C. Keith Ray

C. Keith Ray writes about and develops software in multiple platforms and languages, including iOS® and Macintosh®.
Keith's Résumé (pdf)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Socratic Questions and Experiential Learning

(Originally posted 2003.Jun.30 Mon; links may have expired.)

One way of teaching, developed 2500 years ago by Socrates, is to ask questions and let the student work out the answers. In Theory Of Constraints by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, the author credits Socratic questions for the success of his previous book The Goal. In The Goal, a consultant helps the main character with advice in the form of questions. The reader follows the main character as he tries to come up answers to the questions; and, Goldratt says, the readers come up with the answers themselves a page or two before the main character does. (I know I did.)

Inventing their own answers motivated the readers to see if the main character came up with the same answers, and in many cases this excitement further motivated readers to apply the lesson of The Goal to their own factories.

Goldratt also talks about the stages of "science" - classification, correlation, and effect-cause-effect. In classification, we could observe that students learn things in various ways. In correlation, we could observe that some students learning via Socratic questions were more excited about their learning than others. In effect-cause-effect, we could theorize why this happens, and use the theory to make predictions which could be invalidated (or validated) by experiment.

Goldratt goes on to say that an experiment may not completely invalidate a theory, but may constrain it. For example, Newton's laws of motion are valid for speeds we see on Earth, but are constrained by other effects when the speeds are near the speed of light.

We can have a theory that Socratic questions can be effective, because someone inventing their own answers feels ownership and the excitement of invention. In some cases they've done a lot of work, and finding the answer is a big reward. However, we can also observe that Socratic questions often fail in practice... the students get irritated by that smug teacher who obviously knows the answers, but isn't giving them out. The resentment can be very strong. The questions can have responses like "Why are you asking us?" followed by arguments about motivations and agendas.

Another style of teaching that also lets the students find their own answers is called "experiential learning." In a typical case, the teacher (or, as some preferred to be called, the facilitator), sets up a "simulation" where the students can try something out in a safe environment, followed by discussion. There's no initial question, just "try this out". In the discussion afterwards, the questions could be "What do you think about X after doing this exercise" or "What were you feeling?" These are non-threatening questions, and students don't feel that the teacher already knows the answer.

In the Agile Development Conference I just attended, some of the workshops used experiential learning. In XP Coaching workshop, facilitated by Ron Jeffries and William Wake, the exercise involved some people coaching other people doing origami (from an origami instruction manual). Some other workshops also involved simulation/practice and discussion.

Ron tells us that XP Immersions that he participates in are doing more experiential learning and less lecture. Instead of lecturing about pair programming, they have the students pair program, probably followed by discussion and reflection on what happened when they pair programmed. The whole point of many training courses is to just get the students to do reflection and discussion - and this is the point of Retrospectives... enabling learning in the organization and team.

Think about learning some skill or getting answers to some of your harder problems, not necessarily a problem with technology; in your own experience, when someone told you the answer to a problem or question, did you value it as much as when you came up with the answer yourself, or practiced the skill by yourself?

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