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The Thinker’s Guide
to

By Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder

The Foundation for Critical Thinking

The Art of

Socratic
Questioning

A Companion to:
The Thinkers Guide to Analytic Thinking

The Art of Asking Essential Questions

Based on Critical Thinking Concepts & Tools

Proof 1 Proof 2 Proof 3 Proof 4 Proof 5
3/6/06 3/16/06 4/17/06 4/27/06

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Dear Reader,

It is hard to imagine someone being a good critical thinker while lacking the disposition
to question in a deep way. It is also hard to imagine someone acquiring the disposition
to question in a fuller way than Socrates. It follows that those truly interested in critical
thinking will also be interested in the art of deep questioning. And learning the Socratic
art is a natural place to start.

Of course, to learn from Socrates we must identify and practice applying the com-
ponents of his art. Without a sense of these components, it is hard to grasp the nature of
the questioning strategies that underlie the art of Socratic questioning. The art requires
contextualization. And in that contextualization, the spirit of Socratic questioning is more
important than the letter of it.

In this guide, we provide analyses of the components of Socratic questioning, along
with some contemporary examples of the method applied in elementary through high
school classes.

To get you started in practicing Socratic questioning, we begin with the nuts and bolts
of critical thinking (Part One), followed by some examples of Socratic dialogue (Part Two),
and then the mechanics of Socratic dialog (Part Three). The fourth and fifth sections focus
on the importance of questioning in teaching, the contribution of Socrates, and the link
between Socratic questioning and critical thinking.

As you begin to ask questions in the spirit of Socrates—to dig deeply into what people
believe and why they believe it—you will begin to experience greater command of your
own thinking as well as the thinking of others. Be patient with yourself and with your
students. Proficiency in Socratic questioning takes time, but time well worth spending.

We hope this guide is of use to you and your students in achieving greater command of
the art of deep questioning.

Richard Paul Linda Elder
Center for Critical Thinking Foundation For Critical Thinking

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© 2006 Foundation for Critical Thinking www.criticalthinking.org

The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning �

Contents
Introduction
Part One

A Taxonomy of Socratic Questions Based in Critical Thinking Concepts �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� 4
Questions that Target the Parts of Thinking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Questions that Target the Quality of Reasoning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
The Art of Socratic Questioning Checklist. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Four Directions in Which to Pursue Thought. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Three Kinds of Questions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Asking One-System, No-System, and Con�icting-System Questions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Questioning Questions: Identifying Prior Questions. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Asking Complex Interdisciplinary Questions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

Part Two
Socratic Questioning Transcripts �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� ��24

Exploring the Mind and How it Works (Elementary School) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
Helping Students Organize Their Thoughts for Writing (Middle School). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
Helping Students Think Deeply about Basic Ideas (High School) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Helping Students Think Seriously about Complex Social Issues (High School) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42

Part Three
The Mechanics of Socratic Questioning �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� ��48

Three Kinds of Socratic Discussion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48
Spontaneous or Unplanned �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� 48
Exploratory�� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� 49
Focused�� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� 50

Wondering Aloud About Truth and Meaning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54
Sources of Student Belief . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
General Guidelines for Socratic Questioning. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57

Part Four
The Role of Questions in Teaching, Thinking, and Learning �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� ��60

The Teacher as Questioner . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
Understanding Content as Interrelated Systems with Real-Life Connections . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61
Thinking Is Driven By Questions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62

Part Five
Socrates, the Socratic Method, and Critical Thinking �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� ��64

A De�nition of Socratic Questioning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 64
On Socrates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
The Intellectual Virtues as Displayed By Socrates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 66
The Systematic Nature of the Socratic Method . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
Placing the Dialectic Process at the Heart of Teaching . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
The Historical Contribution of Socrates . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69
The Concept of Critical Thinking. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69
What Critical Thinking Brings to Socratic Questioning. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70

Appendices
A—Patterns in Teaching that Incorporate Socratic Dialogue �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� ��72
B—Analyzed Transcript of a Socratic Dialogue from Plato’s Euthyphro �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� ��76
C—More On Socrates�� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� �� ��90

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© 2006 Foundation for Critical Thinking www.criticalthinking.org

�0 The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning

The Art of Socratic Questioning Checklist
The following list can be used to foster disciplined questioning on the part of students.
Students might take turns leading Socratic discussions in groups. During the process, some
students might be asked to observe the students leading the discussion, and then after-
wards provide feedback using the following guidelines (which all students should have a
copy of during the discussion).

� 1. � Did �the �questioner �respond �to �all �answers �with �a �further �question? �_____

Keeping Participants Focused on The Elements of Thought
� 1. � Did �the �questioner �make �the �goal �of �the �discussion �clear? �_____

(What is the goal of this discussion? What are we trying to accomplish?)

� 2. � Did �the �questioner �pursue �relevant �information? �_____
(What information are you basing that comment on? What experience

convinced you of this?)

� 3. � Did �the �questioner �question �inferences, interpretations, �and �conclusions �where �
appropriate �or �significant? �_____

(How did you reach that conclusion? Could you explain your reasoning? Is
there another possible interpretation?)

