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How Can Socratic Questioning Be Used To Deepen Learning And Understanding?

How Can Socratic Questioning Be Used With A Variety Of Student Demographics To Deepen Learning And Understanding Of A Key Concept?

Ben Coleman and Rebecca Catlin


Our research focused on the Socratic method of questioning, and how particular types of Socratic questions might be more effective than others at facilitating a deeper understanding of a key concept for a particular demographic of students. Secondly, we wanted to explore the extent to which students could grasp Socratic dialogue in their own thought process, thus enabling them to use questioning to develop their own thinking without the need for teacher facilitation.


‘Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such. That is why it is true that only students who have questions are really thinking and learning. Moreover, the quality of the questions students ask determines the quality of the thinking they are doing.’ (Paul, R.W et al., 1989) ‘Feeding students endless content to remember is akin to repeatedly stepping on the brakes in a vehicle that is, unfortunately, already at rest. Instead, students need questions to turn on their intellectual engines, and they must themselves generate questions from our questions to get their thinking to go somewhere.’

(Paul, R.W et al., 1989) The two statements above highlight the operation of questioning as a pivotal part of learning. Indeed, we see the importance of questions and, as Paul specifies, ‘quality of questions’ determining ‘quality of thinking’ in our classrooms every lesson, but how can we support students to produce questions of ‘quality’ for themselves? The idea of questions needing to ‘generate’ questions in order for thinking to continue extending and produce new ideas is also an important one, but often a challenging thing to achieve for every student in the classroom.

The Socratic method of questioning originates from the teaching of the early Greek philosopher, Socrates, who believed that the disciplined practice of thoughtful, systematic questioning enabled students to examine commonly accepted ideas and concepts logically, resulting in an increased ability to effectively evaluate the validity of those ideas (Merritts & Walter, n.d.). This practice has developed over time into a method for teachers to facilitate the development of students thinking by asking a series of follow up questions, which challenge the student to evaluate their own thinking from a variety of different angles, adding dimensions to their understanding as they answer. As the importance of critical thinking in the classroom has developed, this type of questioning has become ever more prominent, as ‘asking thoughtful questions plays an important role in inducing students’ higher-level cognitive processes, such as self-reflection, revision, social negotiation, and conceptual change of student misconceptions, all of which are integral to Critical Thinking’ (Bill, R., et al., 2005).

Socratic questioning encourages students to translate their thought process into their own words and interrogate not only their attitudes and values, but the thinking that has led to their formation. ‘The Socratic method attacks the complacencies that arise when what passes for "common sense" has become too convincing’ (Kenneth & Maxwell, 2014). This idea that the Socratic system of questioning can inspire students to resist just accepting the status quo, or the accepted way of thinking about a concept brings a powerfully productive and innovative way of thinking into the classroom. Furthermore, one of the most positive features of the Socratic approach is that, "in an intellectually open, safe, and demanding learning environment, students will be challenged, yet comfortable in answering questions honestly and fully in front of their peers" (Merritts & Walter, n.d.). This is due to the structured approach that socractic questioning takes to support students when grappling with challenging ideas.

The reasoning that ‘critical thinking can help pupils ‘identify, review and evaluate the values they and society hold and recognise that these affect thoughts and actions’ (Fisher, 2000) suggests that Socratic questioning and thinking could be a vital tool in activating good citizenship and understanding of the world, proving itself to be vital to good moral and social development as well as benefitting academic achievement. For many students, it is suggested that ‘Socratic discussion cultivates [an] inner voice by providing a public model for it’ (Kenneth & Maxwell, 2014). This implies that Socratic questioning can lead to the learning of an interrogative way of thinking: training them to ask their own follow up questions of their own thinking and eventually not needing the facilitation of the teacher. Thus, we felt that action research into how Socratic questioning can be used effectively in the classroom could be a very beneficial study to examine how it could support students to extend their own ideas and the ideas of others.


