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Carmen Clark

by Carmen Clark

As the crocodile in Disney's "Peter Pan" who never forgot the taste of Captain Hook and never stopped searching for more, I never lost my craving to learn how to "draw people out" — since I saw it done well in 1968.

My croc-craving began as I listened to a woman discussing the war in Vietnam with passers-by at an information table we set up at my school. She got the other person talking about what they were thinking, wondering about, what they valued, what they knew, what they assumed, and how they reasoned on the subject. They discussed facts of the situation around workable focus — back and forth. In this lively discussion, each person listened and commented intelligently.

Her approach awed me. She called it "drawing out." I didn't know how to do it. She advised me, to "draw out" the people who stopped by the table but I didn't have the remotest idea how to do it.

In those days, I shared many facts, opinions, and ideas with willing listeners. In motormouth style, I offered every last possible persuasive tidbit, watching the listener closely for non-verbal feedback, anticipating questions like a salesman. I learned to entertain and to show my sincerity. Sometimes I awkwardly asked questions, returning to soliloquy at the first response. If the listener began to agree, I had little idea what I had done, what thinking they had modified, or what information made a difference to them. If the listener argued, I argued boldly; but when they couldn't refute my argument, they often still didnít adopt my view. And those who got involved through my encouragement couldn't necessarily discuss issues and questions clearly with others.

Decades later, as a teacher, I still talked and talked, but I also offered learning activities. I could show, encourage, and coach. I could explain and correct. But I judged my results weakest in empowering students — hooking into their experience, existing knowledge and skills. They had trouble distinguishing between critical thinking and criticizing — and they didn't like criticizing. I didn't know how to draw productively from students' experience as we explored new questions, resources and problems in class. They passed tests and they learned skills, they learned to see their work process, but I didn't think my classes tapped into students' inner resources and set them on fire.

I decided in around 2002 to learn about Socratic method and found Win Wengerís web page for the November 2002 Double Festival and training. In those sessions, to my delight, I rediscovered "drawing out" (tic-toc, tic-toc went the croc). It was central to the Socratic method and modern Socratic-inspired active learning strategies. Aha! Furthermore, "drawing out" and Socratic method fed into self-awareness, meta-cognition (awareness and involvement in one's own thought process), integrated learning, and practical applications. I think that's what education should be about.

Win contrasted didactics with Socratics. Didactics (standard telling-teaching) assumes an active teacher and a passive student. Socratics assumes an active questioner and an active learner. In the Socratic method workshop I discovered that Socratic meant "drawing out," and that drawing out required rethinking and radical repositioning by the would-be teacher — a different approach, different organization, different talk, and different interpersonal dynamics than assumed in traditional approaches.

I also discovered that "drawing out" flows from appropriate "taking in." Listening and active listening were not new ideas to me, but purposeful listening changes when one's purpose changes. In "drawing out" mode, careful listening, visualizing, and questioning about the learner's experience, knowledge, and assumptions focused and guided exchanges rather than presenting me with opportunities to make new speeches. Traditional "teaching" (you listen, I talk) doesn't work that way. The drawing-out approach can isolate facts, address context, analyze fact-context together, and build on personal experience. The process walks learners through critical thinking, creating, clarifying ideas, retrieving information, and problem-solving strategies.

My five days of workshops all offered intensive training in paired active listening. Those many and varied applications of the same skills build up a feel and flow of a radically different way of communicating and of using the same "sets" of knowledge and resources differently. Without a shift from didactic to Socratic habits, traditionally oriented teachers could morph into supposedly Socratic terrorizing of students with questions, perhaps inappropriate questions for the learning context or for the student at that moment, or a new strain of jabber-jabber, to perform rather than to produce.

My five days at the Double Festival crossed many topics, but learning to listen and to ask appropriate questions — visualizing and co-experiencing my partner's mental pictures (using Win's Image-Streaming) — unexpectedly solved a 35-year mystery of where "drawing out" comes from and how it works.

I had been seeking and experimenting for decades, from a speaker-centered and then a teacher-centered perspective rather than from a learner-centered focus.

If education exists so students will learn, results appear in the student and his/her performance — not in the teacher's spiel. Tuning into and tapping into the student's perceptions, ideas, thinking and reasoning promotes learning directly. With solid learning objectives and drawing out of the student's knowledge and experience, the student engages in and participates in his or her own learning. A lively experience!

I had sought an active "drawing out" process — teacher magic performed on a student audience. I discovered a receptive way to perceive another person's world without disturbing its operation. Seeking clues to the other's experience, vision, and thoughts — actively receiving their cues, knowledge, and ideas — made "drawing out" something I could do.

Socrates had his method, but his knowledge was great as a learning facilitator; many lesser teachers today can learn from his principles, bundled with new approaches from the last 2000 years.

Such repositioning tasted good to this old crocodile who had sought the Hook of "drawing out" for decades. I'll be slurping on that learning for years to come and delighted to tell what I'm learning to do.

Carmen Clark, Madison, Wisconsin

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