Friday, April 08, 2011

How writing Socratic Dialogues helps critical thinking

A Socratic Dialogue - is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with differing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas.

The ways in which writing Socratic Dialogues improves critical thinking are explored in the following dialogue.

Dialogue 1: A teacher (RLF) discusses writing Socratic Dialogues with one of his students (R).

Robert Leslie Fielding: Writing Socratic Dialogues is supposed to enhance a person’s critical thinking – do you agree that it does?

R: Well, I know it has improved mine.

RLF: Can you tell me more about what you mean?

R: Well, writing them is the strangest thing I’ve experienced when writing. Once you begin, the writing almost seems to take you over. I think it’s the logic of what you are writing about that has a life of its own.

RLF: I always feel that way whenever I’m writing them. I get engrossed in the dialogue – in the logic of it – and then it flows out of me while I write. I think it’s got something to do with the questioning technique.

R: I agree. I reckon that because you are asking your own questions and then replying to them yourself, something happens – it’s different from other forms of writing. Thoughts seem to run on from other thoughts.

RLF: Yes, I think so too. You write down a question, and in forming the answer, ideas tumble out, one after the other. As you write one thought down another follows it.

R: Yes, I wonder why that happens like that when it doesn’t happen quite as readily when you are writing ‘normally?’

RLF: I think it may be connected to our attempt to answer a direct question – it focuses our mind on the task of answering.

R: Yes, I agree, and the other thing is that once you get going, a sort of rhythm establishes itself and you find yourself thinking almost automatically.

RLF: Automatically?

R: Yes, but I don’t mean it happens without thinking, but rather that your thinking is triggered by this question and answer technique.

RLF: Let’s try to see why we think that is true. First of all, you have a topic you want to discuss – this one, for example.

R: Yes, and so you prepare your mind for the topic you are about to discuss.

RLF: Then you ask a sort of opening question, to get things underway.

R: That’s right, and that question opens up your mind to specifics; you write down the answer to that question, and while you are writing it, something associated with it comes into your mind and you write that down too.

RLF: Then, because you are thinking out both question and answer, you become involved – or I should say your mind becomes involved.

R: Yes, and because you are the asker and the answerer you can control the pace of the discussion.

RLF: Not just the pace, but also the direction too.

R: You say you control the direction, but is that true?

RLF: If it isn’t you controlling the direction, then who is it – nobody else is involved.

R: Nobody else, that’s true, but something else.

RLF: What do you mean – something else?

R: You said it yourself earlier, the logic of your dialogue takes over and you write truthfully and logically, as logically as you can, which is to say that you are writing truthfully, true to your own thoughts, for how could you do otherwise?

RLF: That’s an important point, I think. If it is your internal logic commanding your directions, then you must be writing about something you know already, mustn’t you?

R: Yes, I think so. In fact, I think that’s the whole point of them – of writing Socratic Dialogues – that in writing them you find out what you know – you find out things you didn’t know you knew, if you understand me.

RLF: Yes, I understand you perfectly. We all have such a lot of knowledge in our heads, but what is difficult is accessing it. I think writing these dialogues goes some way to helping us to access what is in our heads.

R: That's right. In what other ways could you do this, I wonder.

RLF: I would say you could do it by talking with someone you trust and respect.

R: Probably, but I doubt if you would find out so much so quickly.

RLF: Why do you say that?

R: Because we all have our own persona, our own ego, our own intellect, and our own opinions, don’t we?

RLF: We do, and many of the things we have an opinion about are personal to us, that’s to say that our opinions are dear to us and having someone question them can be and is often threatening to us as individuals, whereas when we alone write a Socratic Dialogue – asking questions and answering them, we do not find it threatening.

RLF: And I would go further and say that not only do we not find it threatening, but that in fact, we find it stimulating and creative.

R: That is probably because we are finding out something about ourselves that we had previously been consciously unaware of – our thoughts and opinions, based upon our internal logic.

RLF: Now, do you think everyone has the same internalized logic, or would it depend upon the cultural background of the writer?

R: I am sure it must have something to do with that, yes. I also think it might have something to do with the level of your education.

RLF: Yes, and probably with your willingness to try it too.

R: You are right. I mean, you are never going to experience what writing a Socratic Dialogue can do for you if you never try it out.

RLF: Are you glad you tried it?

R: Absolutely. I have always enjoyed writing, but now I enjoy it more and more as I get engrossed in writing a dialogue about something new.

Dialogue 2
Incremental progress

RLF: I think the way arguments or themes make progress through the course of a written Socratic Dialogue contributes to the progress made in understanding all the elements in the theme.

R: That’s rather a lot to take in all at once, isn’t it? Would you like to explain what you mean step by step?

RLF: That’s very clever of you – well said, for it is what I meant to say – that because each point is developed before proceeding to the next one, an understanding is made clearer.

R: I thought that was what you meant to say. Isn’t it curious how we hold to one thing in the Dialogue before moving on to the next?

RLF: Yes, it is, and I think that is a vital part of the way these Socratic Dialogues proceed, not quickly, but incrementally, step by cautious step until a deeper understanding has been reached.

R: And as we said earlier, because the steps issue from our own mind, our concentration is not lost or sidetracked by another’s train of thought.

RLF: That is generally the way with discussions between different people – that while one is speaking, the other person is free to wander in his mind, leaving some things unsaid or left off.

R: Whereas when one person is ‘discussing’ a topic in a written Dialogue, the mind has no chance to wander off, it being fully occupied in providing the answers to those questions it has been responsible for formulating in the first place.

RLF: Yes, indeed. It is the mind working with itself rather than against another person’s mind. And valuable as that can often be, it is another thing completely. This arguing with itself means that concentration can go deeper than would otherwise be the case. I think that is the crux of the matter, and how writing Socratic Dialogues aids critical thinking.
R: I think you are right.
Robert L. Fielding


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