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The Spirit and Principles of Socratic Questioning

Below are the principles of Socratic questioning put in the form of directives:

  • Respond to all answers with a further question (that calls upon the respondent to develop his/her thinking in a fuller and deeper way).

  • Seek to understand, where possible, the ultimate foundations for what is said or believed.

  • Treat all assertions as a connecting point to further thoughts.

  • Treat all thoughts as in need of development.

  • Recognize that a thought can only exist fully in a network of connected thoughts.  Stimulate students, by your questions, to pursue those connections.

  • Recognize that all questions presuppose prior questions and all thinking presupposes prior thinking.  When raising questions, be open to the questions they presuppose. (See logically-prior questions below.)

How to Prepare to Lead a Socratic Discussion
One of the best ways to prepare to lead a Socratic discussion is by pre-thinking the main question to be discussed using the approach of developing prior questions.  Prior questions are questions presupposed by another question.  Hence, to settle the question "What is multi-culturalism?" I should be able to first settle the question, "What is culture?", that is, "What are the factors about a person which determine what culture he/she belongs to?"

Construct A List of Prior Questions
To construct a list of prior questions, simply write down the main question which you are going to focus your discussion on and then pose a question you would have to be able to answer to answer the first.  Then take the second question and do the same for it (i.e., determine what question you would have to answer to answer it).  Then, continue on, doing the same thing for every new question on your list.

As you proceed to construct your list, keep your attention focused on the first question on the list as well as on the last.  If you do this well, you should end up with a list of questions which probe the logic of the first question, and hence, a list of questions which are relevant to a Socratic discussion of your first question.

A Sample List
Below is a list of questions which I developed in thinking through a key question which I intended to use in conducting a Socratic discussion on the question, "What is history?"

  • What is history?

  • What do historians write about?

  • What is the past?

  • Is it possible to include all of the past in a history book?

  • How many of the events during a given time period are left out in a history of that time period?

  • Is more left out than is included?

  • How does a historian know what to leave out?

  • How does a historian know what to emphasize or focus on?

  • Do historians make value judgments in deciding what to include and what to leave out?

  • Is it possible to decide what to include and exclude and how to interpret facts without adopting a historical point of view?

  • How can we begin to judge a historical interpretation?

  • How can we begin to judge a historical point of view?

We should note that there may be more than one line of prior questions that one might construct (though any line of prior questions should be helpful in preparing to lead a Socratic discussion).  For example, consider the following list:

  • What is history?

  • How is writing history like telling a story about the past?

  • How is telling a story about the past like gossiping?

  • What is the difference between telling a story and simply making a list of events in a time sequence?

  • What gives patterns in history a beginning, a middle, and end?

  • Since all stories require a story teller, to all story tellers require a viewpoint?

  • What would be the main differences between three histories written of your life, one by your best friend, one by your worst enemy, and one by your mother?

  • Based on these differences, what questions should we ask as we read any historical account?

  • It is possible for a historical account to be biased?

  • How can we minimize the bias in a historical account?

Both lists would be useful in pre-thinking a discussion of the question, "What is history?"  They would be useful because both lists contain very basic and important prior questions, questions that dig deeply into, or help us deal with, the logic of the original question.  Having a list of key questions in the backs of our minds when we begin to lead a discussion helps us to lead a better discussion.  We don't force these questions into the discussion.  Rather, we wait for a natural and appropriate place to bring them in.

Think Along With the Class
There is no good mechanical way to lead a Socratic discussion.  You should strive, therefore, to think along with the class as you lead the discussion.  In doing so, it is essential that you listen carefully to each and every input into the discussion.  Whenever a student responds to a question, you must seriously think about what that student has said and size up what sort of contribution it provides to the discussion.  However, for an answer to contribute to the discussion, it must be clear.  Do not determine the place of a student comment to the discussion until you are sure you understand what the student is saying.  Try to enter the student's point of view before you decide how the student's comment fits in.

There Are Always a Variety of Ways You Can Respond
Remember, that no matter what a person says or thinks, there is always a variety of ways that one can respond to that person's thought.  Here are a couple of possibilities:  How did you come to believe that?  Do you have any evidence to support that?  Does anything in your experience illustrate that?  If we accept that, what are the implications?  How might someone object to that?

Do Not Hesitate to Pause and Reflect Quietly
Don't feel that you have to rush, in responding to what students say.  Give yourself, and the students, time think through what is being said.  Be prepared to say things like, "I need a moment to think that through," or "That's an interesting thought, I'd like each of you to take a couple of minutes to think of what you might say to that if I called on you.  In fact, I need to think a couple of minutes to figure out what I might say in response."

If It's Worth Saying, It's Worth Making Clear
Make sure that you enforce discipline in the discussions so that there is only one person who has the floor at any given time and that everyone pays attention to whatever is said.  Model the fact that every comment is given due consideration.  Call on students to summarize what other students have said.  Do not allow students to simply jump in or to interrupt someone who has the floor.

