An Epiphany

By now, everyone who reads this blog probably understands that I teach by means of the Socratic Method. I give a list of 3-8 questions one day which serve as “conversation starters” for the next class. In addition, our brand new Financial Accounting textbook (published by FlatWorldKnowledge) is written entirely in a Socratic Method fashion. A question is posed followed by an answer followed by the next logical question and so on.

When this process works perfectly, it is because of the questions. You must ask the proper question in order to create an environment for discovery. How do you develop those questions? Don’t the questions have to be something more than “when did Columbus discover America?” or “who won the Civil War?”

I had never thought much about the creation of questions until a few years ago. Then, I had an epiphany. I was reading the wonderful book “What the Best College Teachers Do” by Dr. Ken Bain. Dr. Bain and his team selected a group of outstanding college teachers from around the country and shadowed them for a period of time to discover their secrets. I was reading along and came to page 40 where I found this marvelous passage: “One professor explained it this way: ‘It’s sort of Socratic . . . You begin with a puzzle—you get somebody puzzled, and tied in knots, and mixed up.’ Those puzzles and knots generate questions for students, he went on to say, and then you begin to help them untie the knots.”

You get somebody puzzled, and tied in knots, and those puzzles and knots generate questions for students and then you begin to help them untie the knots.

I cannot think of a better description of what I think a teacher should strive to do. Puzzle students, tie their thinking into knots, and then help them untie the knots.

College teachers often view themselves as conveyors of knowledge/information. If that is the case, then a pure lecture works fine. You convey knowledge; students try to catch it as it flies by. However, if you want understanding, curiosity, interest, and enthusiasm, you have to go beyond that. And, I think the “secret” to working on a higher level is in the idea of puzzling the students, tying their thinking into knots, and then helping them to solve those puzzles.

Let me give you an example. Next week, in my Financial Accounting class, I will start talking about accounts receivable. As far as I can tell, most accounting teachers tell their students to read the chapter and assign one or more problems to work. The students then search (often desperately) through the chapter for a reasonable facsimile and try to duplicate that process to solve the homework assignment. In class, the problem is worked and the students make corrections. How do you rate the learning that occurs? Is it much different than learning to change the oil in your car? Ask yourself: does that process generate understanding, curiosity, interest, and enthusiasm?

Here’s how I might go about starting a discussion about reporting accounts receivable. (My quick answers are included in parenthesis. I obviously don’t give the answers to the students.)

1 – Your company sells 1,000 toasters near the end of December 2009, for $60 each. All $60,000 of these sales are made on account and collection will be in three or four months. A balance sheet is produced on December 31, 2009. What do outside decision makes really want to know about those accounts receivable? (The amount of cash the company will collect.)
2 – What is the problem with what the decision makers want to know in the above question? (Uncertainty—the accountant can only guess at the amount of cash that will be collected.)
3 – Accountants are known for being obsessively accurate. Will the reported number be accurate? (It is only an estimate; no one expects an estimate to be accurate. Things like exactness fly out the window when you start making guesses.)
4 – If the number is not accurate, what is it? (A fair representation according to US GAAP. In other words, the reporting follows the rules.)
5 – If there are $60,000 in accounts receivable, how can you report any other number on the balance sheet? Doesn’t it have to be $60,000? (The company sets up an allowance account to reduce the asset by the amount that is anticipated as being uncollectible.)
6 – Assume you know that $2,000 of the $60,000 will prove to be uncollectible in 2010. Two customers will die, leave town, go bankrupt, or the like. That is an expense for the company. Should the $2,000 expense be recognized in 2009 or 2010? (In 2009. Expenses are recognized according to the matching principle. Revenues from the sale of toasters are recognized in 2009 so any related expenses [such as the bad debts] must also be recognized in 2009.

Okay, I could go on and on but you probably get the idea. Here is my challenge to you on a very cold and snowy Wednesday: are you puzzling your students enough and tying their thinking into knots? Are you helping them solve those puzzles and untie those knots? If not, you might want to consider that strategy as a way to increase their understanding, curiosity, interest, and enthusiasm.

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