The Socratic approach to class discussion: applying knowledge to new situations and problems

First posted on Tales From The Reach on 15 November 2018

On Tuesday my colleagues and I discussed challenge during our Reach Teach Toolkit briefing: what it is and how to pitch it, especially in relation to knowledge retrieval. Although this post will not answer these questions, I do feel that we can – in addition to our Do Nows, no-stakes testing and practice questions – use questioning and discussion to probe, unpack and stretch pupils’ understanding of the subjects we teach.

Perhaps a good place to start a review on how questioning and discussion can challenge pupils is with the so-called Socratic approach, which is named after the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. This approach to discussion rests on the teacher’s ability to facilitate challenging, rigorous and insightful dialogue amongst pupils. The idea is that the teacher sets up and/or manipulates a discussion that encourages the pupils to challenge and evaluate either the teacher’s or each other’s’ views in the same way that the ancient Greek philosophers challenged and debated each other.

Additionally, if pupils’ are taught to question and challenge each other in discussion, the Socratic approach can be developed into a pupil-centred approach to learning, especially if the pupils get into the habit of discussing issues or complicated answers this way. To this end, Socratic questioning and discussion is often referred to as a dialectical approach in that pupils identify and correct the misconceptions and misunderstandings of their peers. Of course, getting our pupils to peer correct misconceptions and misunderstandings themselves is extremely helpful to learning; this could also be very useful if they decide to revise together. However, they would need to be taught to always ‘check-to-confirm’ their answers after discussion to avoid misconceptions slipping through.

In class, the Socratic approach can be used as a follow up to a Do Now as we can can ask probing questions of pupils before getting them to debate and/or analyse each others’ answers. Therefore, a Do Now knowledge retrieval exercise can lead into  a discussion that further unpacks the pupils thinking, extended or additional knowledge as well as how they may apply that knowledge to certain situations or problems.

In sociology, I use Socratic questioning and discussion after a Do Now on the demographics of family diversity and family types, such as nuclear families, extended families and single-parent families. The specific Do Now question on the demographics of single-parent families (studied in the previous lesson) will lead onto a discussion on demographic trends in relation to divorce (the topic for the next lesson). Here, example questions may include, ‘Why do you think divorce rates have increased in the last 60 years?’ Despite not having studied divorce per se, most pupils will have some knowledge of divorce from elsewhere and they may also have developed some sociological knowledge of societal change from other topic areas, which they can ‘retrieve’ and ‘apply’ in this discussion. They should also be able to give a variety of opinions on this to get each other thinking. Subsequently, not only are they building upon their prior knowledge and understanding, but they are also starting to analyse why they and others have interpreted things the way they have.

Therefore, unlike the preceding knowledge retrieval questions, in the following discussion pupils will need to formulate responses to each other throughout and can only do that by picking up on the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s answers, perspectives and arguments. Of course, you will need to prep them to think critically about each other’s comments and encourage them to challenge things they do not agree with; in essence, they are now evaluating the arguments aired. Encourage them to ask further questions of each other, too. For example, you can get pupils to try and defend the basic concepts behind their statements. Here, simple ‘tell me more’ questions can be used to facilitate deeper thinking. The table below gives examples on how these types of questions can be formulated and then applied in sociology lessons, for example. The ideas are adapted from Paul and Elder’s (2006) six types of Socratic questions.

Type of Socratic Question General Phrasing/Use Possible Sociological Phrasing/Use
Clarifying · Why do you say that?· What do you mean by that?


· Why do you think that about middle-class people?· What exactly does ‘embourgisement’ mean?
Probing assumptions · What else could we assume instead?· How can you verify or falsify that assumption? · Do people really just believe what they see and hear in the media?· To prove your point, can you name any famous business people that come from working class backgrounds?
Probing reasons and evidence · What would be an example?· What do you think causes this to happen? · Can you give me an example of material deprivation?· Why do the public perceive crime as rising?
Thinking about viewpoints and perspectives · What would be an alternative point of view?· What are the strengths and weaknesses of this view? · Why might feminists disagree with Talcott Parson’s view of the nuclear family?· What are the strengths and weaknesses of quota sampling?
Probing implications and consequences · How does this idea/evidence affect what we are studying?· How does this idea/evidence relate to what we learned before? ·  What do these statistics on stop and search tell us about the relationship between police and ethnic minorities?· How does Young and Willmott’s study compare or contrast to Elizabeth Bott’s?
Probing the actual question · What was the point of this question?· Why do you think I asked this question? ·  What was the point of asking you questions about the head teacher in the context of the correspondence principle?· Why do you think I asked this question about video games if we are looking at violence in the media?

Table: types of Socratic questions

Moreover, Socratic questioning and discussion can be used to probe the pupils’ initial assumptionsabout sociological concepts or research, especially if they have slightly misunderstood, understated or poorly defended a concept or study. This type of questioning can also try to unearth pupils’ own biases and prejudices in those subjects that involve debate and controversial issues. For example, in sociology I can challenge pupils by asking these types of questions:

  • What else could we assume about your view given your own experiences?
  • You seem to be assuming that all immigrants are so called ‘health tourists’. Why is this?
  • Please explain why you think the digital divide may be over looked by policy makers in the developed world?
  • What might a sociologist research to verify or disprove that idea, especially as you think it is so sound?
  • What could the consequences be of re-introducing married couples’ tax allowance (as you suggest) on cohabitating couples?
  • How could your views on child poverty be used to defend child tax credits?

It may be a good idea to record some of the pupils’ key points here in order to further the discussion once the class starts lagging. For instance, if someone suggested – in a sociology of religion lesson – secularisation as a reason for increased divorce and someone else suggests the lack of social stigma, you could ask them if the two are connected.

The Socratic approach to questioning and discussion has clear uses in the social sciences, humanities and English, but can also be applied to other curriculum subjects as pupils question each others’ methods, logic and application of knowledge and skills to various problems outlined by the teacher (who seeks to challenge their class).

See also: Paul, R and Elder, L. (2006) The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning (Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking)

Picture credit: The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David (via Wikicommons and used under a Creative Commons licence)

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