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Teaching By Asking: How to Use The Socratic Method and Why

Gary Cheetham 0

Children are always naturally curious. It’s their one defining and uniting quality, and what makes their developing minds such miraculous sponges for new information. They come into this world with an innate desire to question everything, even those unquestionable facts which adults agree on by unspoken consensus. Any parent who’s been on the receiving end of “Mom, why is the sky blue?” on a long car journey knows that curiosity is among a child’s most precious (and sometimes most infuriating) gifts.

In schools and colleges across the country, the unquestioned consensus is to teach by showing. Kids sit in neat rows. They get told the who, what, where, when, and why by the adult at the front. They then are expected to memorise it by rote, ready for the final performance of regurgitating it on command in an exam environment at the end of the year. In all, perhaps the most effective system for the industrialised stamping out of nature’s curiosity ever devised in the history of mankind.

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But a child’s innate curiosity is the most powerful tool for learning, far more powerful to them than any individual teacher, increased education budget or incumbent official. We should be letting children experience the thrill of discovery for themselves, sparking the creative fire in their hearts, and ultimately ensuring their passion for learning into adulthood. For all this, the savvy parent or tutor should look no further than the Socratic Method.

The Socratic method, also known as elenchus, is an ancient form of philosophical reasoning championed by the famous Greek thinker Socrates. Its central tenet for educators is to stimulate critical thinking with carefully positioned questions, leading somebody into a greater understanding, with the care and attention of a parent supervising a toddler taking their first steps.


The Alabama-based philosopher Rick Garlikov gives a compelling example of the Socratic Method in his essay, “Teaching By Asking Instead Of Telling”[1]. As the premise for his experiment, he attempts to teach the difficult binary number system used by computers to a group of third graders using only questions. He was told ahead of time by two teachers that “only a few of the students” would understand the concepts he was presenting. By the end of the class, 19 out of 22 children understood how to use binary numbers. His class serves as a lesson to educators everywhere that the Socratic method should be taken seriously in the classroom.

So how can we best incorporate the Socratic method into our daily interactions with children? It’s a question of phrasing, and of phrasing your statements as questions. My bet is, you’re already doing it! How many times has your child defied you with a staunch “Why not?”, to which you’ve replied, “Well what would happen if you did that? ….”. It’s an instinctive way to deal with a child who wants to, say, go down the slide backwards, or some other clearly dangerous activity. It leads them to draw their own conclusion about why you’re ruining their supposed fun: because it’s obviously a terrible idea and they would get hurt if they did it.

A good time to test it out is to wait until the child asks a question, then lead them on with another question instead of answering outright. And that’s the beauty of the Socratic Method, it isn’t only effective, it’s subversive. It teaches kids to think for themselves. And god forbid we ever end up with a generation who can do that.


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