We decided to focus on two high ability groups for our study: one Key Stage 3 group, and one Key Stage 4. Our interest was not in comparing the responses of different age groups, but in looking at the way that different demographics of students within these classes approached the task, responded to different categories of questions, and what they were able to take away from the experience for their future evaluation and analysis skills. With the ultimate aim of being able to identify types of questions that may support the deepening of understanding for a particular group of students, and categories of questions that could challenge and develop the thought process of particular groups of students, the identification of demographics within our groups was of great importance. Our groupings of students were as follows:

1. Gifted (Identified by year 6 CATS scores as having high academic ability. Henceforward G&T)

2. Pupil Premium (henceforward PP)

3. students with low reading ages (henceforward LRA)

4. students identified as highly creative (henceforward Creative)

5. students with exceptional KS2 Maths SATS scores (henceforward HAM)

6. middle ability boys (henceforward Boys)

7. middle ability girls (henceforward Girls)

There were overlaps in these groups occasionally, which we had to take into consideration. For example, in the KS4 group, 3 out of the 4 PP students were also G&T. There was one G&T student in the PP group in the KS3 group, and two were EAL. In both groups, the HAM group were also all G&T.

As Socratic questioning works best when it ‘focuses on moral inquiry that tests ideas of how we should live, the nature of virtue and justice, and the human character and results of good living’ (Kenneth & Maxell, 2014), each group was given an article about the innovative, controversial structure of the prison system in Norway. This article enabled students to initially apply their prior knowledge and attitudes, before using new information to evaluate and create their own, new hypotheses about the purpose of a prison system and how it should be run.

Essentially, Socratic questions should use follow up questions to challenge the student to expose the thinking behind their answer; for example “Is this always the case? Why do you think that this assumption holds here?”; “Why do you think I asked that question?” or “Why was that question important?” or “Is there reason to doubt this evidence?” (Quigley, 2012). Instead of providing direct answers, the Socratic questioning approach stimulates students’ minds by continually probing into the subject with thought-stimulating questions (Paul 1993). However, ‘just asking a lot of questions does not automatically constitute a use of the Socratic method […] There are easily identifiable patterns of expression characteristic of the dialogues of Plato that, when used in the proper Socratic spirit, dramatically increase the fertility of learning and the human aspiration to seek understanding’ (Kenneth & Maxell 2014). These patterns of expression are employed in many different ways when exercising Socratic questioning, but we were interested in the way that Socratic questioning could enable students to access higher order thinking skills, and stretch the thinking skills that they use most regularly, as ‘the Socratic approach focuses on the area of critical thinking, [so it is] an approach that can effectively be used to help students to achieve the higher-order learning level of Bloom's Taxonomy of the cognitive domain (i.e., analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, creativity).’

Each group of students was given an envelope of six slips of paper. Each slip of paper contained three questions, following one specific purpose or element of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and testing a particular thinking skill. See above for the model we based this hierarchy on. The model proposes that questions begin by establishing knowledge, before moving through application of knowledge, analysis, synthesis and hypotheses, before assessing whether the students are able to reflect on the thought process that the questions have worked to provoke, which coincides with our aim of testing how ‘using Socratic questioning themselves [students] can often analyse and evaluate at a much higher level’ (Prior, G., 2016).

Students recorded their responses in a table, in order to allow us to evaluate their level of response after the lesson. We also recorded our observations on their interactions and responses as we moved around the room. Finally students were asked to evaluate their experience at the end, responding to questions about the groups of questions that most interested them, challenged them, or that they found the most difficult to answer.



The students were given a number of questions that asked them to consider prior knowledge and recall before reading any provided literature. It became immediately apparent that BOYS differed from GIRLS enormously without a text in front of them. BOYS struggled to engage with the abstract concept of this type of question while the GIRLS adapted well and engaged with their ideas and debate around the topic quickly. BOYS also went off-task first and we noted that without a visual stimulus, they struggled.

G&T made good initial use of the questions before stating “We’ve finished the discussion…We’ve discussed everything we need to.” This led us, as observers, to see almost immediately that this style of question limited G&T students. They answered the questions: “What do you already know about prisons?” and “How are prisoners treated in this country?” with intelligence and understanding but these questions clearly lacked challenge, intrigue and extension for them.

Many other groups almost stereotypically followed expectations, reinforcing the need to differentiate according to the information that we have about these students. LRA struggled to engage with the instructions and simple question structure. They asked lots of questions to clarify the task and fell behind due to slow reading. CREATIVE students went off track and started to tackle moral issues as well and fact and opinions.

