Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Teaching Higher Order Thinking in Literature through the Dialectical Approach

In times of extensive research into the best possible methods of teaching, educationists have come up with their preferred styles which include, learning by doing, experiential  pedagogy, problem solving, experimental learning (which is distinct from experiential pedagogy), the traditional lecture method, and, of course some are ready to swear on the effectiveness of Socratic Pedagogy! In simple terms, Socratic Pedagogy deals with debates and discussions based on the defense  of a particular point of view. In many cases, Socratic Pedagogy deals with the negative method of eliminating hypothesis, the same as used in the preparation of a Research Paper. In a research paper, the scholar sets out with a hypothesis which he ends up proving or disproving by the end of the paper. Many teachers, either consciously or unconsciously resort to Socratic Pedagogy, especially in senior classes where students are expected to have some basic knowledge of principles and concepts. For the English teacher of the senior grades, eighth to twelfth, the Socratic method of teaching could prove highly effective in the teaching of Opinion Writing, research writing, and the teaching of literature which includes poetry, drama, fiction, (Novels and short stories), and non-fiction (including factual descriptions, processes descriptions, travelogues) and Journals, scientific or discursive.
The Socratic method of teaching based on discussions, questions and answers searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion. For the students of class twelve studying the Literature section of C.B.S.E. English Core Syllabus, the concepts and themes of Linguistic Chauvinism, exploitation of marginalised communities by mainstream communities, child labour, the dichotomy between the laws of humanity and the laws of patriotism, escapism and day-dreaming, the irony of teaching slum children in an elementary school that too without first addressing their economic plight, are all highlighted in the short stories an and poems in the prescribed textbook. These social issues need to be discussed at length in class and this can take place when there is a healthy discussion which is properly moderated, and interspersed, from time to time with good, leading questions. During such lessons, it is a good idea for the teacher to introduce the Plenary, or a question whose answer encapsulates the central theme of the lesson. Value based topics that connect the lessons to the wider world could benefit a lot from a Pedagogy based on Socratic principles of critical thinking and a dialectical approach to the theme that is being taken up.
Developing the dialectical approach in students at the higher grades would be of great value while taking up Higher Order writing skills which include the writing of discursive and descriptive essays, speeches, letters to the editors and even report writing. In all these cases, the students’ grasp of the topic, his or her ability to develop a logical argument, and the ability to develop a particular stance or the ability to consistently support a particular point of view, all depend on the students’ ability to think critically! The use of rhetoric and logic to convince and persuade  the reader to accept one’s point of view is the result of being exposed to the Socratic method of teaching.  Effective opinion writing and persuasive writing are highly dependent on the students’ exposure to the dialectical method of presenting thoughts. Value based learning is almost entirely based on the quality of questions presented during a discussion session.
Many teachers make use of dialectical or Socratic Pedagogy in day to day lessons, and the lesson plans developed by most teachers contain these elements. One common general objective mentioned in lesson plans by most language teachers deals with the student’s ability to “critically analyze” a particular action or incident in the lesson. The critical analysis could also include the mention of advantages and disadvantages of a particular decision by the author. One poem that comes to mind is the Poem, “The Road not Taken” by Robert Frost, where the poet mentions choosing one of two roads, early in life. The student could be asked to critically analyze how the poet’s decision to shift to England benefited him, and their answer could be supported by the line where the poet states that when he looks back, he realizes that his choice has made all the difference! Many teachers include discussion in their lesson plans as one of the important activities to be undertaken while teaching a particular topic to students in class. The discussion however has to be initiated with an apt and carefully framed question. This could also be in the form of a hypothesis. To add a twist, the teacher could introduce a null hypothesis in class to initiate the discussion. The inclusion of thought provoking, open ended questions in the lesson plan is another good way of improving the quality of teaching taking place in the class room!
It goes without saying that the Socratic Method of teaching can help develop critical thinking in students at all levels. The idea is for the teacher to tell the students not to take everything at face value, but in fact to learn to develop the ability to think deeply before coming to the point. This dialectical method is not about giving answers to students straight off, rather it is about making the students come round to the answer or a particular point of view through a series of questions whose answers lead the students to the obvious! Let the students probe and explore the problem through a series of questions till they come to the answer. This is in no way related to the trial and error approach rather it is about intelligent learning, learning through an intelligent process of eliminating choices and options that don’t form part of the solution! In this age of advanced technology however, Socratic inquiry cannot be initiated through a Power-point presentation, rather it is based on a very strong dialogue between the teacher and the students. This is a method that can be used to nurture complex thought processes in learners required to develop an understanding of the complex world that we live in. For the Socratic Method of teaching to be effective there should be a good and healthy relationship between the learners and their