I can at times be unfocused, receiving the news that I have been awarded a bursary to fund a student researcher re-focused my attention on that project. A project in which I aim to consider how innovative teaching impacts upon different student groups. My PhD – although tangentially connected – has therefore been slightly neglected, but better late than never here’s another round-up of my thoughts thus far…
Socrates is represented in the writings of Plato and Xenophon as a philosopher who communicated with his audience through the use of dialogue, a method also adopted by Plato who cast Socrates as a light-hearted although talented philosopher; below Socrates expresses his views on teaching through the voice of his protagonist who is addressing Ischomachus:
Can it be, Ischomachus, that asking questions is teaching? I am just beginning to see what is behind all your questions. You lead me on by means of things I know, point to things that resemble them, and persuade me that I know things that I thought I had no knowledge of. (Guthrie W.K.C., 1971, 17)
Socrates key principle was that dialogue generates ideas from the learner: “Education is not a cramming in, but a drawing out.”(Clark, March 18 2012). Socrates was also regarded as a formidable adversary, falsifying other’s claims in brutal dialogue – this is complimented by Popper’s concept of knowledge as that which has yet to be falsified.
The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy states that there are two competing models of education:
education as transmission of knowledge versus education as the fostering of inquiry and reasoning skills that are conducive to the development of autonomy (Phillips, D.C. and Siegel, H.).
This contrasts a model of cramming knowledge into the learner with the more Socratic method of drawing ideas out from the learner, which must be more prone to foster understanding and engender retention. Whilst there may, arguably, be a role for the former model in legal higher education the area of legal education – namely that of teaching legal methods and skills – with which I am primarily concerned undoubtedly requires Socratic dialogue.
As Socrates infamously stated “teaching is the art of asking questions”, recognising that the acquisition of knowledge alone, however, is not sufficient to amount to education, education requires development of the learner through the acquisition of understanding and skills, or as John Dewey infamously stated:
“All genuine education comes through experience” (1963, 15).
In fact Dewey went further in his ground-breaking study, arguing that education is done best as groups, sharing experiences as opposed to by individuals, through lectures and textbooks. Dewey’s experiential education draws on the Socratic method, actively involving learners in gaining knowledge through questioning. Education requires Socratic dialogue, or activity and questioning, allowing the learner to develop through a process of self-reflection, that:
moves the learner from a state of defensiveness, dependence (on the teacher) and reaction to a state of self-actualisation, independence and self-direction”(Kolb, 1984, 140).
Socratic dialogue, to identify shared experiences, is essential to any model of experiential learning.
Peter Scott (2013), Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education, argues, when writing about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), perhaps the most ambitious and novel form of OERS, that:
the best teaching has to be communal and reflexive, to allow for permanent dialogue.
This confirms the discussion above that education, at its best, is gained through group experiences and Socratic dialogue. Scott is drawing on the Socratic tradition and the work of Karl Popper – Popper claimed that the closest we can come to knowing something is provisional knowledge that is, as yet, unfalsified – or what he calls ‘Socratic dialogue, and Popperian science’. Whilst Karl Popper’s concept of knowledge ultimately limits that which is knowable to physics and pure mathematics the principle that the more vigorously we subject provisional knowledge to dialogue the more certain we can be that it is unfalsifiable can be applied to any discipline. Scott concludes by identifying a debate not only about MOOCs but about the wider state of Higher Education, identifying a conflict between the “Socratic tutorial” and the “delivery of expert skills”. Whilst Scott’s argument is generally convincing it is not with skills education but rather the delivery of what we label knowledge through large lectures, videos, textbooks or online resources where the learner is regarded as the passive recipient that the conflict with the Socratic tutorial is most evident.
Brent Chesley, Professor of English at Aquinas College, Michigan, in discussing MOOCs identifies the Socratic method as an effective teaching tool, highlighting the flaws in what we otherwise accept as self-evident truths. Chesley asks:
Could students in a MOOC have a comparable experience?(6 August 2013)
If we accept Chesley and Scott’s premise that the Socratic method is effective, then his question is an important one which this discussion returns to and which, it is hoped, future research will go some way to answering.
Higgins identified that if we don’t engage learners in dialogue they may not realise that they lack a certain piece of knowledge which they need. Through Socratic Dialogue and, particularly, Popperian science the process of critical self-reflection identifies learning needs and improves the learner’s chances to succeed in meeting their learning objectives. It is less straight-forward to achieve this through open resources with limited direct involvement of the ‘teacher’. However Tallent-Runnels notes, summarising previous research, that:
Of the yearly 1,000 hours of instruction in regular classrooms mandated by most states for elementary and secondary schools, only 300 to 400 hours are devoted to high-quality academic learning in which students are engaged in learning activities. (p.99)
If, however, OERs can emulate 30-40% of time spent being engaged in learning then it may be fair to assume they are, at least, as effective as classroom based teaching.
The key tenets of Socrates’ philosophy of education were that;
- education is a worthy pursuit (this is echoed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics);
- learning is a social activity achieved through dialogue;
- questioning, to draw out knowledge, is the crux of education;
- that to learn we must accept the true extent of our own ignorance; and
- that learning must be pursued with ruthless intellectual honesty.
It is the second of these claims that we have explored above and that forms the focus of the discussion that follows. If we accept that both Socratic Dialogue and Popperian science are necessary to good education then any resource, online or otherwise, must satisfy the following propositions in order to be educational in a meaningful sense:
- It must involve a dialogue/experience between the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner(s)’;
- What is being communicated must be falsifiable; and
- All participants in the dialogue must be willing to adapt their position if anything being communicated is falsified.
