Socratic Method, Mazur and ‘Peer Learning’

I realise I haven’t been keeping up with blogging here (the perennial blogging complaint), mainly because I’ve been contributing blogs to the OER Research Hub project.  But I think there should be a bit more activity here as well as a bit of cross-posting (oh for the ability to re-blog between .com and .org installs on WordPress…).

What’s prompted this is a presentation I’ve just attended by Kari Arfstorm of the Flipped Learning Network.  I hadn’t previously been aware of an explicit connection between the ‘flipped’ learning methodology and a particular kind of pedagogical approach.  For those who are unaware, here’s the skinny on ‘flipped’ learning from the FLN site:

Flipped learning is intended to make more efficient use of classroom time by making sure that passive learning (e.g. reading, watching lecture) takes place away from the classroom and the time spent in the classroom makes the most of discussion, debate and inquiry.  Kari made an explicit connection between this approach and Socratic method – one I hadn’t made myself until now.

I confess to still being a little unclear on exactly how Socratic we should take flipped learning to be; or the ways in which flipping encourages a certain kind of pedagogy.  Kari suggested in the session that some subjects (e.g. mathematics) we might abide by a more authoritative teaching model in order to reflect the ‘hard’ nature of the subject while in the humanities we might employ a more authentically Socratic method.  I’m behind the curve on the whole thinking behind flipping, but a few thoughts come to mind:

  • Part of my confusion seems to arise from the fact that I understand Socratic method as anti-didactic.  Of course, it’s still a form of instruction (hence the irony) but ultimately a kind of facilitated self-instruction.
  • Socrates does in fact use this method to ‘teach’ mathematics.  In Plato’s Meno he takes a young slave boy and demonstrates his innate knowledge of Euclidean geometry by asking him questions rather than ‘teaching’ him.
  • Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does he not?

  • ‘Flipping’ seems (at least at first glance) to be an irony-free approach to pedagogy, which makes its Socratic status unclear to me.
  • In some dialogues, Socrates is often regarded as a mouth-piece for Platonic ideas. We don’t mean this kind of instruction when we talk about Socratic pedagogy but obviously there’s a lot of debate about when & where this is happening and why.

In any case, it seems that simply ‘flipping’ the classroom need not in itself result in more critical forms of reasoning and/or learning, though it’s easy to see how having a bit more time devoted to discussion or ‘higher-order’ pedagogical exercises might facilitate this.

When I asked Kari about this aspect of ‘flipping’ she said that the connection was not simply to Socratic methods but to some of the pedagogical approaches inspired by critical approaches.  Foremost among these seems to be physicist Eric Mazur‘s concept of peer instruction which dates from the early 1990s.

Peer Instruction encourages more interactive engagement by replacing lectures with small group discussions of concepts, supplemented by larger discussions punctuated by mini-lectures between questions. Students contemplate answers individually then discuss the explanations for their answers with their peers and come to agreement on the underlying physics (or models).

Here’s an outline of the process based on C. Turpen and N. Finkelstein (2010).

  • Instructor poses question based on students’ responses to their pre-class reading
  • Students reflect on the question
  • Students commit to an individual answer
  • Instructor reviews student responses
  • Students discuss their thinking and answers with their peers
  • Students then commit again to an individual answer
  • The instructor again reviews responses and decides whether more explanation is needed before moving on to the next concept.

  • Here’s a lecture by Eric Mazur which explains his approach to peer-based learning.

    I feel like I’ve learned something today as I have a better understanding of some of the pedagogical principles underlying the idea of ‘flipping’ the classroom.  But I also feel that it may be better to think of these approaches as encouraging a kind of intellectual or critical autonomy (undoubtedly a Socratic aspiration) rather than thinking of them as Socratic per se.

    Interestingly, the idea of Socratic reasoning also came through in a separate presentation today. Thanh Le (of the Vital Signs project) explained how ther schoolchildren use negative method of hypothesis elimination in order to improve their knowledge of native and invasive flora and fauna.

    Published by Rob Farrow

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    1. Hi Rob,

      Interesting post and I have been thinking along similar lines. For me flipping the classroom as it has been defined, is moving instruction outside the classroom. And while it does free up time in the classroom for more active, collaborative and peer learning, instruction is still on the menu. Instead of the main course, it has become an appetizer perhaps?

      I think if we want our learners truly to engage in learning, drive learning, so to speak, and experience the messiness of learning but also the discoveries they will make along the way, we could/should? design for this to happen instead of preparing pre-packed meals. Contextualising learning is really important, keeping our offer fresh and dynamic and engaging learners in meaningful activities, inside and outside the classroom, that foster reflection as well as critical and creative thinking and expression! These are all vital ingredients, I think.

      On the PGCAP which I was leading at Salford, I played with the idea of the flipped classroom but used an instruction-free approach. All I did I set up a pre-session activity. Some might call this instruction? The activity involved small groups of students editing specific wikipedia pages around learning theories which we then discussed and debated in class using Ketso I was impressed with the level of engagement and the depth of investigation that did take place in advance of the session but also transformed the classroom into a thinking classroom. We experienced of course some difficulties also but these did help me refine my approach further, so all useful for learning.

      Content is everywhere! Why should we continue spending so much time creating even more? Is there an opportunity perhaps to finally focus on how we can help our learners to learn and learn with them?

      Thank you for making me think again about this.



    2. Thanks for your comments, Chrissi. I hope we can be kept abreast of the work you are doing as it sounds very interesting.

      It’s strange to say that we need classroom where people can think but perhaps this tells us a lot about some of the problems facing the education system…


    3. Hi Rob,

      I just visited again to upload my message again which I did rewrite last night… and saw that the original message actually is here already 😉

      Regarding your osbervation about classrooms. I think of classrooms as spaces. Don’t like the word classroom. Thinking spaces can be anywhere and everywhere, in the physical and digital world and often the ones that are not dedicated to learning are the ones that inspire us more 😉 might be wrong of course… have been many times before.

      Hopefully this will arrive at your end.


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