Socratic Questioning

I was trying to have classroom conversations that did not dry up after the first few questions.

When I behaved as the ‘Sage on the Stage’, I only held the attention of a few of the students. Asking questions to get a class conversation started often failed to get the responses I was looking for which frustrated me and I would eventually return to the lecturing style. What was even more frustrating was that the least attentive students would continually interrupt my lecture with nonsense comments and low-level disturbances that distracted everyone from learning.

In frustration and concerned about poor results, I turned to my Mentor.

My mentor recommended that I look into Socratic Questioning as a strategy for holding classroom conversations that actually worked.

After a bit of research, I found there are six types of questions that lie at the heart of critical thinking, what’s more, there is a structure to them that goes deeper and deeper into the students’ thinking about their thinking.

Aside from the questions themselves, I read that I would need to set aside the role of being the ‘Sage on the Stage’ and instead act as though I was (somewhat) ignorant of the subject, so that I could focus on facilitating their discovery.

When I started using these questions, I found students responded eagerly to sharing what they thought of their own and each others’ answers and their thinking about the question and the answers. The focus of the lesson was as much on them as it was on the subject.

You may have noticed that when you step aside from lecturing, your students step in, actively engage in the dialogue and move their learning forward. I first noticed it when I gave a homework that required the students to do research and then give a short lecture. Putting them in the position of being ‘Sage on the Stage’ also put the whole class’ attention on them.

If you have not tried this yet, the Socratic Questions will give you a firm framework to hold whilst you step aside and let your students show up in a different way.

Don’t worry about being thought of as ignorant. Most of your students will quickly realise that you are pretending to not know the subject so that they can explore and discover for themselves. If you feel nervous about not being taken seriously after pretending to be ignorant, simply let your students know that you are trying out a new strategy so they can learn in a more effective way,

“Today, I am going to pretend that I don’t know this subject, so that you can discover it for yourselves. I will be here as your guide; and, if needed, I can be a reference book for information that you ask for. Mostly, I will facilitate the conversation so you can learn the most from each other about the subject and yourselves.”

Naturally, this is a strategy you can use from time to time, mixing in lecturing and other strategies as needed. I must admit that I have come to appreciate Socratic Questioning mostly because it allows me to teach beyond the limitations of my own knowledge of the subject. Sometimes, I’m not pretending to be ignorant.

Here are some examples of questions you can ask:

1. Clarification
What do you mean when you say that?
Could you explain that a bit further?
Can you give an example?

2. Assumptions
What have we forgotten or overlooked?
What assumptions are being made here?
What are you saying … ?

3. Reasons and evidence
How can we check that example?
What information are we missing?
How can we get more / enough information?

4. Viewpoints and Perspectives
What other alternative viewpoints are there?
What alternative viewpoints can we consider?
How could someone else respond, and why?

5. Implications and consequences
How would this affect someone?
What does that answer imply, long-term?
What are the long-term effects of this?

6. Asking about the question
What was important about that question?
What assumptions were embedded in that question?
What could have been a better question to ask?

You can see that most of the questions above begin with the word ‘What’. If you meet resistance, you can soften the questions by changing ‘is / was / were’ to ‘can be’, ‘would be’, ‘could be’, ‘might be’.

What was important about that question?
What could be important about that question?
What might be important about that question?

How would this affect someone? (asking the class in general)
What do you say, ‘How would this affect someone?’, (asking a group)
And what might YOU say, ‘How would this affect someone?’ (asking an individual)

When students have heard you ask this type of question three or four times, they know what’s coming and all you need to say is, “Hmm, what…” and let them fill in the rest of the question.