Published on 2022/03/21

I Wonder Why: Online Learning as a Movement and a Return to the Centrality of the Question

The tried-and-true Socratic method is not necessarily the best way to go about teaching, especially online. Students crave options, instead of being served what they’ve become accustomed to.
The tried-and-true Socratic method is not necessarily the best way to go about teaching, especially online. Students crave options, instead of being served what they’ve become accustomed to.

I started a new position at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, about 200 km east of Halifax. My wife and I rented a little apartment close to campus, and I am enjoying the short walk to my office in the morning. Taking the commute out of the equation has re-energized me and allowed me to become more familiar with my new university; I arrive full of fresh air and too many ideas.

I was four years old when my mother walked me to school for the first time. Now fifty years later, I’m still faithfully trudging to school, having held every job at every level one can imagine in education, from pre-school to graduate studies.

Although my time as a teacher has passed me by, I still get involved in hiring new faculty, working with instructional designers and chatting with teaching and learning fellows about the latest instructional methods. Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on exemplar lessons given by prospective faculty members, often taught in a high-tech space that resembles a curious amalgam of a one-room schoolhouse and a NASA command center. My observations from these experiences have been rumbling around in my head on my recent walks to campus.

One particular term I have heard used quite frequently at universities is the Socratic Method, considered the pillar of any educational activity. I don’t believe I was ever formally taught the Socratic method. However, I remember reading Plato’s The Meno at the University of Western Ontario—now Western University—and flipping through the dialogue on the nature of knowledge, virtue and belief. I remember finding Socrates’s approach manipulative, arriving at conclusions through a gauntlet of incessant questions. I doubted that this peppered approach was how teaching really went down in the streets.

Still the Socratic method has long been held as the gold standard of instructional design, and it’s honestly not a bad start. If I think of a common thread that underscores the acquisition of knowledge, skills development or growth in human potential, it is the question.

It’s not to say that teaching can be defined by questions alone. Questions need context and good timing. The more powerful the question, the more potential learning can be gleaned. Inquiries must be posed in a developmentally appropriate manner, respectfully, in ways that provoke but remain open to possibility. Appropriate questions are difficult and fraught with peril, but they are worth the investment. I have seen outstanding educators pose questions to students without parting their lips, allowing a meticulously prepared environment to provide the stimulus and lead the learner to a valuable response.

Over time, great learning environments become question farms—the instructor, having effectively modeled the art of provocation and curiosity, invokes the same virtue in their students. It’s at these moments that the teacher has done their job. If you are a teacher, you become addicted to these moments.

What I have noticed over the course of my career is a withering valuation of the question. The next time you attend a class, bring a stopwatch, click it at the beginning of the lesson and stop it when a genuine question has been posed to the group. I’ve waited half an hour or more; many times, even in a model lesson, there is never a question posed, not even rhetorically. Yet if you chat with the instructor afterward, they profess their love for the Socratic method. I find this disconnect curious, bordering on delusional or lacking in self-awareness, but I am sympathetic. Teaching is as much caught as taught, and this diminishment of the fundamental unit of learning is a multifaceted consequence of our era.

Consequently, students have lost the ability to respond to questions over time. If you ask a question at the beginning of a class, you are likely to hear crickets. The wait time becomes uncomfortable, and only the most intrepid teachers hold their ground. I’ve seen instructors effectively use write-pair-share techniques to overcome the silence. But lecturers typically default to storytelling to deflect the awkwardness. Should the anecdote fail to engage, the PowerPoint behind them must eventually be scrolled. If you ask students if they like this approach, they will often say, “Yes, it’s what I’m used to,” or “No, I’m a little bored, but let’s just get through this.”

My current portfolio at STFX involves distance education, and while some of its offerings involve satellites, there has been an evolution to online learning. I see this as an opportunity. Over the past decade, as I have become more deeply involved in digital pedagogy, what began as an exercise in improving access (or mitigating a pandemic) has become something far more interesting.

In an online classroom, I can set the context with a well-chosen artifact (or anecdote) and follow with a question posed asynchronously to alleviate the confrontation and awkwardness of wait time. Students can choose their medium for reply (video, text, audio) and decide on their audience (just me, the class, their breakout group). I am finding that digital pedagogy and intentional online design can deconstruct bad habits that have forced their way into education over the past five decades.

I also observe that asynchronous delivery lowers the opportunity for the Socratic manipulation that I referenced earlier. By providing adequate wait time for a response, a student can be more thoughtful and more powerful in their reply. In the platonic dialogues, Socrates is the hero; he holds all the power and shapes the narrative, not simply by choosing the questions but by controlling the cadence of the conversation. When I reduce wait time from days or hours to seconds, I am in essence asserting my dominance over the group, ensuring more control over the range of responses. These traps occur when one teaches in haste, insufficient context is provided or no safe spaces are offered for meaningful reflection. I would argue that grading tends to lead instructors directly into these pitfalls.

Regrettably, many attempts at online instruction are very poor, especially first attempts. There is a tendency to replicate the in-person environment virtually or to move too quickly from behavioral standards to lesson-making, skipping over the importance of centering thoughtful questions as a bridge to content. However, if we can start to develop enough examples of effective online design and we iterate with powerful learner feedback, I believe we could be entering a golden age of teaching and learning. My pat line to faculty who are uneasy about online delivery is: Design one fully asynchronous online class and you cannot help but become a much better face-to-face instructor.

Online learning is not a panacea, but it is also not a modality. It is a direction, one that helps pivot teaching back to the craft it once was. And for that reason, after 50 years of trudging, I’m hopeful.  

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