School, Social Learning, and Socrates

Plato and Dewey’s visions for education may provide guidance in how technology should be used in the K-12 classroom
Cathleen Norris & Elliot Soloway

Educational issue first: learning is a social process – so say two, great, Western thinkers. Now bring in the technology: free, device-agnostic apps that support synchronous collaboration. Connecting the educational issue to the technology is this month’s commentary; spoiler alert – the path from here to there is a tad circuitous, but we hope you will find that journey to be enjoyable and thought-provoking!

  • SOCRATES: “… knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning”, from The Meno by Plato.

Back and forth conversation – not monologue – is what Plato, not a minor thinker in Western philosophy, believes to be the preferred pedagogical strategy. Educators call that powerful instructional strategy the Socratic Teaching Method:

  • “The Socratic Method is to be distinguished therefore from the traditional method of teaching, in which teachers seek to transmit their knowledge to their pupils, who are expected to assimilate it on the whole passively. The Socratic Method is an interactive method in which teacher and pupil co-operate in the pursuit of knowledge through dialogue. A series of questions and answers involve the two parties in the same cognitive pursuit…”

Fast forward a few years and here’s what another not-inconsequential Western thinker has to say:

  • “Education is a social process… Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself”, from Democracy and Education  by John Dewey.
  • “One of Dewey’s main ideas is that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution … [he] didn’t agree with one-way delivery style of authoritarian schooling...” MindMaps

Dewey too sees teacher monologues as a bad pedagogical strategy.

Yet, teacher monologues – direct instruction – are the dominant pedagogical strategy in classrooms today. You, dear reader, most likely experienced monologue-based education through college. And, ask your children – what percentage of time do teachers talk at them?  Indeed, not only are monologues not going away, their centrality is growing! Videos of teachers talking are the anchor of the Flipped Classroom movement. A monologue live or a monologue on video is still a monologue – at least in the former case a student can ask a question; harder to ask a question to a video lecture. (A more robust critique of classroom flipping will be the topic of a full commentary; stay tuned.)

K-12’s love affair with teacher monologues notwithstanding, from ancient times to modern times, from Plato to Dewey, the notion is this:  effective pedagogy involves dialogue, involves conversation, and by definition dialogue and conversation are social activities. Learning is a social process.

(Careful, careful: we are not saying – nor do Plato and Dewey say – that dialogue is the only important learning activity. (Dewey and Plato were both big on “play”, for example.) But, given their importance, dialogue and conversation certainly warrant a focused commentary.)

There is technology aplenty to support casual conversations: Instagram, Twitter, What’sApp, Facebook, etc. But for K-12, the challenge for technology is to support collaborative conversations where learners are working together developing a shared understanding.  Conversation generates waves that float about in the ether, i.e., it’s just talk. Those ethereal waves need to be made visible and manipulable in order for learners to critically examine them and effectively build upon them.

In the “solo” world, we have all sorts of tools – effective tools – at making just talk visible and manipulable: word processors, drawing tools, etc. And, in the collaborative world, there is the Google Docs Editor, the Grandmama app that supports the co-construction of text documents (joined now by Microsoft’s Office 365). Those apps are absolutely usable by high schoolers and perhaps older middle-schoolers.

But those apps, to mix a metaphor, are a bit over-weight for the shorter crowd.  And those shorter ones significantly outnumber the taller ones – 70% of the 50,000,000+ students in the U.S. are in grades K-8, in fact. No problem! The digital cobblers (a.k.a. undergraduate CSE majors) in our Intergalactic Mobile Learning Center at the University of Michigan have created a suite of free, device-agnostic, collabrified apps designed expressly for that 70% group.

Towards supporting students in grades 1-8, then, co-creating/co-editing artifacts – that is, supporting synchronous collaboration – the IMLC team has developed the Collabrify Suite of Productivity Apps.  By “collabrified” we mean the apps enable two or more students, each student working on his/her own computational device, to co-create or co-edit a text document (using Collabrify Writer), a concept map (using Collabrify Map), a KWL chart (using Collabrify KWL), a drawing or animation (using Collabrify FlipBook), or a simple spreadsheet (Collabrify Chart).  Key is that the students can – and should – be talking full-tilt as they engage in co-creating or co-editing their artifact. 

All the Collabrify apps, of course, support in class, face-to-face collaboration. But, the apps can be used when a student is at home, confounded with a homework assignment: call a friend, share the text document/concept map/drawing, and bingo-bongo, that confused student isn’t working alone anymore. Students can converse and work together inside a document even when they are not co-located. Students never have to learn alone again!

The UI/UX of the Collabrify apps is new – and reflects the bunches we learned from the thousands of students and teachers who used earlier, native (i.e., iOS, Android only), versions of our collabrified apps (WeMap, WeWrite, WeSketch, etc.). Thank you early adopters! Moreover, the Collabrify apps are written in HTML5 and thus run in a browser. And, since browsers are supported by virtually all computing devices, the Collabrify suite is perfect for the diversity of devices that are characteristic of BYOD classrooms, e.g., an old netbook or a new iPad, a Windows laptop or a Mac laptop, an Android tablet or an Android smartphone – YES!  Collabrify apps support small-screened devices, too.

Pillars of Western thought for good reason, Plato and Dewey’s visions for education -- that teaching and learning is a social process, that student dialogue is paramount, that teachers are catalysts for classroom inquiry – provide guidance in how technology should be used in the K-12 classroom.  Fortunately, today’s amazing hardware fueled by available software can support their vision.  Indeed, were they around to see today’s classrooms buzzing with conversation as the students co-construct all manner of artifacts in their pursuit of understanding – and scaffolded, of course, by engaged teachers – Plato and Dewey would bump fists and nod their heads with approval.

Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway work as team – bringing education and technology together – what a concept! Cathleen is Regents Professor & Departmental Chair, College of Information, Department of Learning Technologies, University of North Texas. Elliot is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Department of CSE, College of Engineering, University of Michigan. They can be reached at: or

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