Designing College Courses Around Socratic Dialogue (the Inquiry Method of Neil Postman)

In Fall of 2020, I designed my college courses around the inquiry method as it was described by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in their book Teaching as Subversive Activity. The book is a great read. In the end, however, I decided that the approach did not work for me, because it turned me into a logic-tyrant. Class discussions became ego trips. I think it is possible to facilitate Socratic dialogue without becoming a heckler (though Socrates was a heckler), but for some reason I couldn't.

Summary of Course Given to Students

There are only two important learning objectives for this course:  

1.     That students learn how and what it means to think critically; and  

2.     That students exploit the subject-matter (psychology) to explore their own personal interests. 

Objective number two could be concerned with personal knowledge—such as learning about yourself, relationships, parenting, etc.; or concerned with career knowledge—such as learning about a possible career path whether or not it is in psychology. It is probably concerned with anything you have ever thought about. Psychology is that vast. 

I admit that such learning objectives land well outside any job-training programs or step-wise major-sequences common in academic departments. Because of this, I am obliged to offer a third learning objective, namely,  

3.     That students will demonstrate mastery over course-specific knowledge (i.e., memorize dates, figures, concepts, and so on).  

This final objective represents the most shallow and insignificant kind of learning, not just in my opinion, but throughout the history of learning and its philosophy. For this, I encourage you to attach little importance to this objective in the calculation of your grades. 

            Even for those of you who will become psychologists, the probability of encountering any specific fact, name, or detail covered in the textbook, particularly in the spirit in which it is covered in the textbook, is extremely low. In any case, your lack of preparation will be resolved in the ten seconds it takes to perform an internet search. Critical thinking, by comparison, will aid you in every decision you face the rest of your life. 

            Grades will be determined by you and in consultation with me. I will meet individually with each of you during Week 7 or earlier (Midterms) and again during Week 15 or earlier (Finals) to discuss your progress on items 1 and 2, above. You may opt out of these meetings if you wish, and I will evaluate you on item 3 alone (see item three under preparation, below). 


To best prepare for this class, please follow the strategies below, separated by Learning Objective. 


  1. Critical thinking. Despite its popularity, critical thinking is one of the most poorly understood concepts in, and it is nearly absent from, education. I will begin with what Critical Thinking is not. 
    1. Critical thinking is not having all of the answers, nor is it finding an answer as quickly as possible. Both of these are inimical to critical thinking, and to thinking in general. By extension, having the entire internet of information at your fingertips will do little to help you think critically. Critical thinking is notabout information. 
    2. Critical thinking is also not about applying techniques. Following a formula to write a sentence or conjugate a verb or test a hypothesis requires little thought. Whoever has written the formula has done the thinking on your behalf. 
    3. Instead, critical thinking is concerned with the clarity of our ideas. It begins with making sure our language is as clear and unambiguous as possible. It questions authority of knowledge, presuppositions, and belief-systems. 
    4. Critical thinking is wondering whether our understanding might be incomplete. Critical thinkers examine which contexts are relevant for understanding, and benefit from multiple perspectives. Critical thinking often generates more questions than answers. If, after engaging in critical thinking, we say “we understand less now than we did from the outset,” then we can be certain our thinking was critical. This process usually ends with a statement such as “this is as good as we can do with such-and-such a topic for the time being,” even though we know it isn’t perfect. (This is also how good scientists conclude their research reports.) 
  2. Exploit the subject matter to explore personal interests. Here we find the main subject in education: your life. This is true even though life has probably been scrubbed free from every course you have ever taken. Because of this, I understand if you have some trouble on this objective. Here are a few hints on how to proceed: 
    1. If there was one question we could spend the entire semester working out, what would it be? 
    2. What do you spend the majority of your time thinking about? What is on your mind most often? 
    3. Psychology is a broad discipline—anything that concerns humans or human interests is implicated. The only thing possibly left out would be rocks (unless there was a religion that worshipped rocks). 
  3. Mastery of knowledge. For learning objective #3, students are encouraged to use the course textbook and my pre-recorded lectures to take the quizzes or exams which will be available all semester long. Each assessment may be taken an unlimited number of times. By passing all quizzes and/or exams, students will receive at least a C in the course—without ever meeting with me. But students are under no obligation to take quizzes or exams. 

Here’s how class will generally go: 

Class will be your opportunity to explore those topics generated in item number 2, above. This begins by asking questions, then clarifying those questions until we are absolutely sure what it is we are asking after, and how best to proceed with finding a satisfactory answer (if any answers are possible). We will probably generate more questions than answers. This is a sign we are on the right track. If we find that we have resolved an issue or question, then we can be sure we didn’t understand it very well and should probably reconsider it further. 

HINT: Such answers will not necessarily be in the book or my mind, however many bits of information might be stored in either. Remember, critical thinkers are suspicious of information (they ask “Where did it come from?” “What does it mean?” Etc.)   

After all, the subject of education is life. This is particularly true for psychology, but no less so for biology (literally “the study of life”) or physics (“study of nature,” physis). 

To prepare for class, think seriously about what is important to you and the people in your life. In class, we will practice clarifying thoughts and ideas, and you will probably want to practice this at home. It is entirely possible that you will practice thinking on your own without even trying. Learning to think critically is like that: it seeps into everything in your life.  

As we cover ideas in class, take notes about things that interest you or any new ideas that you have. You might even get a journal or notebook for organizing these thoughts, and find this helpful in determining your grade: for example, “here is what I did during the semester.”  

You may discuss your thoughts, ideas, and journals with me during my office hours (which will be via WEBEX), or e-mail me personal letters.  

