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Socratic questioning (or Socratic maieutics) was named after Socrates. He used an educational method that focused on discovering answers by asking questions from his students. According to Plato, who was one of his students, Socrates believed that "the disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine ideas and be able to determine the validity of those ideas". Plato described this rigorous method of teaching to explain that the teacher assumes an ignorant mindset in order to compel the student to assume the highest level of knowledge. Thus, a student has the ability to acknowledge contradictions, recreate inaccurate or unfinished ideas and critically determine necessary thought.
Socratic questioning is a form of disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we do not know, to follow out logical consequences of thought or to control discussions. Socratic questioning is based on the foundation that thinking has structured logic, and allows underlying thoughts to be questioned. The key to distinguishing Socratic questioning from questioning per se is that the former is systematic, disciplined, deep and usually focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues or problems.
Socratic questioning is referred to in teaching, and has gained currency as a concept in education, particularly in the past two decades. Teachers, students, or anyone interested in probing thinking at a deep level can construct Socratic questions and engage in them. Socratic questioning and its variants have also been extensively used in psychotherapy.
When teachers use Socratic questioning in teaching, their purpose may be to probe student thinking, to determine the extent of student knowledge on a given topic, issue or subject, to model Socratic questioning for students or to help students analyze a concept or line of reasoning. It is suggested that students should learn the discipline of Socratic questioning so that they begin to use it in reasoning through complex issues, in understanding and assessing the thinking of others and in following-out the implications of what they and others think. In fact, Socrates himself thought that questioning was the only defensible form of teaching.
In teaching, teachers can use Socratic questioning for at least two purposes:
Socratic questioning illuminates the importance of questioning in learning. This includes differentiating between systematic and fragmented thinking, while forcing individuals to understand the root of their knowledge and ideas. Educators who support the use of Socratic questioning in educational settings argue that it helps students become active and independent learners. Examples of Socratic questions that are used for students in educational settings: [unreliable source?]
The art of Socratic questioning is intimately connected with critical thinking because the art of questioning is important to excellence of thought. Socrates argued for the necessity of probing individual knowledge, and acknowledging what one may not know or understand. Critical thinking has the goal of reflective thinking that focuses on what should be believed or done about a topic. Socratic questioning adds another level of thought to critical thinking, by focusing on extracting depth, interest and assessing the truth or plausibility of thought. Socrates argued that a lack of knowledge is not bad, but students must strive to make known what they don't know through the means of a form of critical thinking.
Critical thinking and Socratic questioning both seek meaning and truth. Critical thinking provides the rational tools to monitor, assess, and perhaps reconstitute or re-direct our thinking and action. This is what educational reformer John Dewey described as reflective inquiry: "in which the thinker turns a subject over in the mind, giving it serious and consecutive consideration." Socratic questioning is an explicit focus on framing self-directed, disciplined questions to achieve that goal.
The technique of questioning or leading discussion is spontaneous, exploratory, and issue-specific. The Socratic educator listens to the viewpoints of the student and considers the alternative points of view. It is necessary to teach students to sift through all the information, form a connection to prior knowledge, and transform the data to new knowledge in a thoughtful way.
It has been proposed in different studies that the "level of thinking that occurs is influenced by the level of questions asked". Thus, utilizing the knowledge that students don't know stimulates their ability to ask more complex questions. This requires educators to create active learning environments that promote and value the role of critical thinking, mobilizing their ability to form complex thoughts and questions.
Socratic questioning has also been used in psychotherapy, most notably as a cognitive restructuring technique in classical Adlerian psychotherapy, logotherapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and logic-based therapy. The purpose is to help uncover the assumptions and evidence that underpin people's thoughts in respect of problems. A set of Socratic questions in cognitive therapy aim to deal with automatic thoughts that distress the patient:
Careful use of Socratic questioning enables a therapist to challenge recurring or isolated instances of a person's illogical thinking while maintaining an open position that respects the internal logic to even the most seemingly illogical thoughts.