Skype me either singly or in small groups for a discussion of matters that concern them. My impression is that it works better than barging into “breakout rooms,” though it is rather less satisfactory than live teaching. I hope that it will work as well as it can and that when conditions become normal again, we will return to the kind of teaching that we know works.

For we do know what works. 

[1] E.g., here

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