The Socratic method originates from Socrates, a Greek philosopher who was executed for “corrupting the youth” and “denying the gods in an impious fashion.” Socrates’s questioning method is based on asking many questions and listening to every answer. This style of teaching is used most famously in educational settings such as universities. Despite the many variations of this questioning technique, all variations involve going into great depth with an individual or group about a particular subject.
The Socratic method of questioning
The Socratic method of questioning follows a three-step process.
Step one: Proposed question: “What is X?”
Step Two: Proposed answer: “X is …” (ie. “What is justice?”)
Step three: Evaluating the answer by asking, “But what does X have to do with the way we should live as human beings?” (i.e., an examination of the proposed answer.)
Step two of the three-part Socratic method can be broken down into the following four steps, also known as a “circle of questioning” (Briscoe and Kagan).
Step one: Proposed answer: “X is …” (ie. “What is justice?”)
Step two: Proposed question: “Why do you believe that X is true?”
Step three: Proposed answer, perhaps in response to the previous answer.
Step four: Evaluating the answer by asking, “But what does X have to do with the way we should live as human beings?” (i.e., an examination of the proposed answer.)
The circle of questioning is used to evaluate and counter any answers that have already been given. These four steps can then be followed in any order (there is no “right way”) and more than one question can be asked at a time.
How does the Socratic method assist with critical thinking?
Although Socrates was not the first to use the Socratic method, he was the first to record it in detail. Through his students’ notes on their conversations with him, we have a good deal of insight into how the Socratic method is used. The main purpose of this method is to allow students to learn by questioning and listening to answers.
When students are encouraged to question and think critically about what they are learning, they are more engaged in their own education. In addition, they are able to acknowledge the validity of differing points of view. This makes reinforced learning easier as the student is aware that he is learning from his mistakes as well as from his successes.
One major benefit of this method is that students can be wary about taking in the information they have been taught. The more interesting and challenging questions can help to break a “curse of knowledge” (getting so much fact and information that the learner gets lost after becoming saturated).
Another benefit of this method is that the more students ask and think critically about what they have learned, the more they can understand it. This method allows students to think critically about their own learning and to learn how to come to a conclusion based on solid facts.
The Socratic method is not only effective at encouraging critical thinking in the classroom, but it also assists with an appreciation for diverse styles of thought.
What are the 5 types of Socratic questions
There are 5 types of Socratic questions all designed to assist with critical thinking and thinking critically. Each will likely be used in different ways depending on the situation, but the code of Socrates is often echoed today.
1. Clarifying concepts
In this question type, the instructor is asking for clarification (explaining) of a concept and the students are required to clarify.
Examples: “What is the difference between an “initial step” and an “outcome”?” and “What is the difference between a “prior decision” and a “post-decision”?
2. Probing assumptions
In this question type you are looking for the assumptions that a student is making, and ask for why those assumptions are being made. If the assumption holds true, then it can be further explored. However, if it is not true then it can be refuted.
Examples: “What is the assumption you are making about the meaning of “wisdom”? Why do you think that is a good assumption?” and “What is the assumption you are making about your teacher, his expertise, and his ability to help you learn from this experience? What if that assumption is not true?”
3. Probing rationale, reasons and evidence
In this question type, you are assuming that something is true, and asking the question: “Why is it true?” This requires students to ask questions and evaluate their reasoning.
Examples: “What is it about the “landscape” that you like so much?” and “Why do you think that we are going to have a great learning experience here? “
4. Questioning viewpoints and perspectives.
Here you will ask questions that challenge the person to think about other possible viewpoints or perspectives. Why? To see if the ideas they have come up with can be refuted.
Examples: “Have you considered the possibility that your family’s relationship with a certain person-or law might have caused you to learn in this way? How would you respond to this other point of view?”
5. Probing implications and consequences.
In the 5th type of Socratic question, you are asking the person to go beyond the boundaries of what they know and consider implications. This encourages people to think more broadly, and also to see if their reasoning can be challenged in any way.
Examples: “So what implications does this have for the way we perceive the world? So, in other words, you are saying that… What would be the consequences of this new way of thinking?
6. Question the question
Yes, you did ask for 5 but there technically are 6. In this, as the title suggests you are asking a question about the question. Why would you do this? To test the understanding of where the person is coming from.
Example: ” What would be another way to ask the question, “What comes after wisdom?”
There are also many other types of Socratic questions that differ from these.
Ask a question that points to the evidence. In so doing, you find out where the evidence is most likely to be found. If there is uncertainty, you help the learner look for evidence and produce ideas and make judgments based on the data they have collected. It also helps them explore other possible implications of their ideas and consequences that may follow from those ideas, or lead to more questions.
How to use the Socratic method of questioning in your everyday life
Some variations of the Socratic method include:
An open-ended form of the Socratic method is sometimes referred to as “Socratic dialogue” or “Socratic discussion”. It may be used in combination with other elements of critical thinking such as the scientific method, in order to explore complex issues.
The open-ended form allows more time for reflection. Participants take turns asking questions and then discussing them. It is a method used to explore an issue. Participants can learn about the topic in a non-directive way.
How to use it with your family and friends
Using this questioning with your family or friends can help you better understand the values and perspectives of others. Here are some steps to make Socratic dialogue with your family or friends more productive:
Step 1: Prepare for questions.
Write a list of questions you have about the person being questioned. List any biases you have on the topic and how they may affect your questions. Remember that Socratic questioning is all about listening to responses, not disagreeing with them.
Step 2: Ask the question.
When the person being questioned has finished their response, ask a question based on your list of questions. Do not stop asking questions until you have asked everyone involved enough questions to understand all sides of an issue. If you are not sure if they have answered everything, ask them if there is anything else they would like to add or clarify on the topic being discussed.
