Socratic Questioning – Thinking Driven By Questions Not Answers

Some of the things you study on your PGCE might feel like they go right over your head. All of the theory, the new words and phrases and terms might all start to confuse you and make you wonder what language you’re studying in. For people who have been out of formal education for a while or who have never undertaken formal education it must be a nightmare.434211-Royalty-Free-RF-Clipart-Illustration-Of-A-Flexible-Cartoon-Man-Doing-Yoga

Sometimes things sound so much more complex than they are and I think Socratic learning, teaching or questioning is one of those things. Really Socratic teaching  is just what it says in the title, you don’t give your students answers you give them questions and when they give you answers you give them more questions and you welcome their questions, the more challenging they are to you the better for them and for you. It’s a win win.

I’ve included lots of resources at the end so you can find the answers to your own questions and deepen your understanding and knowledge of this topic if you want to.

So, what is it? Simply (you can make it more complex if you wish but why do that?) it’s a discussional type of learning and it can either be planned or can be a seize the moment method of teaching. The more experienced and confident you become the easier this will come to you. Some people recommend it for certain subjects, particularly those which include ethics or ethical codes and standards but it can be used to teach anything.  I definitely use it in business.

download (2)The roots of this method are in the teachings of Greek philosopher Socrates. There’s not much known about the guy other than through the notes of his students who perhaps most famously included philosopher Plato.  ‘Socratic’ is not some mystery word you should have known or heard before it’s just a method based on a teacher’s name, that’s it.

When studying Socratic methods I didn’t really appreciate that I was already more than familiar with them. It’s how I’ve learned my whole life and it’s how I’ve taught my own children to learn. It was good to realise that I already employ Socratic methods and teach in a Socratic style.

If you were one of those children (and who wasn’t?) who constantly asked “Why?” you were inquisitive and eager to learn. If your parents or teachers simply answered you they were giving you a piece of information for you to store and maybe retrieve one day or not. If they ignored you… well that’s for another day.

Alternatively if you had a parent or teacher who answered with “What do you think?” and allowed you to respond and then challenged you with “Why do you think that?” and allowed you to respond and then asked “Can you see why that would be that way?” and allowed you to respond and then said “Does that remind you of anything else?” and allowed you to respond, images (2)they were using Socratic questioning. They were using a Socratic method to assist you in expanding your knowledge and tapping into your own mind, conscious, brain, memory whatever, to find the answer to your question for yourself, to compare, expand and connect concepts, words, themes and ideas to arrive at a logical answer to your original question. Furthermore, they were teaching you how to gather knowledge and some would argue that they were teaching you to be what might be broadly termed intelligent, considering intelligence as the ability to comprehend, to reason, to analyse, to apply logic rather than the ability to store and retrieve information which it is often wrongly described as… unsurprisingly by those who are not able to apply Socratic theory to their own understanding of the world.

My dad would never give me an answer to my many questions as a kid and it frustrated me but now I’m glad he didn’t because he taught me to not always trust what I was told but rather to find out for myself; to rely on my knowledge, to be confident in my knowledge, to broaden and deepen that knowledge and to use the same methods unwittingly with my own inquisitive children. I and they have been taught to question and to either ask questions of others who have knowledge and insight or ask ourselves questions.

images (4)One of my recommendations following earlier observations on my PGCE was to push some students to a higher level with questioning, I did this at times but not consistently during observations and I believe that I did it more when I was not being observed because I was less concerned with the lesson plan going over time and more relaxed and willing to have longer discussions. I like to learn and definitely prefer discussional teaching over didactic teaching and this perhaps explains why I have elements of a humanistic approach in my teaching.

So it’s not that difficult a concept at all and the beauty of it is that you can use it at all levels of ability so it can be factored into a lesson and still allow for differentiation.

Below are some useful resources, a couple of which outline specific questions you can use and what the purpose of that type of question is. One contains a useful table of questions. If you have a classroom to yourself I’d consider making this into an interesting poster and sticking it on a wall, not only so you can see it but so the students can see it. It may encourage them to not only understand your methods but also to use the method for self-questioning and to question you as their teacher.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had classes full of students who wanted to know more?

I came close to that in a few sessions, where we abandoned the lesson plan and had a Socratic discussion. It is amazing how much of what was on the lesson plan was covered in a different way. I was able to write on the board to emphasise (much as I’d planned ) and I was able to quickly press a button and bring up a slide that I had prepared for the lesson to support what we were discussing. The end result? We covered everything I’d wanted to cover but we’d done it in a very different way. A better way which gave the students some control and ownership of their learning and really broadened their knowledge. I saw individuals and groups of individuals come to life and really engage when we learned in this way and I say say ‘we’ because of course I was learning too, this was Socratic teaching at its best.

Useful Resources

This is just an easy read, plain and simple explanation of Socratic Questions Changing Minds – Socratic Questions

This piece from Critical Thinking on The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching and Learning is interesting and marries up with some of my thoughts. It also contains a simple but interesting classroom dialogue which demonstrates Socratic questioning in action. one to read and role play perhaps with a fellow student or even in your class if you factored in your relevant subject and wanted to plan a Socratic discussion as part of a lesson.

There is another dialogue in this piece from Intel and this is the one with the table I mentioned earlier which could be made into a class poster.

This is an interesting easy read conference paper  Socratic Questioning: Changing Minds or Guiding Discovery, Padesky, 1993 which deals with the topic simply but also takes it on to another level

The following are links to some ebooks available for Kindle via Amazon. I have read all of these and found them very useful. I’ve simplified the concept here to illustrate how easy it can be to use but you can dig as deep into it as you like. These books are not full of jargon and overly academic language. Remember if you have Amazon Prime to check the Kindle Lending Library lots of books are free to borrow including books on educational topics. Also some Kindle books are free and whilst they may not be suitable for academic referencing it’s always good to read what other people think even if you don’t agree with it. It’s all part of broadening your own knowledge and developing your own ideas.

The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning is available on Kindle for around £3

Only the Curious Shall Thrive: Strategies for Lifelong Learners to Formulate Insightful Questions is also available on Kindle for less than £2

How to Use Questioning in the Classroom is one of a series of really useful little books by Mike Gershon all available for Kindle at around £3. I have the entire series and found them invaluable when studying and teaching and probably will cleave to them for a long time. These were recommended to me by my programme leader on placement and served to remind me that even those who have been teaching for years are still finding new material to help them in their role. Being a teacher is about constant development and part of that is to keep on reading as well as learning through practice in the classroom.

Ask Don’t Tell. Powerful Questioning in the Classroom is a paper back which I found really useful and is available on Amazon at the moment for around £10

Next a couple of videos. Here’s one  of a series which are all pretty short, sharp and useful to help you embed a concept in your own mind. It’s from a user called Teach Like This which is worth subscribing to. This is Video number 11 and is entitled How to do the Socratic Method

Finally here’s a TED talk. This one goes more deeply into the philosophical root of Socratic thinking and has some good references and illustrative examples of what can happen when people are not taught to think for themselves which will give you some insight as to why you may wish to apply Socratic theory to your own learning and development and the potential you unlock in students who you encourage to learn in this way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s