Sunday, November 25, 2012

Objection! Leading...And why Socrates would not like it.

Socrates teaching (detail: Raffaello Sanzio, Stanza della
Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Rome)
A few nights ago at dinner, a friend brought up an issue which stuck with me. She is a teacher and briefly mentioned how they try to avoid "leading questions" at faculty meetings, which made some of the other dinner guests comment on the high number of leading questions being asked at lab meeting. A leading question is designed to make someone say what you want or to influence their thinking, and it could be negative and sarcastic, such as "Don't you think you need some controls for that experiment before you can come to any conclusions?" Leading questions can be good or bad and they are closely monitored in the legal system and in journalism where the truth can be easily altered by how a certain person is questioned. Children and people who absolutely want to please are very vulnerable to leading questions as they will say what you want them to say, and may believe it too.

So I started thinking and realized that I ask a lot of leading questions! A leading question from a superior, maybe asked a bit too harshly because you're in a hurry, could stifle the impulse to bring new ideas to you. It may also not be the best way to promote critical thinking in students.

Researching questioning and teaching around the web, I bumped into an old friend, the Socratic method. The Greek philosopher Socrates had always been one of my favorites in high school, but he would not have approved of top-down way of teaching used back then in Italy. As detailed in the Dialogues of his pupil Plato, Socrates developed theories by constant discussion with his followers, often asking either broader or narrower questions to foster critical thinking and strive to fully understand a problem.

I found a great article about Socratic questioning in teaching and learning (here) with tips on how to pose Socratic questions and prepare for the discussion with students. Looking forward to trying.

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