Socrates played the role of both student and teacher as he engaged in questioning others to develop his personal morality. This unique role is a critical consideration in the modern Socratic discussion because it adds importance to the question. Both the teacher and the students use questioning to drive the learning experience in the Socratic classroom.
Student questions may occur in one of two ways:
- Prepared in advance
- Developed during the discussion
Often, students will be asked to complete a reading assignment and develop a list of questions for use during the Socratic discussion. Students may be asked to write down questions that they would like answers to, or that they believe will contribute to a broader discussion. Potential questions may be designed to ask for clarification on a point in reading. Or they may be constructed to connect the text or subject to a broader theme or topic.
When students are asked to develop questions themselves, the first stage of the learning occurs as they try to synthesize information in a way that they can ask cogent questions. Asking these questions of their classmates guides students to a more in-depth understanding of their ideas on a topic.
For example, if an English course is using the Socratic method, students may develop questions about the development of a character over the course of a novel. Then, as the socratic questions are discussed during class, observations from peers may lead to a discussion about author technique in characterization. As students question each other on author technique, they may come to a deeper realization about the theme of the novel.
Listening to Answers
The key to this type of realization is to allow the questions to guide the discussion. Of course, listening to answers is essential to continuing the development of questions.
As students participate in the Socratic seminar, they may develop new opinions or questions about the subject based on the questions posed by the teacher. In listening to their classmates, students may also begin to consider elements of a topic they had not thought of by reading or through previous instruction from the teacher. It is essential that each student listens to all the questions provided by the teacher and from their classmates as the discussion unfolds.
Asking for Clarification
In listening and reacting to new information, students may decide they need clarification on a specific element of the discussion. Asking for clarification may also cause the original speaker to reconsider their own opinions and assumptions, which furthers the discussion and helps all students continue to develop their personal beliefs. The key, of course, is not to answer every question with a question, but it is important that each participant note any information that is confusing, needs further clarification, or contradicts previous information.
Engaging in a vibrant back and forth discussion is the goal of the Socratic classroom, and much of that discussion is developed through the questions created by the students. The teacher provides a foundation and may guide the dialogue to ensure that students reach a conclusion, but, ultimately, the richness of the discussion comes from the spontaneous questions developed by students as a means of furthering their understanding.