� 4. � Did �the �questioner �focus �on �key �ideas �or �concepts? _____
(What is the main idea you are putting forth? Could you explain that idea?)

� 5. � Did �the �questioner �note �questionable �assumptions? �_____
(What exactly are you taking for granted here? Why are you assuming that?)

� 6. � Did �the �questioner �question �implications �and �consequences? �_____
(What are you implying when you say…? Are you implying that…? If people

accepted your conclusion, and then acted upon it, what implications
might follow?)

� 7. � Did �the �questioner �call �attention �to �the �point of view inherent �in �various �
answers? �_____

(From what point of view are you looking at this? Is there another point of
view we should consider?)

� 8. � Did �the �questioner �keep �the �central �question �in �focus? �_____
(I am not sure exactly what question you are raising. Could you explain it?

Remember that the question we are dealing with is…)

� 9. � Did �the �questioner �call �for �a �clarification �of �context, when �necessary? �_____
(Tell us more about the situation that has given rise to this problem. What

was going on in this situation?)

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© 2006 Foundation for Critical Thinking www.criticalthinking.org

The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning ��

Keeping Participants Focused on Systems For Thought
� 1. � Did �the �questioner �distinguish �subjective �questions �from �factual �questions, �from �

those �requiring �reasoned �judgment �within �conflicting �viewpoints? �_____
(Is the question calling for a subjective or personal choice? If so, let’s make

that choice in terms of our personal preferences. Or, is there a way to come
up with a single correct answer to this question? Or, are we dealing with
a question that would be answered differently within different points
of view? If the latter, what is the best answer to the question, all things
considered?)

� 2. � Did �the �questioner �keep �the �participants �aware �of �alternative �ways �to �think �
about �the �problem? �_____

(Can you give me another way to think about this problem?)

Keeping Participants Focused on Standards For Thought
� 1. � Did �the �questioner �call �for �clarification, when �necessary? �_____

(Could you elaborate further on what you are saying? Could you give me an
example or illustration of your point? Let me tell you what I understand
you to be saying. Is my Interpretation correct?)

� 2. � Did �the �questioner �call �for �more �details �or �greater �precision, �when �
necessary? �_____

(Could you give us more details about that? Could you specify your
allegations more fully?)

� 3. � Did �the �questioner �keep �participants �sensitive �to �the �need �to �check �facts �and �
verify �the �accuracy �of �information? �_____

(How could we check that to see if it is true? How could we verify these
alleged facts?)

� 4. � Did �the �questioner �keep �participants �aware �of �the �need �to �stick �to �the �question �
on �the �floor; �to �make �sure �their �“answers” �were �relevant �to �the �question �being �
addressed �at �any �given �point? �_____

(I don’t see how what you said bears on the question. Could you explain what
you think the connection is?)

� 5. � Did �the �questioner �keep �participants �aware �of �the �complexities �in �the �question �
on �the �floor. �Did �the �questioner �ask �participants �to �think �deeply �about �deep �
issues? �_____

(What makes this a complex question? How does your answer take into
account the complexities in the question?)

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© 2006 Foundation for Critical Thinking www.criticalthinking.org

The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning ��

Opposing thoughts and objections:
How would you answer someone who said …? What might

these people say? How could someone else look at this? Why?
Why do you think your way of looking at it is better?

Support, reasons, evidence, and assumptions:
How do you know? Are you assuming that …? Is this a

good assumption? What evidence do you have? Why is that
relevant? How do you know your evidence is true? How are

you conceiving of, thinking about the issue? Why?

The origin
or source:

How did
you come to
believe that?

The implications
and consequences:

Are you implying
that …? If that’s

true, then what else
must by true? How
would we put that
into action? What

happens when you
act on that belief?

The belief,
statement, or

conclusion

This diagram, and the classifications implicit in it, helps accentuate the following
important facts about thinking.

• All thinking has a history in the lives of particular persons.

• All thinking depends upon a substructure of reasons, evidence, and assumptions.

• All thinking leads us in some direction or other (has implications and
consequences).

• All thinking stands in relation to other possible ways to think (there is never just one
way to think about something).

This classificatory scheme highlights four ways we can help students come to terms with
their thought:

• We can help students reflect on how they have come to think the way they do on a
given subject. (In doing this, we are helping them examine the history of their think-
ing on that subject, helping them find the source or origin of their thinking.)

• We can help students reflect on how they support or might support their thinking.
(In doing this, we are helping them express the reasons, evidence, and assumptions
that underlie what they think.)

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© 2006 Foundation for Critical Thinking www.criticalthinking.org

�� The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning

Part Two
Socratic Questioning Transcripts

In this section, we provide four sample transcripts of Socratic dialogues. Each discussion
focuses on helping students think critically about a concept or issue.

As you read through these transcripts, keep in mind the critical thinking concepts and
tools we introduced in the previous section. Note the “intellectual moves” being made at
each point in these dialogues—many of which we point out in parentheses.

Once you read through each of the transcripts—and we recommend that you read
them aloud and dramatize them by your mode of reading—hopefully, you will then be
motivated to read something of the history and theory of Socratic questioning in the next
three sections. However, remember, the theory behind Socratic questioning is important
only if it inspires you to learn how to question more systematically and deeply.

