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What is the Socratic Method?

By Lauren B. Parks
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Socratic Method is one of the oldest and most powerful approaches to teaching and developing critical thinking skills. By removing pretenses of certainty, the method aims to provoke a deeper understanding of any subject matter. Basically, you must question everything; leave no possibility untouched.

The Socratic Method is named for Socrates, a philosopher who lived in Athens around 470 B.C. Socrates gained fame for frequently engaging others in conversations that attempted to define broad ideas such as beauty, virtue, justice, courage, temperance and friendship by discussing their ambiguities and complexities. During his conversations, Socrates placed himself in the position of student, forcing his respondents to act in the role of teacher. However, since many believed Socrates to have a greater understanding of the subjects discussed, his reversal of roles became known as Socratic Irony.

While the Socratic Method can be effectively used in guiding others toward a better understanding of established subjects such as mathematics, it is very often used to stimulate positive growth in the quality of human discourse. That is, the method seeks to eliminate all notions of complete understanding of any topic so as to remove barriers that surround a higher level of knowledge. Socrates said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing at all.

The Socratic Method acknowledges that belief in anything beyond a shadow of a doubt can be dangerous, and that clinging to what we thought we knew can trap us, keep us from truly knowing anything. By acknowledging these basic principles, the method opens the floor for a dialogue that seeks to uncover true meaning. However, when all preconceived notions are removed, people can feel scared, defensive or anxious; emotions that can turn an equal dialogue into an argument, one side against another.

In the Socratic Method, the questioner takes a subordinate role, one of seeking knowledge. This is very important, as it lets defenses fall, and provides a comfort level that allows the questioner and respondent speak freely and openly. The method relies on a genuine modesty in the questioner. Attitudes of humility and shared goals keep the questioner and the respondent from becoming opponents.

The Socratic Method begins with the questioner asking the respondent a question such as “What is beauty?” Once the respondent replies, the questioner then asks the respondent a series of purposeful questions that lead the respondent to reply with an answer that proves their original answer to “What is beauty” false. Once the respondent becomes aware that their original answer is invalid, the questioner then asks again, “What is beauty?” Removing the respondent’s confidence that they have a clear understanding of beauty readies the respondent to think critically.

The true purpose of the Socratic Method is not to define beauty, or justice, or any other complex subject, but rather to improve human beings by increasing their understanding. The method uses your own words to convince you that you know less than you originally thought. When less sure, you are forced to open your mind to various possibilities you had not considered.

Answering questions that lead you to a discovery of either the answer or a new way of thinking gives you a rewarding sense of efficacy that can improve your confidence as well. Rather than simply being told how or what to think, the Socratic Method allows you to think for yourself. This unique ability to find your own way is gratifying and fulfilling; most importantly, it is lasting.

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Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Oct 28, 2013

@anon347805: The purpose (of having a debate/argument) is not to "win" and to make others feel stupid. The way I see it, the purpose of having a debate/dialogue is to find out truth, or at the very least, to broaden your mind.

Anyway, the Socratic method is potentially a very powerful tool if you are trying to deprogram someone.

By anon347805 — On Sep 10, 2013

Complete crap. The purpose is to win arguments and make others feel stupid. That is the only thing "powerful" about socratic method. Everybody knows what beauty is. It need not be deconstructed. If someone tries to pull the socratic method on you, my advice is punch them in the face, sicc your dogs on them and run away. They are the most dishonest lot.

By lightning88 — On Sep 02, 2010

So if what's listed above is the Socratic method, then what is Socratic logic?

By StreamFinder — On Sep 02, 2010

Can anyone tell me how to lead Socratic circles in a class of 25 students? Should I break the students into groups, or try to hold one big Socratic circle?

Does anyone have any experience with this? Thanks!

By rallenwriter — On Sep 02, 2010

I attended a classical high school where the Socratic questioning was used extensively in teaching, and I have to say, it really does open your mind up.

I think that one problem with Socratic dialog though, is that the teachers can sometimes become defensive if challenged too much. The Socratic learning method is called dialog for a reason, it's not called the "Socratic lecture method", so teachers, if you're going to do it, do it right.

Dialog is a two way street, and if you invite students to question you, you have to be ready to realize that you might not know everything about a subject.

I'm sure it can be scary to be questioned by a roomful of students, but if you want to get the best results in Socratic teaching, then that's what you have to do. So just keep an open mind, and know what you're getting in for.

By anon85207 — On May 19, 2010

socrates is basically the reason we are living the way we are today. without his questioning and making us think critically, we would still be living like ancients.

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