Picture the scene; Athens, Greece, 4th Century BCE. The Department Head approaches Socrates, the most experienced and highly awarded teacher on the faculty, to tell him that he is to teach an online course in the coming semester:
Department Head: Socrates, I want you to teach your Philosophy 101 course online starting next semester.
Socrates: What? You must be joking! How can I engage students and teach them how to think if they are hundreds of miles away? Why do you want this?
Department Head: Because it is more efficient, we can enroll more students, and this is the direction that education is headed.
Socrates: I cannot do it! Teaching is a personal activity! The students will learn nothing!
Department Head: But plenty of professors teach online and their students do just fine.
Socrates: I have heard about this online teaching – it is only good for teaching facts! Engaging my students in dialogue is the foundation of my teaching method! Students need to learn to think. They need to be engaged. You have heard me say ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’ – well, ‘unexamined knowledge is not worth knowing’– or teaching!
Department Head: I am sorry, Socrates, but this has to happen. It is the future of education!
Socrates: This is outrageous! Where is that Hemlock?
Okay, so this is, perhaps, a somewhat cynical guess at how such a conversation might have played out, but it is also a conversation similar to ones that I suspect have occurred at universities across the world (hopefully without the Hemlock!), as educators have had to transition from traditional, face-to-face classrooms to online learning environments.
In fairness to Socrates, who, by all accounts, was somewhat of a rebel and not afraid to be innovative or different, my guess is that he would have embraced the opportunity to reach more students with his teaching. His challenge, however, would be to find a way to continue to engage his students and teach them how to think, while operating in the online learning environment. Many online courses have great content and do a good job of teaching “facts,” but teaching students how to think or, in our current vernacular, how to engage in critical thinking, seems to be a different challenge.
Critical thinking, or some variant, is frequently mentioned in the mission statements of institutions of higher education as a target skill that they want their students to acquire. The belief that critical thinking will emerge naturally from higher education, however, is based more on wishful thinking than actual evidence, as there is reliable research that suggests that critical thinking can, and should, be explicitly taught. On top of that, critical thinking has been increasingly recognized as a required knowledge and skill for almost all professions. In a recent survey, over 82% of employers indicated that they want educators to emphasize critical thinking as a student outcome (Hart Research Associates, 2013).
Wade, Tavris, and Garry (2014) define critical thinking as “the ability and willingness to assess claims and make objective judgments on the basis of well-supported reasons and evidence rather than emotion and anecdote” (p. 6). Their view of critical thinkers is similar to the expectations that Socrates had for his students – That they be able to look for flaws in arguments and to resist claims that have no support, that they actively come up with alternative explanations for events, think of implications of facts that are presented to them, and apply new knowledge to social and personal problems. Importantly, critical thinking is not just a skillset but also a disposition, or a willingness to use the skillset to make more sound, logical, and evidence-based decisions.
Teaching Critical Thinking in Online Courses
So how would Socrates have approached this task of teaching online, knowing that he would not compromise his belief that his primary purpose was to teach his students how to think critically? In fact, there is a large body of literature supporting the concept of teaching critical thinking in online courses, with many describing specific teaching techniques and approaches and some even specifically referring to the Socratic Method.
So here are a few possible approaches that Socrates might use if he were teaching an online course:
1. Socratic Questioning (of course!): There are a number of sources that describe a series of questioning prompts based on the Socratic method. These typically include, questions for clarification, questions about the initial question or issue, questions that probe assumptions, questions that probe reasons and evidence, questions that probe origin or source questions, questions that probe implications and consequences, and questions about viewpoints or perspectives. MacKnight (2000) describes using such questions within the format of online discussions, with the goal of facilitating critical thinking. She emphasizes that the instructor must model such questioning throughout the online course and that students must be made aware of the questioning prompts, and must be aware that they are expected to use them in discussion activities.
2. Collaborative Learning: Online discussions can take many forms. MacKnight (2000) describes 6 types of group discussions that could be useful for online teachers: (i) Small group discussions led by an instructor or group leader; (ii) Buzz groups, consisting of two people who discuss issues or problems for a short period; (iii) Case discussions, using real or simulated complex problems to be analyzed in detail and a solution or decision offered; (iv) Debating teams, where students improve their critical thinking skills by formulating ideas, defending their positions, and countering the opposition’s reasoning or conclusions; (v) Jigsaw groups, where members break into subgroups to discuss various parts of a topic and then are responsible for presenting or teaching the information to the other members; and (vi) Mock trials, where students assume the various roles of individuals in a real trial setting. In addition, a whole class (asynchronous) discussion board activity, in which students have to consider a specific question or engage in a certain activity and then post about it, can be used to facilitate critical thinking. Questions focus on underlying beliefs and/or values, and activities might involve experimenting with a different personal or professional role (e.g., in a course on stuttering, students must take on the role of a person who stutters and post about their experiences). Students then respond to each other’s postings with Socratic questions and comments. One important factor is that the instructor must monitor the online discussions and model Socratic questioning.
3. Reflections: Metacognition and reflection are also important aspects of critical thinking. Students need the opportunity to reflect on their thinking, learning, and decision-making. Teachers can set up weekly reflections, to be kept in an online reflection journal or blog, in which students write their thoughts on their learning from that week. DiLollo, Scherz, and Strattman (2016) described how they set up an end of semester reflection-on-reflection paper that tasks the students with reflecting on their thoughts from the entire semester, making metacognitive monitoring explicit and overt.
4. Synchronous Class Discussions: Given advances in technology and online learning management systems, it is much easier these days for teachers to lead synchronous class discussions. As stated earlier, however, the teacher must model use of Socratic questioning during such discussions, in the same way as she/he would in a face-to-face class. One advantage of such discussions in an online environment is that some students will contribute, even though they might not have risked participation in a face-to-face discussion.
So, I think Socrates would have had a blast teaching online! He recognized that facts are only a part of the full picture of education, and he would have quickly realized that this holds equally true for the face-to-face and online learning environments. His commitment to rational thought and careful reasoning meant that he would not teach “unexamined knowledge” and that he would find creative ways to promote a critical thinking disposition in his students.
DiLollo, A., Scherz, J. S., & Strattman, K. (April, 2016). Tools for teaching critical thinking to CSD graduate students. Seminar presented at the Council for Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CAPCSD) Conference, San Antonio, TX.
Hart Research Associates (2013). It takes more than a major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success. An online survey among employers conducted on behalf of: The Association of American Colleges and Universities.
MacKnight, C. (2000). Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussions. Educause Quarterly, 4, 38-41.
Wade, C., Tavris, C., & Garry, M. (2014). Psychology (11th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.