For quite some time, I have been trying to adopt Socratic teaching in my MBA classes by asking questions rather than lecturing so that students can learn more by gradually coming up with insights themselves.
- I got my Ph.D. at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, where basically 100% of MBA classes are based on the case study methodology which is consistent with the Socratic method that the university’s founder Thomas Jefferson in turn learned from his mentor William Small at the College of William & Mary.
- I also wrote a case study Henk Learns to Swim about my self-lived experiences using the Socratic method in an Executive Education setting.
- I have participated in numerous teaching seminars with Socratic teaching as an important area such as at Babson College Executive Education and while teaching at Tulane University, some Harvard professor I don’t remember the name of came down to New Orleans to profess the virtues of the Harvard Case Method based on Socratic teaching.
So, do I feel that I master the art of asking questions to foster learning? No, not by a long shot. Yet, I believe that my best classes are those when the Socratic magic happens and everything just works the way they should. That is also why I am forever trying to improve in this area and would love it if Socrates were to come by and sit in on one of my MBA classes to give me some pointers.
In the meantime, here are some “secrets” that I have learned so far that are critical for a successful case discussion to take place:
- Identify 3 or 4 key learning points that I have printed out in large capital letters in front of me so that I ensure that I cover each one of those before classtime is over.
- Be flexible in terms of the order by which the learning points are covered. The responses you get from students may take you in an unexpected direction and cover an area that you perhaps had planned to discuss much later.
- Be patient waiting for a response and stare people down. When you feel that the silence is becoming almost unbearable, then be quiet for five more seconds. This is very difficult and I still fail to adhere to this principle many times as it is very tempting to kill such a silence with “the answer” even when those seconds represented the time students perhaps needed to come up with their own conclusion.
- Talk to students who tend to talk without getting called upon and explain to them that it is important that they allow others to think before they start offering their views.
- Call on everybody, not just the ones who raise their hands. The bigger the diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, the richer and better the discussions.
- Encourage opposing views yet strive to foster and maintain a respectful tone in the classroom to encourage broad participation.
- Provoke students who have very strong opinions with sharp questions to probe deeper into their rationales so that they and others better can understand where their opinions came from.
Perhaps, another point could be added which is to be curious and enjoy learning yourself! So, what do you think? What have you learned from your favorite professors when it comes to teaching style that I and others can learn from?
Picture: “David – The Death of Socrates detail” by Tableau de Charles Matthew Griego, “La mort de Socrate”. – détail dérivé de (detail from) : David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.