Using the Socratic Method
Rick Garlikov

Bryan Bloom, President of Deal Management Systems, Inc. came across "The Socratic Method: Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling" and wrote to ask me to explain further how to use the method.  In particular he sought a step-by-step recipe for generating the questions.  I cannot imagine such a recipe because each subject is very different and the background of each student or group of students may be very different from that of other students or groups.  Also, I thought I had explained it about as well as I could in the original article, but he wrote back saying that though I had given an example of its use in that paper, I had not explained it.  So I responded to that with the following e-mail, which he replied subsequently that he found very helpful.  I am posting it here in case others might also find it helpful. The italicized remarks following the brackets are from his e-mail:

> Rick - thanks for the reply.  Actually, you didn't explain it, but you did give an example.

I am going to quote a couple of passages that I considered to be an "explanation" though you might not have, and then I will try to elaborate on them a little.

> As it is called a "method" I am assuming that it can be coded and learned/taught somehow. 
> Maybe I  am incorrect.  However, the word method would indicate something repeatable and 
> identifiable.

Interesting.  Not sure.  It is very identifiable, but not easy to originate; perhaps like a composer's style in that regard.  You can identify Beethoven's works generally but not easily produce one as great because content is as important as style, and the content takes some expertise.  But since you have raised the issue, I am going to see whether I can come up with a generalized methodology of some sort for you.

>   How did you learn how to do it?

It sort of comes naturally to me because I learn by analyzing things.  Once you have analyzed something into its essential logical components, it is easy to see how to proceed, or lead someone else, from one to another.  And, especially if you have taken wrong paths and made errors in your analyzing the thing, it is real easy to notice when others are going down a wrong path, and to know what they need to focus on in order to bring them back to the right path.

Second, I read many of Plato's dialogues in which Socrates is portrayed as using the method in many different cases.  That was not particularly helpful at first, however, because the problems and comments in those dialogues do not make much sense to the modern reader who is not a philosopher and who is not aware of the signficance of the problems today; and while I recognized what Socrates was doing, the particulars did not make much sense because the questions and answers seemed bizarre or "tricky" instead of logical.

First, the following are the passages from the essay which I thought were explanatory:
"These are the four critical points about the questions: 1) they must be interesting or intriguing to the students; they must lead by 2) incremental and 3) logical steps (from the students' prior knowledge or understanding) in order to be readily answered and, at some point, seen to be evidence toward a conclusion, not just individual, isolated points; and 4) they must be designed to get the student to see particular points. You are essentially trying to get students to use their own logic and therefore see, by their own reflections on your questions, either the good new ideas or the obviously erroneous ideas that are the consequences of their established ideas, knowledge, or beliefs. Therefore you have to know or to be able to find out what the students' ideas and beliefs are. You cannot ask just any question or start just anywhere.

"It is crucial to understand the difference between 'logically' leading questions and 'psychologically' leading questions. Logically leading questions require understanding of the concepts and principles involved in
order to be answered correctly; psychologically leading questions can be answered by students' keying in on clues other than the logic of the content."

So let me give another example, this time from teaching the technical details of photography.

Lens' apertures and camera shutter speeds each are based on letting in either twice as much or half as much light depending on which direction one goes.  Not a particularly difficult concept once you see it, but the trick is getting people to see it and to appreciate what it signifies then.  So I start out by asking people if they were watering their garden for five minutes, at a constant hose pressure, how much water they put on their lawn.  The correct answer is that they don't know, if they were not measuring.  But the next question is, if they watered for 10 minutes at the same rate, how much more water they would put on in that 10 minutes compared with how much they put on in just five minutes.  The answer is "twice as much" -- even though they do not know HOW much that is in either case.  Then I show them, the aperture sizes of the lens -- the whole openings, and ask them which lets in more light, a big hole that I show them, or a small hole that I show them.  The big hole.  Then I show them, with the back of the camera open (no film, of course) which lets in more light: the shutter being open a long time or the shutter being open 1/1000 of a second.  Clearly the shutter's being open a long time lets in more light if the amount of light is contant throughout the time the shutter is open.

Then I explain that the amount of light by making the hole one size smaller lets in exactly half as much light.  And making the shutter stay open half as long does the same thing.  So you can decrease the light by half that hits the film EITHER by decreasing the aperture one amount or by increasing the shutter speed by one amount.

Then to test whether they understand the full force of that, I ask: what happens if you decrease the aperture by one amount and then increase the amount of time the shutter is open by doubling it; how much have you changed the amount of light that hits the film?  The answer should be that you basically have not changed it at all.

So, if different combinations of aperture and shutter speed do not change the exposure of the film, how do you decide which combination to use?  Or does it not matter?

They won't know that, but they see it now as a puzzling question, so you are half way there. 

