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Art of Socratic Questioning

Art of Socratic Questioning

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Critical Thinking:
The Art of SocraticQuestioning
By
Richard Paul and Linda Elder
Socratic questioning is disciplined questioning that can be used to pursuethought in many directions and for many purposes: to explore complexideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, touncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what is knownfrom what is not known, and to follow out logical implications of thought.The key to distinguishing it from other types of questioning is that So-cratic questioning is
systematic, disciplined,
and
deep
and usually focuseson foundational concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems.Teachers, students, or indeed anyone interested in probing thinking ata deep level can and should construct Socratic questions and engage in So-cratic dialogue. The purpose of using Socratic questioning in teaching maybe to probe student thinking; to determine the extent of their knowledgeon 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 theybegin to use it in reasoning through complex issues, in understanding andassessing the thinking of others, and in determining the implications ofwhat 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 distin-guish what they know or understand from what they do not know orunderstand (and thereby help them develop intellectual humility) and. to foster students' abilities to ask Socratic questions and help studentsacquire the powerful tools of Socratic dialogue so that they can usethese tools in everyday life {in questioning themselves and others), Tothis end, it is important to model the questioning strategies mentorswant students to emulate and employ. Moreover, students need directinstruction 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 defensibleform of teaching). It teaches the difference between systematic and frag-mented thinking. It promotes digging beneath the surface of ideas andvaluing the development of questioning minds to cultivate deep learning.The art of Socratic questioning is intimately connected with criti-cal thinking because the art of questioning is important to excellence ofthought. What the word "Socratic" adds to the art of questioning is syste-maticity, depth, and an abiding interest in assessing the truth or plausibil-ity of ideas.Both critical thinking and Socratic questioning share a common end.Critical thinking provides the conceptual tools for understanding how themind functions (in its pursuit of meaning and truth); Socratic question-ing employs those tools in framing questions essential to the pursuit ofmeaning and truth. The goal of critical thinking is to establish an addi-tional level of thinking, a powerful inner voice of reason. Socratic discus-sion cultivates that inner voice through an exphcit focus on self-directed,disciplined questioning.In this and the next few columns, we focus on some of the mechanicsof Socratic dialogue, the conceptual tools that critical thinking brings toSocratic dialogue, and the importance of questioning in cultivating thedisciplined mind. Through a critical thinking perspective, we offer a sub-stantive, explicit, and rich understanding of Socratic questioning.
A
Taxonomy of Socratic Questions Based onCritical Thinking Concepts
To formulate questions that probe thinking in a disciplined and productiveway, one must understand thinking, how it works, and how it should beassessed. Critical thinking provides the tools for analyzing and assessingreasoning. This is why understanding critical thinking is essential to effec-tive Socratic dialogue This column will focus on the analysis of reasoning.
Questions that Target the Parts of Thinking
Using analytic questions in Socratic dialogue is foundational to compre-hension and to probing reasoning. To analyze, thinkers break a whole intoparts because problems in a "whole" are often a function of problems inone or more of its parts. Success in thinking depends on the ability toidentify the components of thinking hy asking questions focused on thosecomponents. One powerful way to discipline questions, then, is to focuson the components of reasoning, or parts of thinkingWhen formulating questions, consider the following guidelines andsample questions:
1.
Goals and purposes.
All thought reflects an agenda or purpose andcannot be fully understood prior to understanding the agenda behind it.Some of the many questions that focus on purpose in thinking include:• What is the intended purpose right now?• What was the purpose when that comment was made?• Who is the audience and in what
vfay
will they be persuaded?• What is the purpose of this assignment?• What does the task attempt to accomplish here?• What is the central aim or task in this line of thought?What is the purpose of this chapter, relationship, policy, law?• What is the central agenda? What other goals need to be considered?
2.
Questions.
All thought is responsive to a question. Assume that nothought is fully understood until one understands the question that givesrise to it. Questions that focus on questions in thinking include:• Exactly what question being raised is unclear? Please explain.• What are the main questions that guide personal behavior in this orthat situation?Is this question the best one to focus on at this point, or is there a morepressing question to address?• The question in my mind is this... Do you agree or do you see anotherquestion at issue?• Should the question (problem, issue) be put this way... or that...?• From a conservative viewpoint the question
is...;
from a liberal view-point it is... Which is the most insightful way to put it?• What questions might not included which should be asked?
3.
Information, data, and experience.
All thoughts presuppose an infor-mation base. Assume that no thought is fully understood until the back-ground information (facts, data, experiences) that supports or informs it isclear. Questions that focus on information in thinking include:• What information provides the basis for comment?• On what experience is this conviction based? Could it be distorted?• Is there any proof that this information is accurate? Can it be verified?• Is there any information or data that has not been considered?
36
JOURNAL of DEVELOPMENTAL EDUCATION
 
• What are these data based on? How were they developed? Is the con-clusion based on hard facts or soft data?
4. Inferences and conclusions.
All thought requires the making of infer-ences, the drawing of conclusions, the creation of meaning. Assume thatno thought is fully understood until one understands the inferences thathave shaped it. Questions that focus on inferences in thinking include:• How was the conclusion reached?• Can the reasoning used be explained?Is there an alternative plausible conclusion?• Given all the facts, what is the best possible conclusion?
5.
Concepts and ideas.
All thought involves the application of concepts.Assume that no thought can be fully understood until one understandsthe concepts that define and shape it. Questions that focus on concepts inthinking include:• What is the main idea used in this reasoning? Can the idea be explained?• Is the appropriate concept focused upon, or should the problem be re-conceptualized?• Are more facts or rethinking about how the facts are labeled necessary?Is the question a legal, a theological, or an ethical one?6.
Assumptions.
All thought rests upon assumptions. Assume that nothought can be fully understood until one understands what it takes forgranted. Questions that focus on assumptions in thinking include:• What exactly is taken for granted here?• Why is that assumption made? Shouldn't one rather assume that...?« What assumptions underlie the central point of view? What alternativeassumptions might be made?7.
Implications and consequences.
All thought is headed in a direction.It not only begins somewhere (in assumptions), it is also goes somewhere(has implications). Assume that no thought can be fully understood unlessone knows the most important implications and consequences that followfrom it. Questions that focus on implications in thinking include:• What is implied wben one says...?If one does this, what is likely to happen as a result?• Are the implications that...?- Have the implications of this policy (or practice) been considered?8.
Viewpoints and perspectives.
All thought takes place within a pointof view or frame of reference, Assume that no thought can be fully under-stood until one understands the point of view tbat places it on an intellec-tual map. Questions that focus on point of view in thinking include:• What point of view is assumed?• Is there another point of view that should be considered?• Which of the possible viewpoints makes the most sense in the situation?
Conclusion
In the next few columns we will introduce additional foundational con-cepts in critical thinking and exemplify questions that are implied by un-derstanding and using those foundations. When teachers routinely use thetools of critical thinking in Socratic dialogue, discussions become moredisciplined and fruitful, and students learn the importance of questioningin learning, Iliey are then better able to formulate and pursue deep andsignificant questions in their other classes and in the numerous domainsof their lives.
Linda Elder is executive director of
research
and professional develop-ment and Richard Paul is director of the Center or Critical Thinking at So-noma State
University,
Rohnert
Park,
CA 94928.
Q
CONTINUED FROM PAGE I7
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The
National Tutoring
Association's16th
Annuai
Conference
April 5
-9th,
2008
Dallas,
Texas
NationalTutoring Association
Live
LARGE,
Think BIG
For further information call (863) 529-5206or visit our website at www.ntatutor.org
VOLUME 31, ISSUE 1 • FALL 200737

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