G&T responses to question Set 1


After reading the document on Norwegian prisons, students were given questions which required them to challenge their previous held assumptions. Again CREATIVE students displayed an ability to compare what they had read with what they had previously believed but also challenge each other to consider the moral implications of the two systems. These students were able to imagine different scenarios through their questioning of each other. Their discussion became heated and engaged, with many students thinking from the different perspectives of people who may be affected by this type of alternate prison system. Interestingly, despite their discussion being rich in ideas, they did not end up recording much of it in writing.

CREATIVE and G&T students held strong opinions on whether this style of imprisonment was more effective and gave thoughtful responses, which they quickly conceptualised, demonstrating the ability to synthesise evidence instinctively and highly efficiently.

The HAM students began an interesting investigation into the topic through a series of interrogative questions. Focused on the question: “What do you think would happen if British prisons were like this?” HAM students analysed a logical sequence of possible scenarios. They asked each other about “British standards and attitudes” and explored the notion that British prisons are there to “punish” and not “helping inmates to learn to live back in society”, again demonstrating the ability to conceptualise. The HAM students had painstakingly highlighted their resources, collecting evidence almost forensically, and questioned each other and argued with precision, consistent reference to their evidence, and clinically precise vocabulary.


Again the HAM students showed admirable questioning of each other. They took time to re-absorb the evidence that they had previously been given and made a series of evidence-based points. Statistics featured heavily in their questions and answers, suggesting a clear link to the higher mathematical abilities in the group. They keenly responded to the “Is there any evidence to suggest…” question eliciting the response “It should be a percentage.” The HAM students seemed to fall into a natural hierarchy of questioning with one student taking the lead and probing the others for their thoughts. These students also began to question the data in the article and ask each other about the relative population sizes for the study.

Many groups failed to see the difference between Set 2 and Set 3 questions but the LRA students took time to think and, interestingly, one stated “That’s a hard question ” demonstrating an early desire to the question the question. The LRA group also made efforts to change the direction of discussions through the questioning. They asked about the morality of these prisons and attempted to uncover ways to change the current prison service. On reflection, it was apparent that the LRA students were attempting to avoid re-engaging with the text as a way to avoid the thing they find more difficult. The discussion was focused and the questions posed effective, but the depth of understanding drawn out of the conversations was weaker due to the lack of “forensic” reading for evidence as displayed by the HAM students.

HAM responses to Question Set 3


One thing became apparent during Set 4 questions as the PP group seemed more reluctant to engage with the topic. It became apparent on reflection that there was the possibility that these students were more sensitive to the subject matter and did not want to question each other on a matter that may have personal significance (students were not necessarily in friendship groups and therefore unaware of each other’s social backgrounds).

G&T students were very firm when it came to looking at alternative solutions and readings of the article. They became far more disparaging of the evidence in the extracts and showed clear signs of moving into significantly higher level thinking and questioning skills, drawing clearly on their wider knowledge and opinions. Interestingly, LRA and PP students did this less so, and referred to what they had read, clearly indicating a slightly less informed world view. G&T drew interesting conclusions from the “Why might it be better…?” questions which led them to ask about, not only the perceptions of the families of criminals and victims but also wider society and the media. The ability to look at different perspectives suited the G&T because they were aware of different perspectives in a way that perhaps the PP and LRA students were not. This style of question led to some of the most insightful comments on the topic (some of which are below). One of the most interesting responses to a question came from “Why might it be better to use the Norwegian system in this country” when a G&T philosophically summed up their response with “eventually it should become more understood.” They clearly felt that they had the answer that has eluded governments for generations!

G&T Responses to Question Set 4:


These questions began to challenge a number of the groups. The one group of G&T students insisted on questioning each other from the perspective of young people and failed to see a wider set of implications for society: a creative restructuring of the task. There were some excellent questions and responses to “What would happen if all British prisons were like this?” with many focusing on the lack of deterrent and their own fears about society. Two groups, GIRLS and PP stated that prison “would become better than reality” displaying quite a cynical sense of the world.

The “You are in charge of the British Prison Service for a day. What would you do?” question drew the most enjoyment and allowed many students to consider the implications of the Norwegian system in our society. CREATIVE students engaged with this set of questions effectively – many were familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy and had previously attacked the “Apply to Something New” tasks with gusto. Ideas ranged from innovative punishments for various sub-sections of criminals to adopting something akin to Norwegian prisons. CREATIVE students showed far more vitality in their questions and answers to Set 5 although, again adhering to stereotype, these responses remained verbal and failed to find their way onto the notes sheet.


