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Socratic Questioning

(Grid adapted from pablo_75 on TES)

Questioning is the key means by which teachers find out what pupils already know, identify gaps in knowledge and understanding and scaffold the development of their understanding to enable them to close the gap between what they currently know and the learning goals.

Questions are the most common form of interaction between pupils and teachers, yet research suggests that the majority are recall and comprehension - lower-order questions which do not require pupils to actively process information. It is only in active processing that the pupil achieves deep level learning. In order to raise pupils' levels of achievement, they, therefore, need regular practice in higher-order thinking - analysing, synthesising, and evaluating. Focusing on the kinds of questions we ask in classrooms and the strategies we use can help us achieve this.

Questions serve a number of essential purposes. For example they:

  • Give immediate feedback on pupils’ understanding, which can then be used by the teacher to modify the teaching.

  • Help pupils to develop their thinking from the lower order concrete and factual recall type to the higher-order analytical and evaluative which promote deeper understanding. Higher-order questions help pupils explore ideas and make connections, helping pupils see the "big picture" of the learning. This in turn leads to greater motivation and improved engagement.

  • Prompt pupils to inspect their existing knowledge and experience to create new understandings. Articulating understanding helps to clarify it and improves the likelihood that it will be retained.

  • Focus pupils on the key issues and enable teachers and pupils to see progress over time.

  • Model for pupils how experienced learners seek meaning- moving them towards greater independence.

Planning key questions and embedding them early in the lesson - often in the learning objective - has been particularly effective. Recording these in medium-term plans/ schemes of work has encouraged teachers to share the essence of what they want pupils to know and understand, to communicate this to pupils (sharing learning goals), and to find ways of checking these have been achieved in lessons through plenary activities. It is this feedback which in turn enables teachers to tailor their teaching to what pupils need to know next that enables the assessment to be for rather than of learning.

Socratic questioning is a form of disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including:

  • to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things,

  • to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions,

  • to analyze concepts,

  • to distinguish what we know from what we do not know,

  • to follow out logical consequences of thought

  • to control discussions

But guess what... it's not all about Bloom's Taxonomy!

Socratic questioning is based on the foundation that thinking has structured logic, and allows underlying thoughts to be questioned. The key to distinguishing Socratic questioning from questioning per se is that the former is systematic, disciplined, deep and usually focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems. Socratic questioning is referred to in teaching and has gained currency as a concept in education, particularly in the past two decades. Teachers, students, or anyone interested in probing thinking at a deep level can construct Socratic questions and engage in them.

The Socratic approach to questioning is based on the practice of disciplined, thoughtful dialogue. Socrates, the early Greek philosopher/teacher, believed that disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enabled the student to examine ideas logically and to determine the validity of those ideas. In this technique, the teacher professes ignorance of the topic in order to engage in dialogue with the students. With this “acting dumb,” the student develops the fullest possible knowledge about the topic. Socrates was one of the greatest educators who taught by asking questions and thus drawing out answers from his pupils ('ex Duco', means to 'lead out', which is the root of 'education'). The Socratic Questioning technique is an effective way to explore ideas in depth. It can be used at all levels and is a helpful tool for all teachers. It can be used at different points within a unit or project. By using Socratic Questioning, teachers promote independent thinking in their students and give them ownership of what they are learning. Higher-level thinking skills are present while students think, discuss, debate, evaluate, and analyze content through their own thinking and the thinking of those around them. These types of questions may take some practice on both the teacher and students’ part since it may be a whole new approach. The overall purpose of Socratic questioning is to challenge the accuracy and completeness of thinking in a way that acts to move people towards their ultimate goal.

Here are the six types of questions that Socrates asked his pupils. Probably often to their initial annoyance but more often to their ultimate delight. He was a man of remarkable integrity and his story makes for marvelous reading.

Conceptual clarification questions

Get them to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking about. Prove the concepts behind their argument. Use basic 'tell me more' questions that get them to go deeper.

  • Why are you saying that?

  • What exactly does this mean?

  • How does this relate to what we have been talking about?

  • What is the nature of ...?

  • What do we already know about this?

  • Can you give me an example?

  • Are you saying ... or ...?

  • Can you rephrase that, please?

Probing assumptions

Probing their assumptions makes them think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument. This is shaking the bedrock and should get them really going!

  • What else could we assume?

  • You seem to be assuming ...?

  • How did you choose those assumptions?

  • Please explain why/how ...?

  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?

  • What would happen if ...?

  • Do you agree or disagree with ...?

Probing rationale, reasons and evidence

When they give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use un-thought-through or weakly-understood supports for their arguments.

  • Why is that happening?

  • How do you know this?

  • Show me ...?

  • Can you give me an example of that?

  • What do you think causes ...?

  • What is the nature of this?

  • Are these reasons good enough?

  • Would it stand up in court?

  • How might it be refuted?

  • How can I be sure of what you are saying?

  • Why is ... happening?

  • Why? (keep asking it -- you'll never get past a few times)

  • What evidence is there to support what you are saying?

  • On what authority are you basing your argument?

Questioning viewpoints and perspectives

Most arguments are given from a particular position. So attack the position. Show that there are other, equally valid, viewpoints.

  • Another way of looking at this is ..., does this seem reasonable?

  • What alternative ways of looking at this are there?

  • Why it is ... necessary?

  • Who benefits from this?

  • What is the difference between... and...?

  • Why is it better than ...?

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of...?

  • How are ... and ... similar?

  • What would ... say about it?

  • What if you compared ... and ...?

  • How could you look another way at this?

Probe implications and consequences

The argument that they give may have logical implications that can be forecast. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?

  • Then what would happen?

  • What are the consequences of that assumption?

  • How could ... be used to ...?

  • What are the implications of ...?

  • How does ... affect ...?

  • How does ... fit with what we learned before?

  • Why is ... important?

  • What is the best ...? Why?

Questions about the question

And you can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. Use their attack against themselves. Bounce the ball back into their court, etc.

  • What was the point of asking that question?

  • Why do you think I asked this question?

  • Am I making sense? Why not?

  • What else might I ask?

  • What does that mean?

Tips for Using Socratic Questioning:

  • Plan significant questions that provide meaning and direction to the dialogue

  • Use wait time: Allow at least thirty seconds for students to respond

  • Follow up on students’ responses

  • Ask probing questions

  • Periodically summarize in writing key points that have been discussed

  • Draw as many students as possible into the discussion

  • Let students discover knowledge on their own through the probing questions the teacher poses

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