Observations: Socratic Dialogue or Socratic Monologue?

(This is from a short series of posts about some of the things I learned from a year of observing and being observed with a colleague)

(hey, I’m a math teacher, not an artist).

Has this situation ever happened to you? One thing that my colleague and I talked about over and over was how we engage in Socratic dialogue portion of our classes. What kind of questions are we asking? What kind of answers are we getting? What do these answers actually tell us? One thing that we both noticed was that occasionally you can get in a flow where you keep a learning conversation going by taking one word student answers and fleshing out their thoughts fully, or just finishing their sandwiches sentences for them. It feels so good because it feels like THE WHOLE CLASS is on this EFFICIENT AND WONDERFUL thought train going at just about the same pace as someone who is basically an expert in the subject. And as “duh” how counterproductive this is to learning, it’s something that I totally didn’t notice until I had someone in my classroom to point it out to me.

What’s the whole point of Socratic dialogue in the first place? Well, for you, it is a way for you to check for understanding. Are students listening and understanding what is going on? And for them, it is a way to get them to think. Are they just taking in what you are saying or are they turning it over in their heads and taking it to new places? If we finish their thoughts for them, we are not only robbing them of the opportunity to think and learn, but we are deceiving ourselves about what they actually know and understand.

Here are some strategies that we discussed to avoid this:

HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE: Turn that into a full sentence please. Try that again with better mathematical terminology.

FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS: How do you know that? What do you think of _____’s answer? (Crucial to do this for both incorrect AND correct answers).

ASK BETTER QUESTIONS: Explain…. Why… How… If the question can be answered in one word, it’s probably not a great question.

STRUCTURED RESPONSE: Think-Pair-Share. Quick written reflection with cold calling.

BE EXPLICIT: Be direct about what you value in student answers.

I grew more and more aware of this as the year went on and I think I got much better at not only asking better questions but eliciting better responses from my students. I think this heightened the level of mathematical discourse in my classroom, and also gave me a much better idea of where they actually were in the learning process. It didn’t mean that students wouldn’t try the age old SHOUT ANY MATH WORD YOU CAN THINK OF to answer a complicated math question, but at least they understood why I pushed them further.



Posted on August 19, 2013, in Observing, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I am a super big fan of the cartoon you drew — it’s very familiar to me from my own teaching, and from the eye-opening experience of observing other teachers teaching and realizing how very, very hard it is to really listen from the front of the room. May I share it with other teachers (citing this blog as the source, of course!)

  2. Bowman
    Terrific post. I’ve been wrestling with the impact of my questioning in class. I fear that my questions force the students on to my train of thought instead of letting them follow their own train.

  3. Bowman,


    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

  4. Bowman,

    You are awesome!!

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