Deep in the heart of Texas, the yellow rose of Socrates
Some Texas teachers are trying out the Socratic method of the well-constructed question in kindergarten as well as in graduate school classrooms.
Much of the credit for a renewed interest in the use of sophisticated questioning must go to John P. Huntsberger, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas in Austin. He offers a graduate seminar in questioning for in-service teachers. He also is much in demand at school districts throughout the state to conduct in-service sessions in questioning.
"No, I don't believe every teacher can be a Socrates," says Dr. Huntsberger, "but I do believe that questioning is a skill which can be developed with practice -- a necessary skill for every teacher. To listen and question at just the right time and degree separates the truly brilliant instructor from the average," principal's middle name."
He begins his seminars with what he calls "a people scavenger hunt." He stands out 20 questions to the participants -- questions such as "Find a person who can speak another language besides English fluently," ". . . has taught one year longer than you," ". . . drives a car built before 1965," ". . . knows where Tarzan, Texas, is."
How can the participants find the answers to these questions? By asking questions. This sets the stage for discussions and practice in questioning techniques.
Approximately 80 percent of questions routinely asked in classrooms are confined to a narrow range requiring mainly the recall of facts. This kind of questioning is valuable for collecting information, verifying understanding, and reviewing previous material. however, Dr. Huntsberger believes overuse of such questioning cuts off student participation and takes time away from thinking at higher levels.
Divergent-thinking questions are useful in kindergarten, he says. He suggests a question like this: "What kind of clothes would be best to wear today?" If it's raining, the pupil might answer, "Raincoats." Then the teacher might ask, "Would you wear your raincoat at day?" or "What else would you wear besides a raincoat?"
The use of higher-level questioning is threatening to some teachers, Dr. Huntsberger notes. "For one thing, a fact question can be answered quickly. It requires more time to answer a divergent question," he says.
"Another threat is that a pupils' answers to divergent questions are unpredictable and may take the teacher into a line of thinking he/she isn't ready for."
To guard pupils' self-concepts, Dr. Huntsberger suggests that teachers explain often that there are no "right answers" to some of the questions, that all answers have value, and that the many different answers the students come up with are greater than any one answer.
He uses analysis, synthesis, and evaluation in the following line of question:
"how does the geography of Austin compare with the geography of Corvallis, ore?" (Analysis)
"What would be an ideal geographic location for a new city?" (Synthesis)
"Which of five locations would be the best location for a city of 400,000? Give reasons for your choice." (Evaluation)
Says Dr. Huntsberger, "Creative questioning is more difficult than fact questioning, but the extra effort is worth the trouble when a teacher sees a classroom come alive with excitement."