Aliki Constantinou, Educational Consultant, Soffos.ai, delves into the importance of debate in education and how AI-powered EdTech can enhance discursive learning
In the ancient times, Socrates (470-399), a Greek philosopher, introduced the concept of life-long learning. He did so through his idea that constant inquiry is the only way that a learner can achieve an understanding that is closer to the “truth”, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging that we are largely ignorant. His prophetic words have become more relevant today, as we witness knowledge that was once significant, now becoming extinct or obsolete at rates we can barely keep up with. Today, we are living in a world of information overload, where learners can access a flood of data and ideas at the touch of a digital button. Our only resolve is to constantly examine and re-examine our knowledge and find tools for managing the influx of new information.
The enduring relevance of Socrates’ philosophy is being experienced in the state of education. The past year has been a powerful indication of the ubiquitous presence of education technology (EdTech) in the lives of the majority of people on the planet – whether students, educators, employees, trainers, coaches or employers who have had to adapt to new teaching and learning methods and tools.
Moving forward into the post-COVID-19 world, educators have had to rapidly update themselves with new technologies and instructional strategies to cope with the learning needs of digital natives: their students. With these rising challenges, we are now seeing a huge increase in the need for dynamic learning strategies that equip learners will life-long knowledge – and this is now a possibility given the recent advances in AI technology. To fill the ever-growing gaps in teaching and learning, the creators and designers of cutting-edge learning and development (L&D) platforms have also had to speed up their pace, in an effort to create more efficient and effective systems to bolster Socratic learning.
The importance of Socratic learning
Originating in the teaching style used by Socrates, the Socratic method is still one of the most engaging classroom strategies to this day. It enables students to use higher order thinking skills and to hone their ability to ask critical thinking questions, which ultimately leads to a more in-depth understanding of complex concepts. Socrates believed that the way to identify inconsistencies and achieve greater understanding of one’s own values, beliefs and even convictions was to ask the right questions – “how do I know what I know?”
Unlike the conventional sense of the word “teaching,” this method is not based on the requirement for lectures and memorization. The role of the teacher is to guide their students to understanding, rather than to simply relay knowledge. This method is inherently student-centered and is based on consistent questioning, as well as subsequent discussion that is led and facilitated by a student or teacher.
The key aspect of this method is the ability to ask the right questions, so that learners can attempt to address these with insights and even more deliberative questions. It encourages students to reflect on their own understanding of different topics in a way that leads to longer-lasting retention and a pursuit for further knowledge, rather than simply reciting rehearsed information. Learners, or knowers, if you will, engage in a reflective and introspective dialogue that leads to metacognitive understanding.
Traditionally speaking at least, this open-ended dialogue does not require the presence of technology. In conventional settings, for example in universities, this practice commonly takes the form of a seminar, or one-on-one supervision between a student and professor. Meanwhile, within earlier years contexts through to higher education, this might come in the form of small group work and class discussion. However, in this new digital age, both students and teachers can reap the benefits of tech-assisted Socratic learning.
How can AI facilitate Socratic learning?
Integrating EdTech with the Socratic method is not as counterintuitive as it might first appear. Indeed, advances in technology mean that sophisticated platforms can today facilitate interactive discussions with students. Teachers would be wise to look to apps and online tools that integrate the question and response methodology. Specifically, these digital platforms should have a functionality that allows teachers to pose questions and manage discussions both within and outside classrooms.
In many cases, institutions will be led to EdTech solutions that have AI at their core. Thanks to advances in natural language processing (NLP), these next-gen solutions empower students to take ownership of their own learning journey, allowing them to pose individual questions – either verbal or typed – and receive succinct and accurate answers from their own digital teaching assistant. Thanks to intelligent algorithms that power these solutions, NLP platforms can instantaneously pinpoint the right data from a growing database of information, to ensure that individuals are learning effectively and are not overwhelmed with irrelevant facts.
AI can facilitate cooperative and collaborative learning by pairing students to engage in peer-to-peer (P2P) learning, by connecting them through their devices. This means that both teachers and students will be able to benefit from the collaborative interactions made possible by the partnering opportunities initiated by AI. By breaking down geographical barriers, AI platforms can unite users in a common goal – broadening their understanding and learning from one another.
Vitally, next-gen AI platforms can proactively initiate conversations with users, leading to the improvement of knowledge and critical thinking skills – a key facet of “Socratic” learning. If, through ongoing interactions the AI notes that a student is struggling with a particular concept, focus can be placed on this topic until a strong level of understanding is reached. In this way, students will receive prompts about a topic of interest, after which they will be able to engage in open-ended Q&A sessions, with the answers provided directly through the platform. Through such exchanges, students can improve their critical thinking skills, subject-specific knowledge as well as metacognition.
