Critical Thinking: The Art of Socratic Questioning

By Paul, Richard; Elder, Linda | Journal of Developmental Education, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking: The Art of Socratic Questioning


Paul, Richard, Elder, Linda, Journal of Developmental Education


Socratic questioning is disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what is known from what is not known, and to follow out logical implications of thought. The key to distinguishing it from other types of questioning is that Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, and deep and usually focuses on foundational concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems.

Teachers, students, or indeed anyone interested in probing thinking at a deep level can and should construct Socratic questions and engage in Socratic dialogue. The purpose of using Socratic questioning in teaching may be to probe student thinking; to determine the extent of their knowledge on a given topic, issue, or subject; to model Socratic questioning for them; or to help them analyze a concept or line of reasoning. In the final analysis, students should learn the discipline of Socratic questioning, so that they begin to use it in reasoning through complex issues, in understanding and assessing the thinking of others, and in determining the implications of what they and others think.

In teaching, Socratic questioning can be used for at least two purposes:

* to deeply probe student thinking and help students begin to distinguish what they know or understand from what they do not know or understand (and thereby help them develop intellectual humility) and

* to foster students' abilities to ask Socratic questions and help students acquire the powerful tools of Socratic dialogue so that they can use these tools in everyday life (in questioning themselves and others). To this end, it is important to model the questioning strategies mentors want students to emulate and employ. Moreover, students need direct instruction regarding how to construct and ask deep questions.

Socratic questioning teaches the importance of questioning in learning (indeed Socrates himself thought that questioning was the only defensible form of teaching). It teaches the difference between systematic and fragmented thinking. It promotes digging beneath the surface of ideas and valuing the development of questioning minds to cultivate deep learning.

The art of Socratic questioning is intimately connected with critical thinking because the art of questioning is important to excellence of thought. What the word "Socratic" adds to the art of questioning is systematicity, depth, and an abiding interest in assessing the truth or plausibility of ideas.

Both critical thinking and Socratic questioning share a common end. Critical thinking provides the conceptual tools for understanding how the mind functions (in its pursuit of meaning and truth); Socratic questioning employs those tools in framing questions essential to the pursuit of meaning and truth. The goal of critical thinking is to establish an additional level of thinking, a powerful inner voice of reason. Socratic discussion cultivates that inner voice through an explicit focus on self-directed, disciplined questioning.

In this and the next few columns, we focus on some of the mechanics of Socratic dialogue, the conceptual tools that critical thinking brings to Socratic dialogue, and the importance of questioning in cultivating the disciplined mind. Through a critical thinking perspective, we offer a substantive, explicit, and rich understanding of Socratic questioning.

A Taxonomy of Socratic Questions Based on Critical Thinking Concepts

To formulate questions that probe thinking in a disciplined and productive way, one must understand thinking, how it works, and how it should be assessed. Critical thinking provides the tools for analyzing and assessing reasoning. This is why understanding critical thinking is essential to effective Socratic dialogue This column will focus on the analysis of reasoning. …

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