Asking Good Questions: Socratic Method in the Classroom

To get students thinking critically about material, lecturing to students who remain passive recipients of knowledge won’t work. Students must be engaged and grapple with questions in order to think critically. Discussion helps students consider the material and tackle it using higher-level thinking (see figure) .
Bloom's taxonomy (modified): From low-level skills to high-level skills, they are remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating

Asking questions encourages students to analyze and evaluate—two high-level skills in Bloom's taxonomy.

The Socractic method is an effective tool for promoting discussion. By using well-placed questions that encourage students to think and engage in in-depth discourse with one another, the instructor “acts as the logical equivalent of the inner critical voice, which the mind develops when it develops critical thinking abilities,” writes R. Paul and L. Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Here's how to use the Socratic method in the classroom:

Ask probing questions about key issues and ideas when discussing a work of literature. Questions like, “Is truth absolute or relative?” or “What makes us human?” engage students, even though they’re questions impossible to answer in the span of a one-hour class (or a lifetime). To support the argument, students mine the text they are discussing. Within the discussion, multiple viewpoints arise, and the class thinks critically about how the text engages with these core questions. Michael Gose, Professor of Humanities at Pepperdine University, has come up with core question types in the Socratic method. For example,

Ask students to explore the relationships among concepts and ideas. This works equally well in the STEM classroom as in the humanities classroom. You might ask students to compare two types of structures and explain how they are similar and how they are different, or to evaluate the pros and cons of each, such as comparing the merits of building a cable-stayed bridge or a cantilever bridge.

Play devil’s advocate or use comic relief to encourage students to develop their own positions. For example, if a student makes a statement but doesn’t support it, making a bold statement about the opposing view encourages the student to clarify why her statement is true. If two students already share opposing views, encourage them (and the rest of the class) to speak with one another, not to see you as the arbitrator of what’s correct, in order to develop their perspective.

With a little planning before class to determine core ideas and discussion points, class can be learner-centered. Students who come up with their own ideas and solutions and think critically can better grasp the material and apply their new knowledge to grappling with ongoing questions.

Sources:

Gose, Michael. (2008) When Socratic Dialogue is Flagging. Questions and Strategies for Engaging Students. In: College Teaching. Heldref Publications.

Paul, R. and Elder, L. (April 1997). Foundation for Critical Thinking.