Critical Tool for Learning and Teaching: Socratic Questioning

Socrates once said, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” Have you ever experienced the Socratic way of teaching–asking participatative questions to challenge learners to think and discover the answers? This method gets people more involved in learning through critical thinking and makes the learning more relevant to their lives. Socratic questioning illuminates the importance of questioning in learning.  Socrates stated that questioning was the only defensible form of teaching. It illuminates the difference between systematic and fragmented thinking. It teaches us to dig beneath the surface of our ideas and not just memorize stuff for regurgitation on an exam. It teaches us the value of developing questioning minds to cultivate deep learning. The art of Socratic questioning is intimately connected with learning because the art of questioning is important to the excellence of thought. What the word “Socratic” adds to the art of questioning is depth and interest in assessing the truth or  information about others and the situations they are confronting. Other people are afraid that by asking questions they will look weak, ignorant, or unsure. They like to give the impression that they are decisive and in command of the relevant issues. They fear that asking questions might introduce uncertainty or show them as uninformed or incompetent. They like being perceived as the expert. In fact, asking questions is a sign of strength and intelligence – not a sign of weakness or uncertainty. Great leaders constantly ask questions from many different people and are well aware that they do not have all the answers. Some people are in such a hurry to get things done that they do not stop to ask questions because it might slow them down. They risk rushing headlong into the wrong actions.

As politicians, peers, friends, family members, colleagues, or managers we can check assumptions, gain more information and better understanding of the problem or opportunity by first asking questions. Start with very basic, broad questions then move to more specific areas to clarify your understanding. Open questions are excellent – they give the other person or people a chance to give broad answers and they open up the discussion . Examples of open questions are: • What obstacles keep the government from bailing out home owners? •  What are the factors that caused our recent economic melt down? • How can we reduce a further melt down of the economy? • Where does an individual or bank’s authority and responsibility end and government authority through regulation begin? • Tell me more about your personal experiences in securing a business loan? Questions for a meaningful conversation need not be scripted because as we actively listen and tune-in to responses we can spontaneously formulate more in depth or probing questions. Be patient in your responses and never interrupt the speaker. The desire to state our ideas, insights, points of view and wisdom is hard to resist. The method of asking questions to deepen our understanding and provides more clarity of the issues before identifying the root issue in making critical decisions.

Asking questions is very effective in building trust and shows your interest in the problem and the person’s point of view. A word of caution-questions maybe be perceived as an interrogation and threatening rather than as a friendly way to connect unless you show interest in the responses. Try to pose each question in a calm way and ensure that your non-verbal language is relaxed and engaging. Do not jab your index finger like the “critical parent” but try to speak with warm and welcoming hand jesters with open palms.

Try to practice asking more opened questions in conversations will make a person feel understood and indicate that you care what they have to say. Instead of telling someone what you think or immediately providing advise – ask them a question and you will be perceived as caring, open, and engaging person.

Questions help us to teach as well as to learn. If you are open to new thinking and renewal the lesson’s life offers will enhance your ability to develop and grow your mental maps. … if not you may be sleep walking through life. If it is obvious that asking questions is such a powerful way of learning why do we stop asking questions? For some people the reason is that they think that they have learned all there is to know on a subject? Others like to hear themselves talk and control conversations. Some people become bored, lazy or worn down by fighting the same battles for change year in and year out. They want to maintain their comfort level by holding onto old and tried and true “mental maps”, assumptions and solution or ideas which they believe are correct and unchanging. For example, cutting taxes leads to a strong economy. They try old solutions that might or might not fit the new circumstances.This approach leads them to be stuck in the past. And many times they end up failing by trying to maintain the status quo and their comfort level.


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