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Post: How a 2500-year-old Method can Improve your Analytics

The Socratic Method, wrongly practiced, can lead to ‘pimping’

Law schools and medical schools have taught it for years. The Socratic Method is not just beneficial for doctors and lawyers. Anyone who leads a team or mentors junior staff should have this technique in their arsenal.

The Socratic Method

Originating from Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher renowned for his dialectic method of inquiry, the Socratic Method emphasizes the importance of questioning to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. This method, which is fundamentally about asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out underlying assumptions, has implications for business today.

The Socratic Method in Legal Training

The Socratic method is a technique used by law professors in many law schools. It involves calling on students and interrogating them about the facts and decisions in various court cases. This method allows students to imagine themselves as judges and envision how they would resolve legal disputes. The Socratic method is considered a cornerstone of some modern law programs. One of the key objectives and benefits is to help law students develop critical thinking skills.

Law schools use the Socratic method to prepare aspiring lawyers for the intensity of a typical first-year law class. By engaging students in active discussions and challenging their understanding of the law, the Socratic method helps them develop analytical and problem-solving skills that are essential for legal practice. It’s one of the informal gauntlets that is intended to prepare students to think through difficult scenarios for themselves.

The Socratic Method in Medical Training

Similarly, the Socratic method is commonly used, if not taught, in medical schools. It is used as a teaching technique to promote critical thinking and engage students in active learning. Medical students and residents are subjected to the Socratic method. From personal experience, the humbling encounter often feels more like an inquisition than a learning exercise. The approach often involves a faculty member or more senior physicians posing a series of questions to learners to challenge their assertions. It is intended to help them understand the “why” and encourage them to think critically about medical cases and concepts. I think it also helps formalize the process of diagnosis and treatment.

Also, like in law school, the Socratic method helps trainees learn to think on their feet as physicians. Unless they pursue radiology or forensic pathology, they’ll need to learn to make quick decisions in real-time patient care situations. It also creates opportunities for teaching, learning, and discussion during rounds. By asking questions in a logical and stepwise fashion, the Socratic method hones critical thinking skills and encourages self-directed learning strategies.

Typically, in clinical rotations, medical students will be given a set of patients to follow. They will be responsible for the initial work-up, preliminary diagnosis, and a recommended treatment plan. As a patient or consumer of services in a teaching hospital setting, this may sound scary. The care you receive in a teaching hospital is usually cutting edge with more medical contact than anywhere else. The medical student is under constant supervision by a hierarchy of teachers. The student is asked to present her cases to more senior doctors and is forced to defend her decisions.

In this way, the education is teaching not only how to cure patients, but how to gather data, process it, and look for the signal in the noise of confounding variables. With a constant feedback loop. The feedback loop of new lab results and other clinical tests is intended to prove or disprove the initial diagnostic hypothesis. Treatment approaches may change as new data comes in and is processed by the medical team.

The Socratic Method Abused

As an aside, it’s important to note that there is a distinction between Socratic teaching and “pimping.” To be totally transparent, the term used in this context is new to me. The concept is not. The difference between the two lies in the perception of psychological safety. The Socratic method, when used appropriately, creates a safe environment for learners to answer questions and seek help without feeling demeaned or threatened.

Pimping, on the other hand, can be seen as a more negative form of questioning. It often uses the power dynamics of a hierarchical environment to embarrass and humiliate learners. Pimping questions may be difficult to answer and may focus on trivial or irrelevant details, lacking educational value. The questions may be impossible to answer. It can bring a student to tears.

Anecdotally, and perhaps apocryphally, I was told that an intern on his surgical rotation had a surgeon mentor who could not be pleased. This intern felt he couldn’t do anything right while scrubbing in on multiple procedures. “Retract!” “Suction!” “Cut the suture above the knot!” “Ah, too short.” “Trim this suture.” “Too long.” Finally, before the next case, at wit’s end, the exasperated young doctor asked the surgeon. “Sir, would you prefer I trim the sutures too long or too short today?” This is the same quandary the young doctor put in when posed questions to which there is no right answer.

The term “pimping” in the context of medical education has a more recent origin. It was first coined in a JAMA article in 1989. The term is used to describe the practice of senior members of the medical team publicly asking challenging questions to junior members, often in a hierarchical and intimidating manner. While the term “pimping” is sometimes associated with the Socratic method, it is important to note that the intent and execution of pimping can differ significantly from the educational goals of the Socratic method.

The historical origins of the term “pimping” in medicine are not well-documented. It was documented in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1989 in an article entitled, “The Art of Pimping”. The practice, and even the term, trace back to the early days of modern medicine. This commentary acknowledges its roots in the Socratic method.

Pimping is the Socratic method misapplied. Misused, when the motivation of the teacher is no longer to impart knowledge, the barrage of questions becomes a form of psychological abuse.

The Socratic Method in Analytics and Development

Other disciplines, like computer science, data science, and analytics, may also benefit from the Socratic method. In truth, I haven’t found the Socratic method as commonly mentioned in the literature in these fields as it is in law or medicine. However, there are instances where it can be employed effectively.

