Dr. Judith M. Newman



Pitfalls of "Socratic" Method

My critical incidents this week all come from the Hang Gliding Instructor’s Course in Winnipeg. I attended several of the sessions—to the instructor’s dismay, I think. However, I found it very interesting because the problems of instructing hang gliding are two-fold (not unlike teaching writing or reading) — there are the hands on experiences—the PRACTICAL knowledge—and there’s the THEORETICAL—the information that allows you to make practical judgements.

In hang gliding, the first is done at the training hill or the flying site; the second is done in the classroom. What came through loud and clear was how although Michael (the instructor of the instructor candidates) understands how knowledge is a personal construction, his teaching methods are largely transmission ones. What I found myself thinking about was how the instruction for the instructors could be changed so that they wouldn’t continuously be in a panic mode.

Michael’s strategy was to ask a question of the group and then to name someone to answer it. It was interesting how invariably the guys fell into the mode of trying to guess what was in Michael’s mind and not being able to. Invariably, they’d give partial answers, or answers that went off in some other direction and Michael would have to ‘correct’ them.

I tried a couple of times to engage Michael and the others in some discussion of an issue but Michael would cut me off. One particular moment came on Sunday evening while the guys were practicing ground hangling techniques. Michael had a glider set up and BJ was in the harness. Michael asked the open question—what are the two principals of flying that you want students to know? Each of the guys hesitatingly gave an answer but nobody was ‘right’ and Michael made that clear. Finally, I piped up—loose grip, eyes ahead. Michael turned to me and said, “I didn’t ask you!” However, that was the answer he was looking for.

It’s not that they guys didn’t know that. It’s just that the teaching style—Socratic it’s called—sets up this other game that creates a lot of tension for the learners. I don’t think I realized just how tension-producing that question/answer game can be. But I sure saw it in action during these sessions.