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The Socratic Method

Posted on 12th September, 2023, under News

Teaching thinking in the classroom

Socrates (c.470-399BCE), an early Greek philosopher and teacher, suggested:

To summarise a complex topic, all humans think it is our nature to do so, but left unexamined, thinking can be biased, misinformed and prejudiced. Socratic questioning in education is a way of questioning that minimise the chance that student will accept information at face value. Instead, students analyse information collaboratively by engaging in Socratic questioning and dialogue. Through thinking together, students’ critical thinking skills are nurtured.

In this blog post, I will use a traditional fairytale to briefly examine questions that can be used in the classroom or at home to support students to think deeply.

From storytelling to critical thinking

Socratic questioning is linked to critical thinking because it forces the student to think about an experience, concept or issue from many perspectives before drawing a conclusion. A key element of the questioning method is to encourage the student to gather as much information as possible on a subject with the intent of making an informed judgement. Using a few lines from a well-known tale, Jack & the Beanstalk, I will demonstrate how it is possible to provide students the opportunity to engage in Socratic dialogue.

Engaging the minds of students

Select a tale appropriate for the class. Explain to the class the purpose of the activity is to think deeply about the core message within the story. Begin with a short tale:

Once upon a time,

Jack lived with his mother and their family cow.

They were very poor; therefore, one day, Mother said,

‘Jack, take the cow to market to sell because we need money for food.’

Jack brought the cow to market and swapped it for magic beans.

Mother was angry, and she threw the beans out of the window.

From the magic beans, a Beanstalk grew, and Jack climbed it.

At the top of the Beanstalk lived a Giant with a goose who laid golden eggs.

Jack took the goose and ran away.

Mother chopped down the Beanstalk, and the giant was never seen again.

Jack, Mother and the Goose that laid the golden eggs lived together.

They were never poor again.

The End

Socratic questioning

When teaching, thinking, planning and preparation prior to the activity is essential. Before you ask a question, ask yourself the following questions:

Types of questions

The art of Socratic questioning is designed to encourage the student to think deeply. The educator NEVER answers a question; that is the role of the student. The educator responds to the student with an extended question. For example:

Questions for clarification

Questions about points of view

Questions that generate reasoning

Conclusion

This activity could also be used during story reading. However, I recommend, for nurturing critical thinking skills, it is better to tell a story orally. Using oral storytelling allows the students to generate ideas and solutions in their minds. Stories told orally are open-ended and can be changed each time a tale is told.

If you seek to nurture thinking in the classroom, prepare and practice a short story before sharing it in class. Next, think about what message you feel will support students learning and focus your question on that specific message. Then, facilitate a Socratic discussion by encouraging participation and collaboration. Fourth, do not answer a question; simply provide the space for the student to think. And last, start small, with a few lines of a story or poem and one question.

Like everything in education, adults and students learn and develop with practice.

Have fun trying out the Socratic Method

Catherine (Kitty) O'Reilly
Catherine (Kitty) O'Reilly Collage

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