Surviving the Socratic Experience

Last November I had the pleasure of hosting a presentation of Rapid Software Testing presented by James Bach.

I’ve attended a number of training courses and learning events over the years but, to date, the Rapid Software Testing course is the only one that utilises Socratic teaching methods and for many attending this course this was the first time they had encountered this teaching method – the shock was evident as the first few came under fire. This shock turned to worry for some as they knew at some point it would be their turn!

It’s slightly reminiscent of the scene in Lord of the Rings – Return of the King, when Frodo is travelling within Mordor and the “The Eye of Sauron” happens upon him, freezing him to the spot and subjecting him to mental torture before the gaze moves on. Now James isn’t quite that bad but when you first encounter this method of teaching when you are not prepared for it the common reactions are:

  • You feel like any answer you give is going to be the wrong one
  • You feel that your intellect is being threatened
  • You feel confused
  • You feel very small and alone
  • You feel quite uncomfortable

Now it’s the second time I’ve attended this course; the first was a few years ago with Michael Bolton so I knew more or less what I was letting myself in for and thought I was prepared for challenges ahead with James. However James is a real master at this and has a knack for escalating the questioning to take you out of your comfort zone – regardless of where you start from. This is a good thing – I mean we were all there to learn and the Socratic method is an excellent teacher.

Now you may be thinking “Why attend the same course twice?” – Well there were a couple of reasons.

The first was that I suspected that I wouldn’t be attending “the same course” and I was not disappointed – much of the material was the same, a few exercises were similar, but both Micheal and James bring different perspectives to the material, different stories and stress different areas.

The second reason I wanted to attend was to observe the interactions between James and the other learners in order to improve my own coaching skills. This alone was worth the time and effort of organising the event.

For many the “Socratic Experience” was the most difficult part of the course – so here are my strategies for surviving the “Socratic Experience”

Ask for help

I don’t remember anyone doing this during the course even when James kept alluding to do this throughout the course. Whether this is due to cultural backgrounds or professional pride or perhaps under scrutiny we forget this simple strategy.

So remember – this is not a test but a learning experience so if you are struggling ask for help. If you are one-to-one with someone like James then ask him for help. There is no shame in this; a good Socratic teacher will then help focus your thinking so that you can discover the answer.

If you don’t know the answer – say so

I repeat, it’s not a test but a learning experience. While I can’t vouch for other students, a good teacher will not mock you for not knowing the answer.

A good Socratic teacher may re-phrase the question or help direct your thoughts and it may encourage others to offer their views.

One more point to remember is that unless you are in a class with a bunch of geniuses, there will be others who are also thinking “I don’t know how to answer that question!”

Remember – It’s meant to be difficult

If you want anything more than a superficial understanding of testing, then you need to explore and challenge your thinking, your biases and your preconceived notions about testing. So any exercises that aim to help you develop a deeper understanding are going to be challenging – If it’s not challenging you are not learning.

It is also worth remembering that the exercises are meant to be challenging and you are not expected to just “know the answer” – So relax and don’t worry so much about breezing through the course.

Don’t take it personally

We didn’t loose any students during the 3 days so thankfully any thoughts that it was personal didn’t last. James is also very good at feeding back after the exercises which helps to lessen frustration.

That said, on occasion, it was difficult for some people to let it go – the difficulty with this is that while you are beating yourself up over things you “got wrong” you are not listening and learning.

So after you’ve been grilled by someone like James, actively listen to the feedback and even challenge their observations.

Be fearless

Don’t be afraid to give an answer – a couple of times, I sensed that others on the course knew the answer but they were almost afraid to give the answer for fear of being wrong.

Remember: The only wrong answer to a question is to not give an answer!

Now it’s almost a certainty that when James poses a challenge and asks you to solve it that there will be traps. For many on the course, the fear of falling into these traps caused them to resist giving an answer or at least discussing possible answers.

Sure, when James asks you a question it’s liberally sprinkled with traps of various descriptions but

  • Falling into them and finding ways out of them is part of the fun and a good way to earn respect.
  • Sometimes you can neatly avoid them and earn respect.

So if you earn respect by falling into and getting out of the traps and for avoiding the traps there is nothing to fear.

Ask questions

One trap that many of us (me included) fell into was assuming that they had been given all the available information about the scenario or perhaps that asking for more details is somehow wrong or cheating. I think this goes back to other learning experiences which focus more on recall or synthesis of previously given information.

If there is more information available, the only way you are going to find it is to ask questions.

So when you think you have all the facts, ask yourself some questions such as:

  • What assumptions have I made and how can I test/check these?
  • What leaps of inference am I making and are they a leap too far?
  • What other information would help me solve this problem?
  • What am I not sure about?

If you are really stuck for questions to ask, ask others for help with the question “Are there any questions I should be asking?”

State your assumptions

Perhaps it is unique to testing (but I suspect not) but our assumptions will invariably get us into trouble. I have a long held belief that we often make assumptions in order to make things easier for us. Sometimes this is a necessary strategy to simplify a problem but failing to re-consider or validate our assumptions tends make fools of us all.

There were numerous instances during the course where unstated assumptions sprung trap after trap – these can almost always be neatly avoided by simply stating the assumptions you are making. It also helps the teacher and others understand where your thoughts are coming from.

Talk it through

Often when asked a question we will invariably think it through before we utter our answer – in doing so we have made a number of assumptions and decisions that, when you give your answer may seem a little odd. A better strategy is to talk it through rather than think it through.

Talking it through gives you a number of advantages:

  • It slows things down and relieves some of the pressure (trust me on this!)
  • It starts up a dialog with the questioner and other students and allows you to get feedback on where your thoughts are heading.
  • It gives you an opportunity to state your assumptions and decisions; this in turn allows others to follow your train of thought.
  • Talking about the problem often leads to new ideas and perspectives
  • It avoids the uncomfortable silence that adds to the stress of the situation – A good teacher like James can out wait any student and the longer the silence the more stressful it feels.

So there you have it – if you follow these strategies, then you’ll find that you open up and might actually enjoy the Socratic Experience!