Using Interview and Dialogue to Explore
I believe that learning how to ask good questions is at the heart of being a good reader, a good writer, and a good critical thinker. A colleague recently gave me a copy of an essay called Wisdom and Dialectic by Gordon Ziniewicz. In this essay, a reflection on Platos Symposium, Ziniewicz points out
"Socrates describes thinking as a conversation one has with himself, a debate, an argument, wherein one argues both sides (pro and con) of a question...Thinking in this sense is the weighing of alternative points of view, of arguing both sides of a case in order to determine which view is true or has more evidence to back it up...Dialectic is an argument or debate we have with ourselves."
One sequence of activities that I have developed which uses questioning of this kind to give students the opportunity to develop and practice their thinking through dialogue and dialectic goes something like this:
1) I ask a student to come to the front of the class and sit down at a desk across from me. I pick a topic at random, usually a topic I know the student has some interest in or experience with. For example, if the student is a basketball player, the topic might be basketball. I then conduct a short conversation with the student which consists exclusively of questions on my part and answers on the students part. I try to model a number of different kinds of questions: questions asking for elaboration, for information, for clarification, and so on.
2) After about five minutes, I bring the conversation to a close. I then explain to the class what I was trying to do. (Sometimes I give the explanation before the exercise, and ask the other students to make notes on what they observed about the nature of the interaction.) My job was essentially that of an interviewer - to draw my partner out, to explore my partners thinking, to give my partner a chance to speak and to share what s/he knows about the subject.
3) I divide the class up into groups of two. For the first five minutes, one partner is to be the interviewer and the other partner the interviewee. It is, I tell the students again, the job of the interviewer to draw the partner out, to explore the partners thinking, to give the partner a chance to speak and to share what s/he knows about the subject. The interviewer is only to ask questions, and the task is to keep the conversation rolling. I usually assign the entire class a common topic based on a reading or activity we have been doing in class.
4) After five minutes, I ask the students to switch roles.
5) After the second five minutes, I ask at least some of the groups to debrief their conversations and share with us some of the ideas generated by the discussion. I make a listing of ideas at the board while they do this.
6) The homework assignment is to go home and write an essay in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue should explore something relevant and significant about the topic or text under discussion by means of a series of questions and answers. I usually also tell the students that the dialogue should include at least two places where the text is referred to specifically (this is a standing requirement in my class for written responses to literature.) I tell the students that they can try to reconstruct the actual conversation they had, as best they remember it; or they can create a new, different, improved version of the conversation they had; or they can use any of the ideas they heard from other groups to create an entirely new exploration. But the resulting piece of writing should attempt to meet the universal standards of good thinking that we talk about all the time, that is, it should be clear, accurate, relevant, and significant, and so on.
I find that student writing in response to this assignment is often much clearer, much deeper, and much more interesting to read than the writing they do when they are asked to use a more traditional essay format. I also like the fact that it gives them a chance to rehearse questioning strategies which they can later use in regular class discussions and in the process of critical thinking itself. Asking students to think dialectically is also one way of highlighting the impact of point of view on thinking.
There are of course any number of variations one might try with this assignment, either by way of an alternative or as a followup.
One is to simply ask the partners to converse; that is, either may partner at a given moment may be asking or answering questions, or volunteering information in other ways. In this case I ask each student to make a list of four or five questions to bring up in case the conversation comes to a halt. The followup assignment is to ask the students to do a written version of a conversation like this.
Another that has worked well for me is to have the partners carry on the conversation on paper, by using dialogue journals. In this case, each partner writes a sentence or two, and then, usually on a signal from the teacher, the partners exchange papers, read what the other has written, and then respond as if they were having an actual conversation.