Professors: Learning How to Induce Labor and Give Birth

My favorite professor in grad school was Dr. Jack Pearl Lewis. He had the well-deserved reputation of being the meanest professor on campus. I never once saw him smile. He had a PhD from Harvard in the New Testament Greek and a PhD from Hebrew Union in Hebrew. I took most of the classes he taught. The only one I wasn’t successful in was Hebrew. I still recall the day he looked at me and said “Mr. Bell. I do not think that even Solomon could teach you Hebrew.” He was probably right. At that school, 96-100 was an A and 95-90 was a B. I once got a 96 on a final exam, and he marked it down as a B. I worked up the courage to talk to him about it, knocked on his office door, he grunted “come in,” so I did. He did not even look up from his writing to speak to me. I told him I got a 96 on the test and I thought that should be an A. Still looking down as he wrote, never once looking at me, he said, “Mr. Bell, do you think you know more about grading than I do?” I replied “oh no sir.” He still didn’t look up at me. He just kept writing. He never said another word. I quietly backed out of his office and sheepishly confessed to my wife that I was unsuccessful. She thought I should speak to the Academic Dean… but guess who that was? Right! Dr. Jack Pearl Lewis. If ever there was a time I needed a safe room with some Play Dough and coloring books, that was it. Unfortunately, that was at a time before we knew such words as trigger points, safe rooms, and micro aggressions.

Of the 10 ways to engage students in a classroom, Dr. Lewis knew none of them … well, except for one. He knew how to ask questions. It is true that his questions created a sense of fear and trembling in all of us students. Looking back on it now, I think that was his secret.  I asked Dr. Lewis once how it felt to have two PhDs. He replied “It has taught me the right questions.” Then he glibly added, “What do you think about that?”

I believe that the best teachers are the ones who can ask the right questions. There is an art to that. Socrates was a master of that art, but before you try to use the Socratic method, I would remind you that he was executed because of it. Like Dr. Lewis, the questions of Socrates drove people crazy.

It was the belief of Socrates (at least according to Plato) that before his student could learn anything, he had to create within the student a sense of discomfort, disturbance, and internal pain.  He called that pain, “Aporia.”  Socrates’ mother was a midwife and he attributed his method of teaching to her. The art of midwifery is referred to as maieutics coming from the Greek word maieutikos.

When Plato presents Socrates as a master teacher, he presents him much like an interrogator or prosecutor. Socrates himself taught nothing; he just produced labor pains (aporia) in his students, which in turn would give birth to new ideas and knowledge.

In our day, we might would say that Socrates had his black belt in maieutics. He was the master sensei (a martial arts teacher). The pain he delivered was cognitive rather physical. But it was a pain much like labor pains that lead to the birth of new ideas and knowledge.

One of the greatest 19th century philosophers learned midwifery from Socrates. Kierkegaard caused great fear and trembling (no pun intended since one of his books is entitled Fear and Trembling) among those who study his works today. Kierkegaard’s model for this was Socrates.

Last year Harvard Business Review (March 2015) recommended four different classifications of question to steer the conversation where you want it to go.

  1. Clarifying: “Can you tell me more?” and “Why do you say that?” Can you help me understand?
  2. Adjoining: “How would this concept apply in a different context?” or “What are the related uses of this technology?” “How would these insights apply in ???”
  3. Funneling: “How did you do the analysis?” and “Why did you not include this step?” “Can we take this analysis of this in ??? and drive it down to apply it to ????”
  4. Elevating: “Taking a step back, what are the larger issues?” or “Are we even addressing the right question?” “How do they all tie together?”

But the greatest master of this art form was Jesus Himself. Think about the questions He asked. By one account he asked over 300 questions in the Gospels. Questions like, Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). Also, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (Matt. 22:42). By doing this, he was strategically steering His disciples to a certain cognitive destination.

Now, let me ask you… Do you think it would be helpful for most professors to ask more questions? Would this help our students? If so, how would it help them? What do you think of my questions? Do you get the point?



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