To reinforce new knowledge, AI will be on hand to test users’ knowledge and skills with questions that challenge their thinking and response speed, and also by providing alternative answers when necessary. Beyond providing traditional multiple-choice quizzes and comprehension-based learning, AI is a patient, relentless teacher who never gets tired, frustrated or bored, and will never judge a learner for their constant nagging questions. Anyone seeking knowledge – whether teacher or student – anywhere and at any time, can find the answers just by asking.
The current climate has been a great reminder that it is not sufficient to simply offer online provision to students, who require a much greater level of virtual support and tailoring to fit their individual needs. Although they are in the nascent stages, these technologies will have the inbuilt capacity to conduct thorough knowledge audits to gauge an individual’s current level of understanding.
As they develop, these devices will allow students to fully engage with technology just as they would one of their peers or educators. Particularly within institutions where educators are stretched to their limit and resources are scant, this will prove to be a vital device in the modern teacher’s toolkit.
Let’s consider a practical case study of how an AI teaching assistant would provide support in the classroom – virtual or not.
A biology student might, for instance, be struggling to understand how photosynthesis works. In conventional classroom settings, they might be afraid to ask for further clarifications due to embarrassment or a fear of being judged for the quantity or content of their questions – particularly if the class has already moved on to a new topic.
In the new hybrid model of learning, the student can seek help from their own, AI-driven teaching assistant. Advances in NLP in recent years mean that even if a question is not covered directly by the syllabus, AI-driven solutions will be able to pull the most relevant information from their extensive data stores to provide the answers. Not only will this prove to be a valuable resource to teaching staff, but it will also provide a firm basis for students to revise and revisit different subjects.
If the student continues to have difficulties understanding a concept or topic, the learning management system (LMS) would try to deliver the information in a format that best matches the student’s preferred learning style. For instance, the EdTech platform might pull up an educational video explaining photosynthesis, or share a helpful flowchart. As the student continues to interact with the platform, sophisticated analytics will enable the digital assistant to continuously improve the quality of its answers, particularly as it understands more about the student and their individual learning progress.
In this way, students will benefit from peer-to-peer style learning as they work with intelligent machines that can help them reach new levels of academic success.
AI: the missing piece of the puzzle in the modern classroom?
Looking to some further practical applications of AI in classroom, the jigsaw strategy is another co-operative learning technique that allows groups of students to discuss various different aspects of a text and then come together to share their findings. Like Socratic learning, this collaborative approach helps students develop a deeper understanding of a topic by considering it from different angles and working as a group to share ideas.
For this strategy, which is made possible by intricate, well-timed and evolving partnering sessions, teachers must find a challenging and engaging text that students can analyze and evaluate. Thereafter, they must decide on how students will be partnered, create guiding questions and prompts to elicit conversations and time the sessions, while moving in and out of groups effectively and efficiently. Ultimately, facilitators must ensure that the knowledge being shared is also being documented accurately, and finally assess the learning that has taken place.
AI can seamlessly aid this process, facilitating each and every step of the learning journey through a user’s device. Additionally, these platforms can provide critical thinking questions, assess learners’ knowledge and report results to determine whether specialized knowledge of a subject is being formed. Importantly, this can take place remotely.
Vitally, and for a number of reasons, another important facet of EdTech platforms will sit with their ability to record their interactions with students. This will equip teachers with in-depth analytics which can help them to monitor and provide feedback on student activity. One glaring limitation of the aforementioned strategy is, after all, the inability for one teacher to monitor all student conversations when multiple small groups are working together at the same time.
Lightening the load for teachers
For many educators, the prospect of taking the job home with them after work is all too familiar, and these sophisticated data insights will also provide some much-needed respite from the plight of lesson-planning, allowing them to spend more time on the aspect of their job that is most important – teaching. These developments will make it possible to plan a curriculum that delivers first-class knowledge to each and every student, accounting for both individual areas for improvement, and collective knowledge gaps alike.
Ultimately, AI will transform the way in which people learn and think by providing them with the opportunity to discuss, debate and have intellectual conversations about issues of interest. In classrooms, AI can initiate or add to conversations and discussions that will lead to more specific and in-depth learning and thinking. In this way, it will help students and teachers to return to the important basics of Socratic learning and develop more autonomy as they embark on the path of life-long learning.