Back-and-forth, query-response, question-and-answer. All of this talk about chatbots lately got us thinking about the father of the question-and-answer method: Socrates, the ancient Greek who sought to teach by asking questions.
The Socratic method has been the foundation for education, law, and logic since Socrates taught it. In fact, the Center for Critical Thinking, a non-profit organization that promotes “fair-minded critical thinking” in education, promotes the Socratic Method as “the oldest and still most powerful teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking.”
The Center for Critical Thinking lists a set of criteria which must be present in order to practice the Socratic Method:
- Goals and objectives
- Questions and problems
- Information and data
- Modes of interpreting or judging that information
- Specialized concepts and ideas that help organize data
- Key assumptions
- Point of view
We’re referencing this list as we begin working with chatbot developers. Chatbots represent the ultimate vehicle for the Socratic method, an interface that uses natural language processing to understand the question, artificial intelligence to interpret the question and answer it, and machine learning to constantly optimize the last combination of Q&A to prepare for the next. But chatbots must also stretch beyond the data and into framing and making “key assumptions” and understanding “point of view”, two distinctly human characteristics that are difficult to teach to a machine — no matter what method you use.
Chatbots will begin their careers by answering questions, but as they become more sophisticated, the goal will be to make them more conversational. The immediate commercial applications for chatbots will help us learn more about them and add these more sophisticated parameters as time goes on.
One clear application for advanced chatbots is education. In a recent interview with The Verge, Bill Gates outlined a new project he’s working on called “personalized learning” the very modernized version of the Socratic Method as it applies to education. Personalized learning will change the classroom from the standard lecture/notes format to a place where students learn at their own pace while teachers serve as coaches.
“In general,” Gates told The Verge, “the idea is that people progress at a different rate. If you’re ahead of what’s being taught in the class, that’s not good, you get bored.” And obviously, if you’re behind then you’ll begin to feel alienated from the topic, or even the class.
Smartly written software and interaction with chatbots can help students by constantly optimizing the challenge vs. boredom gap and helping the teacher/coach understand how the student is doing along the way.
Chatbots, the Socratic Method, and school
It’s not difficult to see how chatbots will play a role in helping kids with homework in this framework – kids are already asking Siri and Alexa plenty of questions to get help with their assignments, but if educators and technologists put their heads together, they can build a system that teaches by making that interaction between student and chatbot easier to have and more meaningful.
Even Gates admits he needs a sounding board every once in a while. “You know, part of the reason I’m so willing to tackle new subjects is that for each of those subjects, if I get utterly confused, I know somebody I can send an email to, and they’ll straighten me out.”
It’s encouraging to know that even Bill Gates gets stumped once in a while. If students can ask a chatbot a question instead of having to raise their hand in class (and admit they don’t know the answer), they can use this more personalized experience to ask all the questions they want to ask. The challenge for the bots will be first to understand what student is saying — after all, kids often have a diction all their own — and next to understand what the question is asking and deliver a response that’s appropriate to the student’s learning level.
eContext works hard to help parse out the nuances between words. Our text classification system could help a chatbot understand the context of the question a grade-school student is asking. For example, a student working on a report about America’s founding fathers might say, “Give me a quote from John Hancock”, and the bot will know to deliver the signatory’s famous “We must be unanimous” quote which he delivered at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The chatbot will also know to avoid delivering an insurance quote from the John Hancock insurance company, or a quote from a review of the Signature Room in Chicago’s famous John Hancock building.
This will be a big challenge for chatbot developers, but an exciting one, with an opportunity to make a giant leap forward for chatbot development along with a massive push forward for education everywhere, all the while, pulling from the classical foundation of our educational system which began with the inquisitive Socrates.