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Socratic questioning

‘I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.’

Socrates

Topics on this page:

What is Socratic questioning? | Why use Socratic questions? | How to use Socratic questions | Reading

What is Socratic questioning?

Socrates, the Greek philosopher, taught by asking questions and he believed that through questioning he could get his students to examine ideas logically and develop reliable knowledge.

Applying his approach to geography teaching means that the teacher systematically explores concepts and geographical ideas with students by using questions that probe their thinking. The Socratic approach is about the power of talk and discussion to enable students to learn.

Why use Socratic questions?

The purpose of Socratic questioning is to challenge students’ accuracy and completeness of thinking. The basic principles can be applied at all levels from Year 7 to Year 13 and can be adapted to different contexts. Socratic questioning involves a systematic exploration of the topic so it really probes students’ thinking. It helps them to develop critical thinking and independence of thought.

The idea behind Socrates approach was to draw out from students what they already knew, but were not fully aware of, by using a series of questions. It is particularly applicable in areas of human or environmental geography in topics that involve human actions, values and decision making. In these aspects of geography we generally use more ‘open’ questions. It is less appropriate in the context of physical processes, or contexts where questions are more ‘closed’.

Using Socratic questioning can improve student understanding, and create deeper thinking. But concepts and knowledge are fundamental and these must be in place before students can engage in Socratic questioning if it is to develop deep and critical thinking.

How to use Socratic questions

Socratic questioning relies on the teacher developing a critical dialogue with students. They can be introduced by a teacher modelling their use with the whole class. Typical Socratic-style questions to pose are:

  • What do you mean by…?
  • How does that help?
  • Do you have evidence?
  • What would be the consequences of that?
  • What follows on from what you say?

Six different categories of Socratic questions are generally recognised.  These seek to:

  • clarify
  • challenge assumptions
  • look for evidence for argument
  • explore viewpoints and perspectives
  • probe implications and consequences
  • question the question.

You should prepare your questions carefully and ‘think aloud’ as you model Socratic questioning with your class. Encourage students to begin to phrase the next question when they begin to grasp how it works and guide them in how to ask deep and probing questions.

After your ‘modelling’ of Socratic questions as a whole class, ask the students to work in pairs to ask each other Socratic questions in relation to the topic they are studying. It can be useful to provide a resource such as an image for them to work with.

  • Refer to Questioning in which Phil Wood (2008) describes an example of a Socratic questioning worksheet for use in a GCSE class.

Wood explains how it works in the classroom: ‘Usually, one student will question a partner for three or four minutes, and then the roles will be reversed. It is important that the students understand that at no point should they answer a question simply “yes” or “no”.’ He gives an illustration of the typical dialogue between students.

Carefully consider how to manage classroom interaction and whether some students might need more support. You might decide to work in groups of four rather than pairs so that the students can support each other if they are using the technique for the first time. Groups of four allow more viewpoints to be shared and explored.

  • Roberts (2023) p 107 suggests some ground rules for Socratic questions.

Students will require help and guidance to use the Socratic approach to questioning effectively. In essence they need to learn how to probe for more detailed responses from their peers. You might find it useful to provide some scaffolding in the form of a prompt sheet, or a wall display they can refer to, similar to below.

I agree with your point, however …

Are you saying …

I agree. I also think …

When you said earlier that …

Although I understand the point you have made, I believe …

I disagree with your point because …

I believe …

I think you are right because …

I think you are wrong because …

You will need to monitor how the groups respond to the task and help them to develop deeper thinking. If you do not do monitor their work closely, the activity will not achieve its purpose and they might only ask low order questions of each other. 

Do not give up if it does not work as brilliantly as you had hoped on the first try. It takes time to develop students’ capacity to probe deeply to explore each other’s thinking. John Sayers has photos on his blog site showing cards he has made as prompts for students to use for each category of Socratic questions.

  • Refer to Sayers, J. Questioning, Geography blog.
  • Refer to Rawlings Smith (2017) for use with post-16 students.

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, 75-79.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing, 114-8.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp. 106–8.
  • Wood, P. (2006) Think Piece – Questioning, Geographical Association on-line.