Should you use Socratic questioning?

20th June 2014 at 01:00
This overlooked method can ignite students' thinking and deepen their understanding

It is partly the fault of The Paper Chase. This 1973 James Bridges film features a character called Professor Kingsfield, a sadistic academic who uses the Socratic questioning method to denigrate his students. Since the movie was released, this key tool for instilling critical thinking into students has suffered from a persistent and less than favourable reputation.

We can't just blame the film, though. In reality, the reason why Socratic questioning has disappeared from classrooms is that education systems worldwide have shifted to a model where this type of tool does not have a place. Our emphasis on exams means that teachers focus on teaching students to memorise important content and techniques so that they perform well in tests. Socratic questioning has been left on the shelf.

Thankfully, things are beginning to change. Universities have highlighted that students have lost the ability to think critically and in these very pages calls have been made to put this skill back at the forefront of education. Suddenly the world has remembered how effective Socratic questioning can be in developing thinking through class discussion and group work. But how exactly should teachers use it?

As the name implies, the method derives from the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, who engaged his students in continual questioning in order to seek the truth. In practice, it involves students being presented with minimal information and being required to develop ideas and arguments, first by making links to prior learning and then through questions generated by the class. These discussions force students to think critically in order to reach conclusions, rather than being given answers or led towards them by the teacher.

Socratic questions can be integrated into normal lessons or be part of a specially designed lesson plan. Because of my personal disposition towards this method and as a teacher of business and economics - subjects where ultimately there are no correct answers - I tend to use Socratic questioning in every part of my teaching. Here's how I do it, but you can easily adapt the method to your own teaching and subject.

How does it work?

Start with a five-minute question exploring the main theme of the lesson - for example, "Can you think of how office work may have changed over the past 20 years?" Although students won't have studied this topic before, they can draw on their prior knowledge to identify potential answers.

Encourage them to express their ideas, first in pairs, then as a class, and not to worry about whether they are right or wrong because the process is more important than the answer. Probe students' understanding with further queries. I always try to answer a student's question with another question as it is their ideas and answers that are important, not mine.

Next, move on to look at more analytical tasks - for example, "Analyse the impact of these changes on organisations". Students should work individually, in pairs or in small groups, often with the aid of stimulus material in the form of an article or video clip to provide context without giving answers.

After another class feedback session, the final stage of the lesson should develop students' evaluative skills by applying their learning to a case study - for example, "Evaluate how effectively company X uses flexible working practices to increase staff motivation". Here, students need to draw connections between what they have learned in the lesson and prior knowledge to make a balanced critique and form judgements.

What are the benefits?

You might ask, why not just tell students what they need to know? The Socratic method can leave people feeling that they lack concrete understanding of concepts as the so-called "right" or "wrong" answers have not been drilled into them. I have often been accused by students of not teaching them "properly". This can become a serious issue when senior management gets involved. The doubts and scrutiny subside once good exam results are produced, but it takes self-belief and determination to persist with your ideals.

When people complain, I answer that if I did teach in a normal way, how would that be any different from my students reading the information from a textbook? The teaching method that prevails in many Western schools involves teachers indirectly giving students the answer by providing activities that are highly scaffolded and motivational, because this gives them a sense of achievement. This approach is arguably more cognitively beneficial than lecture-based teaching, but ultimately helps students only to memorise ideas rather than discover them.

These types of activities are also very time-consuming, and give students only a superficial understanding of their subject. They may get good exam results, but without scoring particularly well on the higher-order evaluative questions.

Delivering lessons through Socratic questioning techniques is more challenging for both teacher and learner. And it needs to be adopted more widely in schools.

Izzet Hickmet is a business and economics teacher at the Ko School in Istanbul, Turkey, and is studying for a master's in teaching at the University of London's Institute of Education

What else?

Encourage your class to think more deeply about their answers with these Socratic questions.


Challenge your students further with these tried-and-tested techniques. bit.lyStretchAndChallenge

Why critical thinking is so important - and hard to teach.


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