Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling
by Rick Garlikov
The following is a transcript of a teaching experiment, using the Socratic method, with a regular third grade class in a suburban elementary school. I present my perspective and views on the session, and on the Socratic method as a teaching tool, following the transcript. The class was conducted on a Friday afternoon beginning at 1:30, late in May, with about two weeks left in the school year. This time was purposely chosen as one of the most difficult times to entice and hold these children's concentration about a somewhat complex intellectual matter. The point was to demonstrate the power of the Socratic method for both teaching and also for getting students involved and excited about the material being taught. There were 22 students in the class. I was told ahead of time by two different teachers (not the classroom teacher) that only a couple of students would be able to understand and follow what I would be presenting. When the class period ended, I and the classroom teacher believed that at least 19 of the 22 students had fully and excitedly participated and absorbed the entire material. The three other students' eyes were glazed over from the very beginning, and they did not seem to be involved in the class at all. The students' answers below are in capital letters.
The experiment was to see whether I could teach these students binary arithmetic (arithmetic using only two numbers, 0 and 1) only by asking them questions. None of them had been introduced to binary arithmetic before. Though the ostensible subject matter was binary arithmetic, my primary interest was to give a demonstration to the teacher of the power and benefit of the Socratic method where it is applicable. That is my interest here as well. I chose binary arithmetic as the vehicle for that because it is something very difficult for children, or anyone, to understand when it is taught normally; and I believe that a demonstration of a method that can teach such a difficult subject easily to children and also capture their enthusiasm about that subject is a very convincing demonstration of the value of the method. (As you will see below, understanding binary arithmetic is also about understanding "place-value" in general. For those who seek a much more detailed explanation about place-value, visit the long paper on The Concept and Teaching of Place-Value.) This was to be the Socratic method in what I consider its purest form, where questions (and only questions) are used to arouse curiosity and at the same time serve as a logical, incremental, step-wise guide that enables students to figure out about a complex topic or issue with their own thinking and insights. In a less pure form, which is normally the way it occurs, students tend to get stuck at some point and need a teacher's explanation of some aspect, or the teacher gets stuck and cannot figure out a question that will get the kind of answer or point desired, or it just becomes more efficient to "tell" what you want to get across. If "telling" does occur, hopefully by that time, the students have been aroused by the questions to a state of curious receptivity to absorb an explanation that might otherwise have been meaningless to them. Many of the questions are decided before the class; but depending on what answers are given, some questions have to be thought up extemporaneously. Sometimes this is very difficult to do, depending on how far from what is anticipated or expected some of the students' answers are. This particular attempt went better than my best possible expectation, and I had much higher expectations than any of the teachers I discussed it with prior to doing it.
I had one prior relationship with this class. About two weeks earlier I had shown three of the third grade classes together how to throw a boomerang and had let each student try it once. They had really enjoyed that. One girl and one boy from the 65 to 70 students had each actually caught their returning boomerang on their throws. That seemed to add to everyone's enjoyment. I had therefore already established a certain rapport with the students, rapport being something that I feel is important for getting them to comfortably and enthusiastically participate in an intellectually uninhibited manner in class and without being psychologically paralyzed by fear of "messing up".
When I got to the classroom for the binary math experiment, students were giving reports on famous people and were dressed up like the people they were describing. The student I came in on was reporting on John Glenn, but he had not mentioned the dramatic and scary problem of that first American trip in orbit. I asked whether anyone knew what really scary thing had happened on John Glenn's flight, and whether they knew what the flight was. Many said a trip to the moon, one thought Mars. I told them it was the first full earth orbit in space for an American. Then someone remembered hearing about something wrong with the heat shield, but didn't remember what. By now they were listening intently. I explained about how a light had come on that indicated the heat shield was loose or defective and that if so, Glenn would be incinerated coming back to earth. But he could not stay up there alive forever and they had nothing to send up to get him with. The engineers finally determined, or hoped, the problem was not with the heat shield, but with the warning light. They thought it was what was defective. Glenn came down. The shield was ok; it had been just the light. They thought that was neat.
"But what I am really here for today is to try an experiment with you. I am the subject of the experiment, not you. I want to see whether I can teach you a whole new kind of arithmetic only by asking you questions. I won't be allowed to tell you anything about it, just ask you things. When you think you know an answer, just call it out. You won't need to raise your hands and wait for me to call on you; that takes too long." [This took them a while to adapt to. They kept raising their hands; though after a while they simply called out the answers while raising their hands.] Here we go.
1) "How many is this?" [I held up ten fingers.]
2) "Who can write that on the board?" [virtually all hands up; I toss the chalk to one kid and indicate for her to come up and do it]. She writes
3) Who can write ten another way? [They hesitate than some hands go up. I toss the chalk to another kid.]
4) Another way?
5) Another way?
2 x 5 [inspired by the last idea]
6) That's very good, but there are lots of things that equal ten, right? [student nods agreement], so I'd rather not get into combinations that equal ten, but just things that represent or sort of mean ten. That will keep us from having a whole bunch of the same kind of thing. Anybody else?
7) One more?
X [Roman numeral]
8) [I point to the word "ten"]. What is this?
THE WORD TEN
9) What are written words made up of?
10) How many letters are there in the English alphabet?
11) How many words can you make out of them?
12) [Pointing to the number "10"] What is this way of writing numbers made up of?
13) How many numerals are there?
NINE / TEN
14) Which, nine or ten?
15) Starting with zero, what are they? [They call out, I write them in the following way.]