This set of questions was the turning point in the set, where the students were required to evaluate and assess the reasoning behind being asked this series of questions. We were interested in the level at which they would contribute their own interrogation, and whether their thinking would be able to extend the investigation. All groups tended to struggle with this set of questions and maybe at KS3 and 4 they are not quite ready to investigate why we ask certain things or what makes a good set of questions. Possibly this set of students are far too conditioned to follow tasks that have been set by their teacher rather than challenge the validity of the question-setting process of a teacher.

Most groups agreed that Question Set 5 was the trickiest set of questions to respond to although this observer felt that this may have been due to natural fatigue (they had been reading and questioning for 40 minutes by this point and had not had the usual teacher-talk driven lesson that they were used to). BOYS briefly discussed the idea that it was important to question what we do with prisoners because “we are becoming a worse and worse society” and “we need to make it better”. The vocabulary used in the question and answer process here was typically “boyish” but got to the heart of the matter. Most groups were also able to think about how the exercise would impact on their life/lessons. They became aware of the need to read and evaluate sources in lessons such as History and also enjoyed the opportunity to think about “issues in more detail”. However, it was clear that they would need much more time for the wider concept of the questioning process to embed into their own though process.


Our findings from this piece of action research, as detailed above, largely fell in line with our expectations in terms of student responses and suitability to particular styles of question. Furthermore, in its highly structured format, our exercise illuminated very clear approaches to task; interactions between students; and interactions between students and resources. G&T and CREATIVE students synthesized, conceptualised and brought a wealth of external knowledge to their arguments. They brought new perspectives to heated debates as they were able to instinctively challenge arguments brought against them, constantly thinking on their feet. They clearly preferred the high level questions, particularly viewing from alternate perspectives. GIRLS and BOYS had distinctive group interactions and interactions with their resources to begin with, but, as mixed ability groups, they produced less distinct results.

Something that was very striking in both sessions was that the LRA students struggled to access the task to begin with, due to the resources. In the first session, they asked a number of questions, trying to clarify the task, and in the second, the took such a long time reading and processing the resource that they had fallen behind other groups considerably when it came to spending time answering the questions.

The PP group in the KS4 set contained 3 G&T students, however, something particularly notable in the KS3 PP group was that it included only one G&T student, alongside other of lower ability. The G&T student in this group is usually a very active contributor in lessons, but she became quite quiet amongst these students who engaged with ideas in a far less challenging way.

In terms of the Socratic questioning system, it was clear, as detailed above, that groups of students did present a more prominent ability towards particular sets of questions, but that the Socratic system certainly works as a process. All groups extended their ideas highly effectively using this systematic debate, but the establishing of knowledge at the beginning was crucial in all cases. We are both interested in continuing this study, and looking at how Socratic questioning could become embedded as a though process for students, as one session did not prove enough to allow this at all. Observing the students questioning one another within their groups suggested that this may be a highly effective way of enabling this to embed.


Bill, R., Newby, T., & Yang, Y., (2005) Using Socratic Questioning to Promote Critical Thinking Skills Through Asynchronous Discussion Forums in Distance Learning Environments. THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF DISTANCE EDUCATION, 19(3), 163–181 Available at: [Accessed 10/04/2017]

Fisher, R., (2000) Thinking Skills: Adding Challenge to the Curriculum A guide for teachers of able children, published by the Scottish Network for Able Pupils. Available at: [Accessed 15/02/2017]

Merritts, D., & Walter, R. (n.d.). Using Socratic questioning. Available at: [Accessed, 10/04/2017]

Paul, R.W., Martin, D., Adamson. K. (1989) Critical Thinking Handbook: High School, A Guide for Redesigning Instruction. Foundation for Critical Thinking

Prior, G. (2016) Better Classroom Questioning. Available at: [Accessed 10/04/2017]

Quigley, A. (2012) Questioning – Top Ten Strategies. Hunting English. Available at: [Accessed 16/02/2017]

Rick Whiteley, T., (2006) Using the Socratic Method and Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain to Enhance Online Discussion, Critical Thinking and Student Learning. Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning, Volume 33, 2006 Available at: [Accessed 10/04/2017]

Kenneth, J. & Maxwell, Jr.(2014) How to Use the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method Research Portal. Available at: [Accessed 10/04/2017]

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