Step 3: Dialogue.
After you have asked all of your questions, allow time for silence and the person being questioned to think about their answers. After a few moments of silence, ask a question such as, “What do you think?” or “How do you feel about this topic?”. Listen to their response and pose another question based on what they said.
Step 4: Repeat until finished.
You can repeat all the steps in order until everyone has been asked enough questions to understand where everyone stands on an issue.
Step 5: No need to judge.
Remember that Socratic questioning is not about judging the person you are talking with. You may find that after the discussion, your perspectives have changed on the topic or you may feel more strongly about your original point of view. This is normal, especially with affairs that are more complex such as social issues, politics, and religious beliefs. Simply ask yourself if this is an issue you can agree to disagree on and move on with your relationship.
Example scenarios of the Socratic method of questioning at play
Scenario 1: Learning about yourself and what you believe.
Socrates believed that people did not truly know themselves or their beliefs until they were questioned about them. In this scenario, you can use the Socratic method to learn more about your own personal beliefs.
Step one: Write down a list of things that you believe in, such as religious beliefs, political ideas and moral standards. Make sure that you post these beliefs in a place where you can easily see them each day.
Step two: Ask yourself questions about what you believe. For example, you could write down a series of questions such as:
“How do I feel about my beliefs?” “Why do I believe what I believe?” “How can my beliefs affect other people?” “What if I believed something different from what I do now?”
Step three: Do not censor your thoughts or opinions! Answer these questions honestly and completely. If you are happy with the way your beliefs affect others, then leave them alone. If you feel that they have no place in your life, then find a new way to express your beliefs.
Scenario 2: Learning about what others believe
Step one: Identify a person you would like to complete a Socratic dialogue with. It is recommended that you choose someone you feel very comfortable with as this process can seem a lot like an interrogation to the other person if they are not aware of what is going on.
Step two: Write down a list of questions you have about this person’s belief systems and life experiences. Make sure to take into account their responses to your previous questions.
Step three: Ask the person to answer your questions. Remember to listen first and ask later. If you feel there is a need for clarification or follow up questions, place these in parentheses. These are added if you feel the other person has not answered your question completely or needs more time to think about it, but do not feel obligated to continue asking the same question over and over again.
Step four: Do not stop asking questions as long as there is an answer. Ask anything you can about the other person’s beliefs. If they do not agree to continue or respond, then move on to the next person or end the Socratic questioning altogether. You may also need to ask the same person back if you feel they were left hanging on a question.
Scenario 3: Questioning government policies
You can use the Socratic method to question your local government officials concerning their policies. There are four steps to consider:
Step one: Write down a list of questions you have about a government policy. Be careful not to have biases on the topic on which you are questioning.
Step two: Ask the questions to the government official in your hometown. Remember that this is an opportunity for you to exercise your rights as a citizen and ask questions of the people who are tasked with serving you.
Step three: After you have asked all of your questions, allow time for silence and the person being questioned to think about their answers. If they answer your questions and reply to your follow-ups, then write down their responses.
Step four: Compare the person’s responses with each other and with what you wrote down in step two. If they relate or are similar enough to what you asked, then write them down on your list of questions you have.
How is rational thinking related to the Socratic method?
In the post-Socratic era, the term “rational thinking” was used to describe how one should go about acquiring knowledge. For the Greeks, this meant that all of one’s beliefs must be supported by a preponderance of evidence and logic. One of Socrates’ most important contributions to Western thought was his contention that rational thinking means “thinking in accordance with logos”, which is related to the way we can know things. We know things as opposed to merely accepting what we are told and believe that logic and knowledge is the way to determine truth.
Logos is a Greek term for word or speech. For Socrates, logos meant the ultimate reality that the universe runs on. This reality lies behind everything that we observe and experience in the world around us; it is what makes up our existence. We can see logos through reasoning, thinking, studying and carefully observing the world around us.
Logos is not just a means of knowing; it is best understood as the ultimate reality that all else exists within, and without which nothing can be known. It is all around us but is not always in our eyesight. Logos is omnipresent, yet cannot be seen through the five senses and therefore we often miss seeing it at work because of our limited perspectives. We need to look below the surface for more information about what’s really going on beyond what we see with our eyes.
Logos can also be referred to as truth, justice, or reason. By looking at reality, we are able to see that the world around us is a reflection of our own existence. All thoughts and actions are determined by the reality that human beings exist within. Logic helps us make correct assumptions about our existence in order to understand what we see around us. Because logic needs reality as a reference point, logic is inherently tied to the world around us, and therefore logic is also referred to as truth-talk or logos talk.
Socrates felt that a person’s beliefs should always be challenged in order to expose the weaknesses of his argument and form a better understanding of what he believes. Through this process, he believed that we will be able to overcome our misconceptions about reality and avoid error by making better sense of what we know.
Because rational thinking in the post-Socratic age meant “thinking in accordance with logos”, Socrates wanted people to question their own beliefs and assumptions about the world around them.
Once you’ve understood the Socratic method of questioning, you’ll be ready to start asking people questions about their beliefs and opinions. To reiterate the Socratic method is a collection of techniques used to promote critical thinking, stimulate curiosity and arouse interest in lifelong learning. It is a way of engaging with others with the objective of finding insights through dialogue. The goal is to find the truth through inquiry.
The Socratic method can be used in almost any situation where you are concerned about what people really think about something or want to learn more about their beliefs and opinions. You can use the Socratic method with friends, in business, in politics, in your community and even with yourself. Remember that asking questions is a skill you have to develop if you want to be good at using it. The more you ask questions, the better you will become at getting information out of people, and making your point of view known.