The Socratic method would excel, for example, in debates about the use of AI and its ethical considerations. We’ll be having more and more of these discussions as AI is implemented in sensitive fields like medicine and law enforcement. As new systems are developed that leverage the power of AI while they try to comply with ethics and legislation. The Socratic method can be a valuable tool for fostering critical thinking and exploring different perspectives

It can also be significantly advantageous for IT development and analytics teams. Incorporating the Socratic Method into the workflows of IT development and analytics teams can thus not only improve the technical skills of individual team members but also enhance the overall effectiveness, adaptability, and innovation of the team.

At Motio, some development teams have consciously used the Socratic method to help teach junior software engineers how to approach problems. Whether we’re talking about a bug in the code or an unusual support question that has escalated, there needs to be an organized, systematic approach to resolving it. Without a framework to approach a novel problem that is new to you, you might go in many directions unproductively without a plan. By asking developers a series of leading questions, you can help them understand and develop a methodical approach that will guide them to resolve the issue — in addition to formalizing an approach that they will use again and again.

The Ask

Ask rather than tell. It’s a key concept in teaching critical thinking. Law and medicine are known for critical thinking and analysis. Other disciplines can apply the same principles to promote and teach problem-solving, whether it’s solving issues in software development or gathering requirements for analytics.

Bonus

Here are ten reasons why your development and analytics teams should consider adopting the Socratic Method:

  1. Enhances Problem-Solving Skills
  2. Promotes Critical Thinking
  3. Improves Communication Skills
  4. Encourages Continuous Learning
  5. Facilitates Deeper Understanding
  6. Builds Team Cohesion
  7. Encourages Open-mindedness
  8. Aids in Identifying Gaps in Knowledge
  9. Supports Agile Methodologies
  10. Enhances Decision-making Processes
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As the BI space evolves, organizations must take into account the bottom line of amassing analytics assets.
The more assets you have, the greater the cost to your business. There are the hard costs of keeping redundant assets, i.e., cloud or server capacity. Accumulating multiple versions of the same visualization not only takes up space, but BI vendors are moving to capacity pricing. Companies now pay more if you have more dashboards, apps, and reports. Earlier, we spoke about dependencies. Keeping redundant assets increases the number of dependencies and therefore the complexity. This comes with a price tag.
The implications of asset failures differ, and the business’s repercussions can be minimal or drastic.
Different industries have distinct regulatory requirements to meet. The impact may be minimal if a report for an end-of-year close has a mislabeled column that the sales or marketing department uses, On the other hand, if a healthcare or financial report does not meet the needs of a HIPPA or SOX compliance report, the company and its C-level suite may face severe penalties and reputational damage. Another example is a report that is shared externally. During an update of the report specs, the low-level security was incorrectly applied, which caused people to have access to personal information.
The complexity of assets influences their likelihood of encountering issues.
The last thing a business wants is for a report or app to fail at a crucial moment. If you know the report is complex and has a lot of dependencies, then the probability of failure caused by IT changes is high. That means a change request should be taken into account. Dependency graphs become important. If it is a straightforward sales report that tells notes by salesperson by account, any changes made do not have the same impact on the report, even if it fails. BI operations should treat these reports differently during change.
Not all reports and dashboards fail the same; some reports may lag, definitions might change, or data accuracy and relevance could wane. Understanding these variations aids in better risk anticipation.

Marketing uses several reports for its campaigns – standard analytic assets often delivered through marketing tools. Finance has very complex reports converted from Excel to BI tools while incorporating different consolidation rules. The marketing reports have a different failure mode than the financial reports. They, therefore, need to be managed differently.

It’s time for the company’s monthly business review. The marketing department proceeds to report on leads acquired per salesperson. Unfortunately, half the team has left the organization, and the data fails to load accurately. While this is an inconvenience for the marketing group, it isn’t detrimental to the business. However, a failure in financial reporting for a human resource consulting firm with 1000s contractors that contains critical and complex calculations about sickness, fees, hours, etc, has major implications and needs to be managed differently.

Acknowledging that assets transition through distinct phases allows for effective management decisions at each stage. As new visualizations are released, the information leads to broad use and adoption.
Think back to the start of the pandemic. COVID dashboards were quickly put together and released to the business, showing pertinent information: how the virus spreads, demographics affected the business and risks, etc. At the time, it was relevant and served its purpose. As we moved past the pandemic, COVID-specific information became obsolete, and reporting is integrated into regular HR reporting.
Reports and dashboards are crafted to deliver valuable insights for stakeholders. Over time, though, the worth of assets changes.
When a company opens its first store in a certain area, there are many elements it needs to understand – other stores in the area, traffic patterns, pricing of products, what products to sell, etc. Once the store is operational for some time, specifics are not as important, and it can adopt the standard reporting. The tailor-made analytic assets become irrelevant and no longer add value to the store manager.