The Socratic Method in the Classroom

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How can teachers use the Socratic method?

The Socratic method is one of the oldest pedagogic techniques used in the classroom. Developed by Socrates over 2400 years ago, the strategy uses thought-provoking question and answer sessions to promote learning. This student-centered approach is challenging and engages students in analytical discussions; and aids in expanding their critical thinking skills.

Understanding the Socratic method

Socratic method is defined as “a pedagogical technique in which a teacher does not give information directly, but instead asks a series of questions with the result that the student comes either to a desired knowledge by answering the questions or to a deeper awareness of the limits of knowledge.” *

From this definition, there are two important aspects of this strategy:

  1. Socratic questioning

Socratic questions are not ‘tools for evaluation.’ Rather, they are used to facilitate open-ended collaborative discussions and dialogues between the teacher and the students. Unlike debates, these are not competitive in nature, but help to further learning by improving the student’s reasoning and analytical skills.

Ideally, these questions are open-ended, seeking thoughtful responses. When answering, students are encouraged to give textual evidence or references to support their answers, in turn bringing about an in-depth examination and understanding of the ideas and content.

  1. Impact on learning

By engaging in this strategy, students learn to process information in a deeper manner. They learn to critically analyze, reason and rationalize information. Students learn to build connections between new knowledge and past information. The impact of learning then begins to stretch outside of the classroom and into the real world.

The following are two examples of how the Socratic method can be used in the classroom:

Socratic circles

Socratic circles promote collaborative and cooperative learning. Students are encouraged to not just find the correct ‘interpretation’ of the content, but to explore, view and analyze the material from different angles and perspectives.

In Socratic circles, a text or passage is chosen as the reading material. Students can be instructed to read this passage in advance, analyze and form their individual notes on the content.

Next, students are grouped into two concentric circles one inner and one outer group.

At first, the inner circle students read, analyze and discusses the material for around 10 minutes. The outer circle students are instructed to remain silent and observe their discussion. Once the time for the inner circle is up, the outer circle is given another 10 minutes to evaluate the inner circle’s dialogues, and comment or give them feedback. The inner circle is quiet at this point and takes note of the feedback given.

After 10 minutes of feedback time the groups switch positions and the roles are reversed. The new groups are given another 10 minutes each for discussion and feedback.

Socratic seminars or discussions

Here, the teacher uses the Socratic questions to direct a discussion around a targeted learning goal in order to stimulate a deeper understanding of the content. The questions help students to evaluate their options and to make decisions upon those opinions.

Teachers should establish guidelines to help students participate fairly in the seminar or discussion forum. They should also record the type and number of comments made by each student. Before conducting an actual Socratic Seminar, teachers need to model and demonstrate to the students the expected behaviors for thinking, interacting and listening.

In short the Socratic method promotes learning by encouraging students to pick apart their underlying beliefs, assumptions and ideas about a topic through critically analyzing, reasoning and rationalizing them to find the answers deep within.

*”Socratic method.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 21 Oct. 2016

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