Well, I can devise questions to get them to see how shutter speed works -- e.g., what if you take a picture of someone that takes 30 seconds to shoot, what is likely to happen? 

They can answer that.  The picture will be blurred because either the subject will move or you will shake the camera because you cannot hold it steady for that long [without a tripod].

But I have no questions I can ask about aperture, because most of them will have had very little experience with using different apertures for something, unless they are lens specialists.  The only likely experience many of them have, if they use bifocals, is that outside in the sunlight they probably won't need them, whereas in dim light, they particularly need them.  Sunlight narrows your pupils, and a narrower opening gives more depth in focus.  But that is not worth trying to ferret out of people by the Socratic method of asking leading questions and hoping they will have had the experience and be able to remember it, etc.

At any rate, in order to employ the Socratic method, you have to first know the logical sequence of steps from one point of knowledge to another.  That is not easy to begin with.

Second, you have to be able to recognize wrong answers and come up with a question so logically related to their answer that they see right away their answer was mistaken.  E.g., you ask someone "What do you want your newspaper ad to do?"   And they say "I want them to see we are having a sale."  Well, you have to know first that is NOT what they want their ad to do.  If that is all they wanted their ad to do, they could simply have the ad say "___ company is having a sale".  What they want is for the ad to get people to come to buy stuff.  The question is then how to get the ad to do that. Well, it will depend on the store; it will depend on what they have to entice customers with; it will depend on who their potential clientele is, etc.

The Socratic Method is easy, if you understand the logic of what you are explaining; it is impossible if you do not.

So, if you understand that logic, what you do is you ask questions to see how much your "student" understands first.   That way you know where to begin any explanations, Socratic or otherwise.

Once you know the starting place, you have to know what the "next" thing you want them to know is.

Then you have to come up with a question that leads them there.  It has to be a question that is specific enough to be helpful.  It is like playing charades, however, in that you will go down dead ends sometimes.  What seems like a really clever way to get a word across in "Charades" doesn't always work.

If the person gives a wrong answer, you have to decide whether there is any merit in showing them why that answer is wrong, or whether you just need to show them that it is.

I begin teaching my ethics course by asking students when it is right to break a date and why.  Well, they might come up with 15 different answers, and what they say may or may not prompt a response question in your mind. One time a girl said that she thought it right to break a date if the guy didn't own a car.  I said "So if Ralph Nader, who doesn't have a car, and, I think, doesn't even have a driver's license, showed up at your door with a helicopter and a qualified pilot and was going to fly you to Paris in a private jet, you think you should break the date?" She amended her requirement to her date's needing to have transportation. When I asked about public transportation, she added that she meant with regard to the rural area in which she lived at the time because without transportation there would be no way to get to anywhere interesting for a date that involved more than just being together.

Once, in the early 1970's, I had a whole class of kids say that you should break a date whenever you wanted to because honesty was always the best policy.  So I asked "What if it were for the prom, and the guy had rented a car and a tux, and just as he is walking up to your door, you decide you don't want to go?" or "What if the girl had bought an expensive dress and was really looking forward to going, etc., is it right to call her 15 minutes before and say 'forget it, I don't want to go'?"  Would that be right?  These kids all said "Yes, because honesty is the most important thing."  So then I asked "What if you honestly want to kill someone?  Would that make it right to do it?"  They all said "Yes, if you are willing to suffer the consequences."  I wasn't getting anywhere with this sort of line of questioning with these students.

So the next day I gave them a really terrible assignment that made them all angry.  Then I told them I lied and that they really didn't have that assignment.  That really made them angry.  And they wanted to know why I had tormented them.  I asked whether they thought it wrong for me to do it just because I wanted to.  They did think that wrong.  I reminded them of their own principle from the previous day.  They gave up that principle.

You have to know what the logical ramifications of their wrong answers are, especially where it leads that they are not likely to want to go.  Then all you have to do is to ask a question or to that uses their own logic to get them to a place they are unhappy with, and they will give up their wrong answers.

Then, to get them along the right paths, you have to know what experiences are likely to give them good insights, and focus your questions about those experiences or ideas.

There is a methodology to this, but it is so general when talking about any content or subject matter area, that it is almost impossible to describe in a specific step-by-step manner.  The questions you would ask about flying a plane are different from what you would ask for baking a cake but the general principals of what you are trying to do are the same.

Finally, it doesn't always work.  Socrates used to tick off people doing this; they thought he was mocking them by asking them stupid questions or tricking them into being confused because he was clever.  They brought him to trial, convicted him, and executed him.  While execution is not as much a potential problem today, the method still really irritates people when you (as it seems to them) "show them up" in subjects they think they are expert.  Illogical people do NOT like this method used "on" them; and they cannot see it as a method that is being used "with" them in order to help them.