The Socratic method of teaching derives its name from its ascribed adherent, Socrates. It is a technique of using a questioning-and-interaction sequence designed to draw information out of students, rather than pouring it into them. This method is purely verbal and interactive. Most teachers use the Socratic method to develop the content information.
The Socratic method, in general, involves teaching by asking questions and, in so doing, leading students into a logical contradiction. Essentially, the Socratic method follows a general pattern:
- A broad, open-ended question that most student can answer is first asked.
- A second questioning sequence begins to narrow the range of responses and focuses the students’ thinking onto the topic of the questioning strategy.
- Review lectures and/or statements are interspersed among the questions in order to keep the salient points in the forefront.
- A concluding question then brings students to the desired endpoint.
The techniques originally developed by Socrates must be adapted to the reality of the classroom. The method Socrates conceived requires a one-to-one relationship between the student and teacher, with the teacher posing a series of questions that gradually tangle the student up to the point where ideas and thinking must be carefully scrutinized. In the classroom, the teacher generally does not focus the questioning sequence on one student but, rather, questions one student first, then another, and then another-moving slowly throughout the class. Although, this technique usually works well, the pure essence of the Socratic technique is often difficult to capture. Still, the Socratic method can be quite effective, and it works best in small group sessions and in tutorial sessions.
Richard Paul (1993) outlines the type of questions that can be used in the Socratic dialog sequence to probe the underlying logic or structure of student thinking and enable them to make reasonable judgments. Example questions might include the following:
- Question of clarification
– What do you mean by that?
– Can you give me an example?
– Why do you say that?
- Question that probe assumptions
– What is being assumed?
– Why would anybody say that?
– Is that always the case?
- Question that probe reason and evidence
– What are your reasons for saying that?
– What criteria do you base that argument on?
– Could you explain the reason?
- Question that probe implications and consequences
– What might be the consequence of behaving like that?
– Do you think that you might be jumping to conclusion?
– How can we find out?
- Questions about viewpoints and perspectives
– What would be another way of saying that?
– How do lady’s idea differ from Mike?
– What is an alternative?
- Questions about the question
– How is that question going to help us?
– Can you think of any other questions that might be useful?
– What is the question?
A Socratic dialog is a collective attempt to find the answer to a fundamental question or issue. The question or issue is the centre of the dialog. Consider this dialog relative to choice.
Teacher: Suppose your school is having a science fair and you can get class credit for presenting a project. Someone offers to do the necessary science project for you for a price. You know that would not be right. What do you do?
Mike: I would pay them and let them do for me.
Teacher: What would you do if a science judge asked if it was your work?
Mike: I paid for it. I would say it was mine.
Teacher: But would not that be a lie?
Mike: I did pay for it. So it is mine.
Teacher: All right, but you know it was not really your work. Suppose the judge ask you to verify that you did the actual work.
Mike: I would have no choice but to say I did not.
Teacher: Suppose it was not the science judge, but rather your science teacher who asked, “Mike, did you do all this good work?”
Mike: I might say, “Yes, I did it.”
Teacher: Okay, why would you say that?
Mike: Fear of getting no credit.
Teacher: Does that mean it is all right to have someone else do your work and lie? Then doctors should be able to do it, your classmates, the president, and your parents?
Mike: [Long pause] Well, no.
Teacher: Then it is okay for you, but not for others? Are there different rules for you?
Mike: [Long pause] No.
Teacher: What would you think of yourself now that you have said that you would lie to your teacher out of fear? Are you that kind of person? You would pay someone else to do your work. What vision would you have of yourself?
Mike: Well, what with the thought I have given it today, I would feel bad. Before today, I would not have cared.
Teacher: Do you have a different image of yourself now?
Mike: Yes. I think more of myself today than I would have yesterday. Because I know there’s a better me and I should do the right thing.
Essentially, the Socratic method is a process in which ideas are debated in a back-and-forth discussion until some recognizable clarity (the light) is reached. When conducting such a dialog, you must have a clear vision of what you want students to learn from it. It is essential to have your endpoint in mind so that you can always be angling toward it.
It is advisable for teachers to apply the Socratic method according to the grade level where the students can have a clear understanding of the questions asked. Socratic method can be applied to find out the perception, opinion, suggestions and solutions to problems. As this method of teaching and learning is purely verbal, it will also develop good communication skill among the students and students can feel open to their teacher. It will also develop the skills of debating and dialog. Sometimes, Socratic method also creates a situation where a new kind of thought or understanding can be developed. It will promote thoughtfulness among students.
It is a very effective as well as interesting method of teaching students. However, it has not been generally practiced in classrooms yet, it is a classic kind of teaching method that opens the locks of mind.
Paul, R. (1993). Critical thinking: How to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Kenneth D. Moore