Teaching and Learning by Discussion

Experience is the teacher of all things

    Socratic teaching is the oldest, and still the most powerful, teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking. Socrates is the most influential philosopher of ancient Greece and yet we have nothing left of his work. We know about him and his methods through the works of the works of Plato, the dialogues talk about his life and philosophy, and Xenophon.

    Socratic dialogue is an argument or series of arguments made using the question-and-answer method employed by Socrates in Plato's Dialogues. Teaching and learning by discussion is a very powerful method to cover a lot of ground. Today we have plenty of tools and methods to record conversations—because we learn the most when we're active participants in the dialogue.

    In How to Speak, How to Listen, Mortimer Adler says there are three kinds of learning and teaching:

  1. didactic
  2. Socratic
  3. coaching

    Lectures are an example of didactic teaching—we teach by telling. Asking and answering questions is the structure of the Socratic method. Then there's coaching, which is for the development of intellectual, physical, and athletic skills.

The skills of reading and writing, of speaking and listening, and of observing, calculating, measuring, and estimating, cannot be inculcated by means of didactic instruction. Skilled habits can be formed only through practice under supervision of a coach who corrects wrong moves and requires the right ones to be made.

    The three kinds of teaching are correlated with three kinds of learning. We acquire organized basic knowledge via lectures, textbooks and telling, intellectual learning require coaching, and we enlarge our understanding of the basic ideas and values through facilitated dialogue.

    In a seminar setting with a good teacher it becomes clear rather quickly whether we're prepared to think for ourselves or not. Can we answer questions about important ideas? Do we speak clearly and coherently? Do we know how to listen well? This format is ideal to discuss issues, ideas, and values. Participants prepare by reading books, articles, and thinking about their understanding of a fundamental idea.

    Would we be prepared to discuss topics such as progress, liberty, justice, or privacy?

    To help us understand how it works, Adler explains teaching by questioning is not a quiz session with a lecture bolted on. It's also not a “bull session” with everyone offering opinions and share personal experiences.

    Three pre-requisites to making it work include, 1./ a subject matter proposed by the moderator and an established duration sufficient to discuss the topic, usually between 1.5 to 2 hours is a good start; 2./ a room should be set up with an hexagonal table so participants can face each other; and 3./ an open and docile state of mind.

    An open mind is the outcome of critical thinking, but it's also what creates the opportunity to learn. Docility describes the ability to be receptive without either arguing for the sake of argument or too acquiescent—a discussion is an invitation to exercise the mind critically.

Role of moderator

    There's a reason why panel conversations are both the richest form of learning and the most difficult to pull off—so much we need to get right. The panelists with diverse views and ready to discuss them in public, and a moderator ready to both listen well and ask questions that raise issues.

    Says Adler:

The task of the moderator is threefold: (1) to ask a series of questions that control the discussion and give it direction; (2) to examine the answers by trying to evoke the reasons for them or the implications they have; and (3) to engage the participants in two-way talk with one another when the views they have advanced appear to be in conflict.

    The resulting conversation is the core of what makes seminars valuable. Good questions cannot be answered by just yes and no, they might be hypothetical to present suppositions for participants to examine implications and consequences, they might also be complex, with multiple related parts.

    For these reasons, seminars require a lot of energy and intense activity and presence, also because we can only listen once. 

Below is a diagram of Adler's three kinds of teaching and learning.

Three ways of teaching and learning For speaking advice, see the three pillars of persuasive speech.