Critical Thinking

Socratic Questioning 101

In my newfound love of Richard Paul’s excellent work on critical thinking, I bring you another short summary of some of his useful ideas in teaching: a taxonomy of Socratic questions. These can be very useful when thinking of what kinds of questions to ask students when you are trying to use the Socratic method in teaching.

As Paul points out, many teachers fail to apply this method well. Much like “critical thinking,” the “Socratic method” has become a buzzword in education that is often repeated but rarely used correctly. Many people think of Socratic questioning as “asking a lot of questions” without really analyzing the kinds of questions they are asking. After looking through Paul’s taxonomy, I realized my own teaching emphasized certain kinds of questions over others and I could really do better with this. Hopefully you may also find something useful here. (Note: Sometimes Paul give 6 categories of Socratic questions, and other times 9, I’m including the 9 categories with an asterisk on the original 6.)

Questions of Clarification*

These can help you to avoid strawmanning and misconstruing what a student means. Asking students to define words they are using in the context they are talking about or asking for examples are questions of clarification.

Questions About Purpose

My students rarely think about purpose, both the teacher’s purpose in designing a particular assignment and the student’s purpose in how they approach it. Asking them exactly what they are actually trying to achieve can be a revelation for both you and them.

Questions About the Question*

Making sure students actually understand the problem they are trying to solve is vital. One of the things students need to understand is what kind of a question they are being asked. Paul gives three broad categories: factual, preference, and judgement. Sometimes the question isn’t really the question, and we need students to look deeper to find the real issue at hand.

Questions About Perspectives*

Challenging students to look for their own biases is extremely difficult, but understanding that everyone holds their own ideological positions and the same situation can look completely different from different perspectives is necessary to function in a diverse environment.

Questions that Probe Assumptions*

Assumptions are another core challenge. Toulman’s idea of warrant is often very difficult to teach, but things we take as a given are often assumptions we are making that others do not necessarily share.

Questions that Probe Concepts

Sometimes students (and teachers) are operating on a false conception of something. Examining the basic logic and definitions of the concepts we are using can shed light on deeper misunderstandings that need to be corrected.

Questions that Probe Evidence*

Skeptics love evidence, but it’s often a more difficult topic than we realize. What level of evidence is acceptable to prove a certain point varies on a case by case basis, and people often disagree very strongly about where those lines are drawn. Asking students for counter-evidence or what it would take to change their mind could reveal how strong their foundation for belief is.

Questions that Probe Conclusions

One of the great hallmarks of pseudoscientific studies is that a conclusion doesn’t match a study’s results. When an acupuncture study find that “sham” acupuncture is as effective as “real” acupuncture, and then concludes that “acupuncture is so effective that it works even when it is fake” is a good example which shows that conclusions need to be examined carefully. Sometimes students add 2 + 2 and get 5 (metaphorically speaking).

Questions that Probe Consequences*

These questions are great for looking for logical fallacies. If a point is good logically, than the same logic should apply to other situations. If a student thinks “I can’t explain what that was, so it must be a ghost,” a teacher can question the consequences of that thinking by asking about other examples: “Does ‘I don’t know, therefore I do know,’ make sense logically? Why would it work here but not in other situations?”


The above information was largely summarized from “Deep Learning:” A Critical Thinking Resource, which was itself a summary of some of Paul’s work (which I also referred to in it’s original publications). The “Deep Learning” document lists its sources as follows:

SOURCES Adapted from: (1) Paul, Richard, and A. J. A. Binker. (1995). “Socratic questioning” (pp. 341, 343-344) AND (2) Paul, Richard. (1995). “The contribution of philosophy to thinking” (pp. 456-457). Both in Critical thinking: How to prepare students for a rapidly changing world (edited by Jane Willsen and A. J. A. Binker). Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

[SOURCES Adapted from: Paul, Richard, with Gerald M. Nosich. (1995). (1) “A model for the National assessment of higher order thinking” (pp. 124-126); (2) “Using intellectual standards to assess student reasoning” (pp. 153-156); both in Critical thinking: How to prepare students for a rapidly changing world (edited by Jane Willsen and A. J. A. Binker). Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking (pp. 153-156); and (3) Paul, Richard. (1996). “Helping students assess their thinking” in Critical thinking Workshop Handbook, Winter/Spring 1996. Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking (p. 3-10).]

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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