Personal Letters and Office Hours: During class, I will not be answering questions (at least I will try not to). Instead, I will be facilitating student-thinking by asking questions. If you have a question you would like me to answer, I encourage you to write me a letter (using e-mail, for example). I will answer your questions honestly. 

Office hours are your opportunity to think with me privately about topics discussed in class or on your own. You can run new thoughts and ideas past me, or think openly about things too personal for the public classroom setting. 

Please hang onto your questions, insights, and reflections and have them when you meet with me. We can go over them together whenever you stop by, and during the midterm/finals week individual meetings. 


Habits to consider practicing, which are valuable in their own right: 

1.     Reading. It is possible to get an A in this class without doing any reading (outside of documents like this and announcements, of course). However, you will have bountiful opportunities to read in my classes. I do a lot of reading personally and professionally. I can recommend dozens of books based on your interests, or can help you find a book that seems interesting. Just ask. 

When you read, don’t do so in order to cross another book off the list or to learn something the author has to teach you. Don’t let the author do your thinking for you. You’ve had plenty of that. Instead, read to practice thinking. This means approaching reading in a different way. 

When you read to find the applicable bits of information, then it makes sense to skim the surface, look for key words, or read only the summary. This is reading for some end goal—wringing the value out of the book. 

Instead, approach the book with openness, curiosity, and wonder. These are free, and infinitely more valuable than speed boats and sports cars even though curiosity, admittedly, isn’t nearly as attractive or sexy as a speed boat or sports car. 

There is no reason to rush this process, just like you can’t rush through a hike in the woods when doing so skips the whole reason for being out there. Slow down. Reread a passage. Linger awhile.  

2.     Writing. It is possible you will get through this class doing minimal writing. But you will have bountiful opportunities to write in this class. I do a lot of writing. I have written over 13 books in fewer than seven years. I am learning to be a better writer, and take the process seriously. If this is important to you, then come and see me and we can talk about it. 

When you write, don’t just convey information. Textbooks convey information, and they are fantastically dull. I’m sure you’ve noticed this. 

When you write to convey information, the information passes through you (in through the eyes/ears and out the fingers or hand) without undergoing any change. Neither you nor the information is transformed. This is a profoundly lifeless act. It is worse than useless, because it teaches the writer that they cannot think for themselves. 

Write first in order to clarify your thoughts. It is easy to assume that writers sit down at their desks and spill beautiful prose directly from their unconscious, but this isn’t how the process goes. It takes patience and focus and sometimes frustration. 

Once you have clarified your ideas, write to communicate these in the simplest and most straightforward way. Remember how the words you choose are important. It is easy to fall prey to semantic gigantism (big-word-syndrome) and pick the biggest word that fits. When you do this, you have sacrificed clarity for vocabulary. Nobody will care about the words you know if you’re incapable of using them to express anything. 

When you write to clarify and express yourself and not just to convey information, then you will realize that you matter. Knowledge is not sealed away in the basement of some Federal Library. It is generated by people such as yourself who have participated in its generation. 

Notice how none of this can be evaluated on a test or written into a multiple choice item. It also isn’t likely to be standardized into any curriculum. 

3.     Thinking. Thinking is a process few remember how to do. It happens naturally in childhood, but it is promptly trained out of children through schooling. Thinking is generally replaced with techniques such as logic and other methods for problem solving. These techniques should not be confused with thinking. 

Thinking is not something you get more efficient at. If we use the metaphor of collecting water in a cup, then thinking would not be running to the nearest stream and filling the cup as quickly as possible. Thinking isn’t about doing; it is about receiving. Thinking is what happens when you leave the cup outside and wait. The cup will fill, but you might be surprised by how or with what it fills. 

We will be thinking in class, but there is no reason you cannot practice it at home, too. You might even keep a journal to record your thoughts, and then come and share them with me and we can think together. But most students and professors and people in general have great difficulty with this. 


It was immediately apparent that students were unprepared to think critically about even the most obvious things that structure their awareness—e.g., that racial discrimination is wrong, what it means to be a child, what it means to be an adult, how to find a peer-reviewed journal article, and on and on and on.


For example, a student would ask, “how do you get autism?” and I would ask “Well, how do you define autism?” Crickets would ensue. Then I would ask, “if you’re not sure how to define autism, where might you go to find a definition?”

            “Internet?” or “Textbook?”

            “Go ahead and look. I will wait.”

            They would find the definition and say it out loud. They would mispronounce enough words to make it clear that they aren’t sure what the definition means, so I would ask if someone could interpret the definition in normal, everyday speaking terms.

After thirty minutes, which is about how long it takes to work through simple terms like this when the goal is critical thinking and understanding, students are exhausted. They realize that the definition for autism isn’t clear at all (and it isn’t), and they’re disappointed. It would be much easier if there was a simple, 15-word definition which they could commit to memory. But that isn’t how thinking works. That’s rote memorization, which doesn’t require any thinking.


This occurred in each of my classes, and students became quickly withdrawn. I don’t know if this was due to the inquiry method, or due to the COVID-19 hybrid-forced platform. I have heard that other faculty were also dealing with attrition issues, so I’m not sure how much the inquiry method is to blame.


I can say that I learned a lot about the thinking process. It was something I realized that I avoided when possible, relying on truisms and common beliefs in the discipline rather than thinking through them the way Socrates might. 

Would I Do It Again? 

I would absolutely use the inquiry method again, but I would do so in a restricted way. Critical thinking is arduous, and few have the patience for it. I suspect that all are capable, but since they have no experience with actual thinking, they are intimidated by how slow the process is, and quickly give up. It is much easier to skip the thinking part and just see what Alexis or Siri has to say about a topic.

In the future, I would use the inquiry method on one or two topics per class. I would preface by letting students know how difficult a task thinking is, and to get ready to be confused.