In short, Socratic questioning is a discussion:

1. led by a person who does nothing but ask questions,

2. that is systematic and disciplined (it is not a free-for-all),

3. wherein the leader directs the discussion by the questions he/she asks,

4. wherein everyone participating is helped to go beneath the surface of what is being
discussed, to probe into the complexities of one or more fundamental ideas or
questions.

As soon as you can, we suggest that you get some experience in leading a Socratic
discussion. Follow these initial rules:

1. Pass out a transcript of one of the Socratic discussions in this section to your stu-
dents. Dramatize the transcript by reading it aloud with your students. To do this,
assign students to read the “student” parts of the transcript. You read the part of the
teacher/questioner.

2. Make a list of questions that focus on a central idea you would like students to master
(See pages 51–54 for sample lists).

3. Tell your students you want to try out what is called Socratic questioning and that you
are just beginning, so you want them to help you in the process.

4. When leading a Socratic dialogue, tell your students that by the rules of Socratic
questioning you are allowed only to ask questions. You are not allowed to answer any
questions, except by asking another question.

5. Tell students that their job is to attempt to answer the questions you ask.

6. Think aloud as you lead the discussion. Don’t rush. Base each of your questions on the
answer given by the last student.

7. Take seriously every answer that is given. Make sure it is clarified so that everyone in
class understands it.

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© 2006 Foundation for Critical Thinking www.criticalthinking.org

�� The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning

Transcript Four
Helping Students Think Seriously about

Complex Social Issues
(High School)

In the following discussion, Rodger Halstad, Homested High School Social Studies teacher,
Socratically questions students about their views on the Middle East. He links up the issue
with the holocaust during WWII and, ultimately, with the problem of how to correct one
injustice without committing another.

T: I thought what we’d do now is to talk a little about the Middle East.
Remember we saw a film, “Let My People Go,” which depicted some of
the things that happened in the death-camps of Nazi Germany during
World War II. Remember that? It’s pretty hard to forget. Who do you hold
responsible for what happened to the Jewish people during the holocaust,
the Nazi holocaust of the 1940s and the late 1930s? Who do you hold
responsible for that? (Seeking Logical Conclusions)

S: Everyone. Um…

T: What do you mean, “everyone?” (Questioning for Clarification)
S: It started in Germany. My first thought goes to Hitler; then it goes to the

German people that allowed him to take control without seeing what he was
doing before it was too late.

T: Would you punish all Germans? No? OK, then who would you punish?
S: Hitler.

T: OK. I think probably we’d all agree to that. Anyone else?
S: Probably his five top men. I…I’m not sure…there are a lot of Nazis out

there.

T: Well, are you sure everyone was a member of the Nazi party? (Questioning
Assumptions)

S: Well, not all Germans were…um…

T: Do you want to think about it?
S: Yeah.

T: How about somebody else? First of all, we all agree that somebody should
have been punished, right? All right, these are not acts that should have
gone unpunished. (Questioning for Clarification)

S: Well, it’d be kind of hard, but, like, I think that every soldier or whatever,
whoever took a life, theirs should be taken.

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© 2006 Foundation for Critical Thinking www.criticalthinking.org

The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning ��

T: Every Nazi soldier who was in the camps? (Questioning for Clarification)
S: Everyone who had something to do with what happened.

T: Everyone who had something to do with the killing of the people in the
camps. The Jews, the gypsies, the opponents of Hitler, all those people. All
the millions killed. Anybody that played a direct role. You would punish
them. What if we had a corporal here, and the corporal said, “I only did
this because I was ordered to do it. And if I didn’t do it, my family was
going to be injured, or something bad was going to happen to my family.”
Are you going to punish that corporal? (Exploring Ethical Implications)

S: Well, I guess…well, I mean they still took a life, you know, but they were just
following the rules. But I mean, you know, if you take a life…

T: What if they didn’t take a life? What if they just tortured somebody?
S: Then they, they should be tortured in the same way.

T: So you say anybody who was directly responsible for any injury, torture,
murder, whatever in the camps; they themselves should get a similar kind
of punishment. What about the people who were in the bureaucracy of the
German government who set up the trains and the time schedule of the
trains? What about the engineer on the train?

S: Well, yeah, I guess…

T: All those people?
S: Yeah, because if you think about it, if they hadn’t of done that, they couldn’t

have gotten the people there.

T: OK, and what about the people standing on the streets while the Jews got in
the trucks?

S: No, I think that’s going a little too far.

T: OK, so anybody who participates in any way in the arrest, the carrying out of
all these activities, including even people who, ah…what about people who
typed up the memos?

S: Yeah, I guess

T: No, says Manual. Why no?
S: Like, for example, if they’re put under a lot of pressure. Like, ah, we’re

going to kill your family, we’re going to hurt your family, put them in a
concentration camp too.

T: Yes. Yes?
S: It, it’s just total…you just can’t hold them responsible because their family…

it’s just like, ah…the next, the closest thing to them, and you can’t just say
you have to punish them because I don’t think they did it on purpose. They

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