The Socratic Tutoring Center
Some years ago, I was hired by the local community college to help re-design the tutoring process for the Math and Science center at one of the campuses.
I had previously tutored at another campus, and had taken on some of the management duties of the center's director, including training new tutors. We ordered training workbooks that taught "tutoring theory". We made the new hires go through the book and watch various training videos. In my view, the so-called "tutoring theory" wasn't any kind of real theory and I felt like a slave driver getting the new tutors to go through this boring, pointless material.
So, when the opportunity came to re-think another center's system of tutoring, I was aiming for something better.
At first, my conversation with the center's director revolved around mere optimization -- how could we increase the throughput of "tutoring cases" through the center. It was a conversation about tutoring staff, assigning seats, and operating hours. I don't recall what triggered the idea, but I remembered that my friend Michael Strong, who I knew from libertarian circles, had this interesting note on his email signature about a book that he had written. The book was The Habit of Thought. I went and ordered a copy off Amazon.
The Habit of Thought
The Habit of Thought became the operating handbook for my tutoring center project. We were going to ask questions, not lecture to the students. The training then centered around using Socratic discourse both as a means for finding out a student's learning issues and also as a way of teaching the student how to self-analyze when they got stuck.
What questions were we going to ask? And were we really only going to ask questions and not make any statements of fact? How pure did we want to be?
We had some very bright fellows who worked in the center who participated in "debugging" sessions with me. One of the major outputs of these sessions was a flow-chart that represented what we believed was a complete picture of the different situtations that a student could be in with regard to the preparation for the work they were trying to do. The tutors would be trained to quickly navigate the student through this model in order to characterize what kind of learning issue they were having.
In one debugging session with our senior tutors, we read through a published article which recounts a teacher leading young children to understand some math principle. One of the fellows found a bug in the process where students would have had to make a leap in understanding that did not follow directly from the questions and previous answers. This got me wondering how far we could take the concept of a pure Socratic tutoring center.
Could I Socratically tutor someone in a subject that I was not up to speed on?
In order to test out this out, I would take a handful of cases in the center and only ask questions. In a few cases, I had unbelievable success. There was one time that I sat down with a student, asked a few questions, and the student was stunned and thankful for having had the door to the Light opened. The center's director was nearby and I felt proud as a Socratic magician. As a counter example, I particurlarly remember a young lady was working on some complicated differential equation problem; after 10 minutes of generalistic questioning, she politely asked for the other tutor.
We made all of the tutors re-apply for their jobs, be interviewed about their willingness to do the Socratic process, but they were all rehired, and I don't think we planned on not "re-hiring" any of them . They were required to read my essay, "The Socratic Tutoring Center", linked below, as well as some snippets of other papers. We did role playing in which one tutor would act out the part of the confused student, and the tutor would use the flowchart do "diagnose" the student.
The Socratic Tutoring Center pdf has more extensive notes on a program of training, as well as my vision for how the Socratic pattern might become an ethic for an educational institution (or a society) if it was widely and strongly practiced. See also: The tutoring flowchart that we created to guide the tutors in diagnosing why a student got stuck. And the first page of our tutoring policies which emphasize Socratic Tutoring and not doing the work for the student.