Periodically Summarize Where the Discussion Is:  What Questions Have Been Answered; What Questions Are Yet Unresolved
Since Socratic discussions often cover a variety of angles on a question and a large variety of remarks are made along the way, students need help in seeing what the discussion has and has not accomplished.  They need help in seeing where the discussion is.  This is where you come in.  Periodically summarize what seems to have been settled in the discussion so far and what questions are still unanswered.

Think of Yourself As a Kind of Intellectual Orchestra Leader
As the discussion leader, you are functioning like an intellectual orchestra leader.  You are ensuring that melody and not cacophony results.  Your ensure that everyone is following the score, that no one is drowning out anyone else, and that the heart of the discussion is maintained.  Your questions bring discipline and order to the discussion.

Think of the Class As One Brain With Many Brain Cells (the Individual Students) and Yourself As Performing the Executive Function for the Brain
The Socratic discussion leader is to the class what the voice of critical thinking is to the individual mind.  In both cases, it is a voice that focuses on thinking and questions it.  In Socratic discussion it is a public voice.  In everyday thinking it is an inner, private voice.  Eventually, we want our students to internalize this public voice as an inner voice that questions, so what when they think, they come to Socratically question their own thoughts, so they come to bring probing questions into the basic patterns of thought in their own minds, so that they routinely think about their thinking, routinely question the answers they come to.

A TAXONOMY OF SOCRATIC QUESTIONS

It is helpful to recognize, in light of the universal features in the logic of human thought, that there are identifiable categories of questions for the adept Socratic questioner to dip into: questions of clarification, questions that probe assumptions, questions that probe reasons and evidence, questions about viewpoints or perspectives, questions that probe implications and consequences, and questions about the question.  Here are some examples of generic questions in each of these categories:

Questions of Clarification

  • What do you mean by                     ?

  • What is your main point?

  • How does                 relate to                     ?

  • Could you put that another way?

  • What do you think is the main issue here?

  • Is your basic point                      or                        ?

  • Let me see if I understand you: do you mean                    or                      ?

  • How does this relate to our discussion/problem/issue?

  • What do you think John meant by his remark?  What did you take John to mean?

  • Jane, would you summarize in your own words what Richard has said? ... Richard, is that what you meant?

  • Could you give me an example?

  • Would this be an example:                          ?

  • Could you explain that further?

  • Would you say more about that?

  • Why do you say that?

Questions that Probe Assumptions

  • What are you assuming?

  • What is Karen assuming?

  • What could we assume instead?

  • You seem to be assuming                       .  Do I understand you correctly?

  • All of your reasoning is dependent on the idea that                     .  Why have you based your reasoning on                     rather than                       ?

  • You seem to be assuming                          .  How would you justify taking this for granted?

  • Is it always the case?  Why do you think the assumption holds here?

Questions that Probe Reasons and Evidence

  • What would be an example?

  • What are your reasons for saying that?

  • What other information do we need to know?

  • Could you explain your reasons to us?

  • But is that good evidence to believe that?

  • Are those reasons adequate?

  • Is there reason to doubt that evidence?

  • Who is in a position to know if that is the case?

  • What would you say to someone who said                    ?

  • Can someone else give evidence to support that response?

  • By what reasoning did you come to that conclusion?

  • How could we go about finding out whether that is true?

  • How do you know?

  • Why did you say that?

  • Why do you think that is true?

  • What led you to that belief?

  • Do you have any evidence for that?

  • How does that apply to this case?

  • What difference does that make?

  • What would convince you otherwise?

Questions About Viewpoints or Perspectives

  • You seem to be approaching this issue from                   perspective.  Why have you chosen this rather than that perspective?

  • How would other groups/types of people respond? Why? What would influence them?

  • How could you answer the objection that                 would make?

  • Can/did anyone see this another way?

  • What would someone who disagrees say?

  • What is an alternative?

  • How are Ken's and Roxanne's ideas alike?  Different?

Questions that Probe Implications and Consequences

  • What are you implying by that?

  • When you say                   , are you implying                    ?

  • But that happened, what else would also happen as a result?  Why?

  • What effect would that have?

  • Would that necessarily happen or only probably happen?

  • What is an alternative?

  • If this and this are the case, then what else must also be true?

Questions About the Question

  • How can we find out?

  • How could someone settle this question?

  • Is the question clear?  Do we understand it?

  • Is this question easy or hard to answer?  Why?

  • Would                 put the questions differently?

  • Does this question ask us to evaluate something?

  • Do we all agree that this is the question?

  • To answer this question, what questions would we have to answer first?

  • I'm not sure I understand how you are interpreting the main question at issue.

  • Is this the same issue as                   ?

  • Can we break this question down at all?

  • How would                    put the issue?

  • What does this question assume?

  • Why is this question important?

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"Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment 'as to the Lord.' It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done and any grace received."
-C.S. Lewis; Learning in Wartime, The Weight of Glory