teachers. A confrontational attitude  in the students or their teachers will compromise the efficacy of the dialectical method of teaching! An atmosphere of mutual respect needs to be created between both, teachers and students before one can even thin of embarking on the Socratic Method of teaching. We have talked often about the need to create an optimum balance between students and teachers during the lesson so that the lesson is student based and teacher based in equal proportions! The healthy sharing of ideas between both teachers and students will go a long way in ensuring  that the lesson is interesting enough! To develop the Socratic Method of teaching to its optimum level would require thus a highly democratic environment within the class with, however, the necessary measure for preventing the discussion from degenerating into a free for all! The ideal teacher should moreover be ready to take suggestions from students that throw new light on the topic. It is about learning to look at a problem from multiple points of view. In many cases it would not harm the purpose of teaching critical thinking in students to introduce a statement that goes contrary to the expected learning outcome so that the learners can come around to proving the statement false by providing relevant evidence! In many cases, the teacher might have to become subservient to the learners in the interest of promoting proper learning.
The important question for educationists today is whether the Socratic Method of Teaching continues to be relevant today. In many cases where students are overloaded with information from the internet and other sources, it might become an overwhelming experience for the teacher to maintain a proper control over the discussion taking place in the class. In many cases, discussions are hijacked by the dominant group of students who might just want to keep defending a particular stance just for the sake of prestige. While it is true, very few educators have the exceptional foresight and logical reasoning of Socrates, it would however not harm one to develop the qualities of detachment, neutrality and patience as enduring qualities of a good teacher. Before setting out on a discussion, the prudent teacher should set out rules before the class. He or she should remind students that all students are expected to participate in the discussion, and he or she should ensure that this is enforced. Similarly, to ensure that an effective discussion does take place, chorus answering should be discouraged, students should to told to raise hands before making a statement. Discipline, therefore is an expected element of a good discussion in class. The tactful educator should moreover ensure that he or she prevents the discussion from taking up heated proportions, or from digressing from the main topic.
Discipline during a discussion session can be ensured through the setting up of relevant and appropriate question. A good discussion does not have to be completely student based if the questions have been carefully framed by the teacher! The teacher can start with questions that are within the students’ grasp and then he or she can introduce those questions with an increasing difficulty level. Giving questions that have too many possible answers, or questions which are too easy might not further the purpose of entering into a discussion. For that effect, giving students questions which are beyond their understanding too defeats the very purpose of dialectical learning. One major disadvantage of the Socratic Pedagogy is that it is time consuming, and the discussion could very easily go in round circles rather than progress in a linear fashion. Often the expected learning outcomes might not match the final learning outcomes. This is a danger that Language teachers have to be aware of.
The dialectical approach can also work very well when the class is divided into crews and small groups in clusters of four or five. In times when most of classroom teaching is student led, how does a teacher ensure that the students come up with an acceptable interpretation of a prose piece or a poem? This brings me to the contentious issue of how to teach a poem. Do you break the poem down to bits and peices, robbing the poem of its structured beauty, or do you let the students interpret the poem the way they want to do it? What I would do is to have one model reading of  the poem, after having done a brief research on the poet, and the background, then I give the students the learning outcomes, and then this is followed by dividing the students into groups. Each group or crew is then given one stanza to analyse. The students are then told to look for the theme or the message of the stanza, identify important figures of speech including images, highlight and explain interesting words, phrases and expressions. After the students are done, they make a presentation before the rest of the class ( form of peer teaching). After they are done with their presentations, they are open to a question and answer session. It is this session that plays the most important role, and it is here that the students and the teacher can then guide the group to a more correct interpretation of the poem, that is, if the teacher thinks that the group has somehow misinterpreted the meaning or the theme of the stanza. In no way should the teacher give his own interpretation initially because it would kill the students' interest in the poem, and also their abiltiy to think critically! The dialectical approach can help a lot in student led pedagogy, the questions can be suitably framed so as to lead the student to the right path. This would also involve discussions. The only constraint here is that this approach might lead to heated discussions, and sometimes these discussions might take a lot of time. A skilled teacher will however ensure that the discussions are ended on time, with proper closure, and he skillfully steers the discussion away before it becomes really ugly!

Note:  The Dialectical approach in teaching has not been new to India. The Prashn-Uttar-Upanishad is based on the dialectical approach of teaching where the teacher, the Guru starts the lesson with a question which is followed by observations, discussions leading to subtly placed questions each leading closer to the answer till it is a matter of time when one of the clever students will have a "Eureka Moment" and hit the target!

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