Socratic Method at the Dinner Table
I've written recently about the Socratic Method as a central practice of many Lean companies. My son, Matt, age 17 and a junior in High School, gave me an opportunity to explore it further last week when he posed the following question at dinner:
"So why does the US have military bases in other countries, but no other countries have military bases here in the US?"
Great question. I almost answered directly but then decided to see if I could teach by asking questions. Here's how it went, a pretty accurate transcript.
Joe: Good question. Do you think folks in other countries like having a US base there?
Matt: Boy, I sure wouldn't want a foreign army here.
Joe: But what about people living in another country? Would they like it?
Matt: (confused) I don't know, I don't live there.
Joe: (realizing I started down a poor path with initial questions; take a new path) So, just what countries are you thinking about?
Matt: Well, like Italy or England.
Joe: So, what do we know about Italian people reacting to a US base there?
Matt: Well, it seems to be pretty peaceful...not like they are throwing rocks at it.
Joe: So, why would the Italians not be upset?
Matt: I don't know, I'm not Italian.
Joe: How about the British? Are they upset?
Matt: Don't appear to be.
Joe: So what's our history, militarily, with the British?
Matt: Well, we defeated them and became independent.
Joe: (I'm still not connecting...have to refocus a bit) Let's not go that far back...more recently, what was our military connection with the British?
Matt: Oh, well, we were allies.
Joe: Geographically, what is England near?
Matt. (pausing) Germany?
Joe: Yes. And what is the US near?
Matt: (smiling) Canada!
Joe: So why would the US have a base in England?
Matt: Because it was near an enemy in the two World Wars!
Joe: And why didn't England place troops in the US?
Matt: (laughing) Canada isn't about to attack us!!
Joe: So that explains part of it. But the wars are long over and Germany is now an ally. Why are the British not still upset?
Matt: (pausing) Because the base buys stuff.
Joe: Like what kind of stuff?
Matt: Well...just stuff. I don't know.
Joe: (shift gears again...trying to make it less abstract) Think of a solider or airman stationed in England. What would he or she buy there?
Matt: Oh. He might go to a restaurant or a pub in the town. He's spending money.
Joe: And what does that do for the area around the base?
Matt: Well, it helps businesses make money.
Joe: So why would people not be upset about the base?
Matt: (pause, then big grin) Because the presence of the base is mutually beneficial!!
Joe: Yeah. Make sense?
Matt: Yeah. May I be excused?
Joe: (I finally answer a question...) Sure.
Several observations about teaching using the Socratic Method.
Like swimming, you don't learn how to do this by reading blogs or thinking about it. You have to try it. Jump in and try it.
It's hard to teach by questions a topic you don't know yourself.
The reason is that you never really know what series of questions will resonate with the other person. So, you have to be very alert to what is working and what is not. And be willing to shift gears, several times. If you don't know the subject, you won't be able to make the gearshifts.
It seems slower. But it lasts longer. Why? Because the questioning technique gets the learner deeply involved in learning. In this example, Matt himself came to the realization that "mutual benefit" was the core of the answer. He'll likely remember that a lot longer than had he endured yet another rambling lecture from his Dad.
And this is at the key of any lean system. Substance and stability trumps speed.
I hope this is helpful. Rather, I should say; Do you find this helpful?