Crouch describes the various OERs that are available to:
support the training of legal researchers and to guide them in their research (p.115)
beginning by listing two of the online databases of journal articles, cases and statutes, namely LexisNexis and JustCite. She draws on experience and research in concluding that commercial databases are superior to free services as tools for locating legal information. These repositories are useful as sources of knowledge; however they lack the Socratic dialectic that is crucial to education. As efficient means of gaining information they are excellent, however if OER’s are about education – as the name suggests – then they need to be less passive. These types of resources are beneficial in supporting education, but are not educational themselves.
Crouch next describes re-usable learning objects (RLOs), which she describes as primarily repositories for the sharing of teaching materials between educators.(Crouch, 2010116) The three main RLOs she identifies are Jorum; The HEA RLOs for Law Librarianship; and Informs.(Informs) Jorum is a repository as described by Crouch, primarily of benefit to educators. Jorum, in common with online databases, falls into the category described as “presentational” by Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt (Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt, pp.585-586). The HEA RLOs for Law Librarianship and Informs provide interactive activities, the latter being a tool for the creation of interactive, online tutorials. Intute, who operate Informs, however closed in July 2011 and the site now operates as an archive. One of the resources in the archive is a tutorial which claims:
to help university students develop their Internet research skills. (Virtual Training Suite)
Whilst the resource is broken down to manageable, well presented chunks the interactivity is limited to reflective questions and tasks with no opportunity of feedback, in large parts the resource is little more than an annotated selection of hyperlinks, many of which are now out of date. Whilst reflective questions may encourage activity from the participant the lack of response means such resources still lack the Socratic dialectic necessary to be educational.
Crouch moves on to consider OERs and Open Courseware, citing Slideshare and YouTube EDU as commercial platforms that provide hosting of content, however they again provide material in a passive way as discussed above. Open Courseware has developed hugely since Crouch’s article with the creation of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are discussed below. However we will first consider Inquiry and Problem Based Learning (IBL and PBL), which Crouch addresses next in her article; she cites a project at Kings College London (KCL), funded by the now defunct UK Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE), which aimed to build a whole Legal Methods module in an open, online format. Legal Methods is not currently offered as a module by KCL although a single page document describing the project is publicly available on Slideshare(Kings College London). The project website was last updated on 21 June 2011 (UKCLE ceased to exist on 31 July 2011) and promised that “The new module will be rolled out to all first year students at the start of the 2010-11 academic year”(UK Centre for legal Education), it seems this did not happen. IBL and PBL have been incorporated into many OOCs and the methodology I hope to discuss, where appropriate, in future posts when considering the potential for Socratic dialogue in OOCs.
There have been considerable efforts made to retain an element of dialogue in OOCs, especially as they grow to be Massive (i.e. MOOCs) and thus able to be designed once and delivered numerous times, to tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals with limited resources.
Any parent of young children will have likely witnessed their child screaming the answer at the TV to a question posed by Disney’s Dora the Explorer or similar and wondered whether they are learning anything and what is the benefit of the exuberant praise children receive, regardless of the merits of their response. There may be some benefit in engaging children and in eliciting a response from them, but if their response is not reacted to then this benefit is extremely restricted. Similarly MOOCs have to do more than simply broadcast, in an unresponsive form, if they are to be of genuine educational use in teaching legal methods and skills.
Whilst not every educational activity can and should be assessed the summative feedback that comes with assessment, and the formative feedback that students receive continuously in traditional courses, are one of the main ways they receive active responses to their communication – the response to their dialogue – and Professor Warburton has identified feedback as a form of dialogue (Hatzipanagos and Warburton, pp.45-59), arguing that feedback can be sufficient to provide the dialogue in an online environment. This is certainly one of the ways that distance learning providers have successfully overcome the criticism that the Socratic tutorial is absent without face-to-face teaching however feedback is, arguably, too onerous on the providers of MOOCs to be realistic.
Other proposed solutions include computer simulated conversations, (Nelson and Dawson) or “The promise of intelligent tutoring systems”(Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt, 586). However Nelson and Dawson’s article demonstrates that currently computer simulated responses are not genuine responses but pre-programmed ‘dialogue’ triggered by the learner’s answers, in fact in their worked example(pp.8-9) they describe the correct response to a complex ethical dilemma in PhD supervision to be simply ‘maybe’ with no avenue to explore why the learner has decided that the scenario requires a more nuanced response than either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The learner would achieve the same response, and mark, if they had chosen the answer ‘maybe’ entirely at random or for any arbitrary reason such as preference for the letter ‘m’ or for 5-letter words.
Peer to peer dialogue appears to be a much explored option by the providers of MOOCs, such as Coursera, and this clearly has huge pragmatic advantages as the numbers of learners grow so does the number of peers who can be involved in dialogue. If there is a way to generate a valuable, genuine Socratic educational experience in a group of online learners without direct and continuous intervention from a ‘teacher’ then it may be possible to teach legal methods and skills through MOOCs, and this is the pedagogy that inspired the creation of early MOOCs, now termed cMOOCS. The c stands for ‘connectivism’, representing the idea that learning occurs through connections with others within a network. The question remains however, how do we skill learners to be able to engage in and facilitate Socratic dialogue?
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