Answering Questions

The Socratic Method and Socratic Questions trace their lineage to the Greek teacher Socrates. Over the years much academic work has evaluated and categorized Socratic questions. The most prevalent categorization of Socratic Questions are six categories defined by Dr. R.W. Paul. The six categories are:

  1. Questions That Probe Concepts – These type of questions help learners to clarify and go deeper into the question they are asking. The teacher uses questions to get the learner to tell more to help expose the process and data used to reach a conclusion.
  2. Questions about the Question – These type of questions reflect questions back to the learner by asking them to test why they are asking the specific question or the question at this specific point in time.
  3. Questions That Probe Implications and Consequences – The types of questions get the learner to highlight and evaluate the logical implications of their ideas. 
  4. Questions about Viewpoints or Perspectives – The questions ask the learner to consider other viewpoints. These questions help the learner to shift perspectives to consider the problem from a different angle.
  5. Questions That Probe Information, Reasons, Evidence, and Causes – These questions to get the learner to probe the underlying facts and the logical basis and rationale of their arguments. 
  6. Questions That Probe Assumptions – Challenge assumptions and supports an argument rather than assuming them as given. As a process improvement coach, many of the greatest gains are found when clients challenge their most closely held beliefs.

Some sources, including The Foundation For Critical Thinking, augment Paul’s six with three more categories.

  1. Questions That Probe Inferences and Interpretations – These types of questions focus on the learner to probe emerging conclusions.
  2. Questions That Probe Purpose – These questions help the learner to understand the justification question and role of the question in the learning process.
  3. Questions of Clarification – This type of question asks the learner to understand and share more information about the questions they are asking.

One of the most important concepts to remember when engaging in a Socratic Dialog (the mechanism for using Socratic Questions) is that a full dialog will require combining multiple categories in one conversation.  A teacher might start with questions of purpose then probe assumptions, concepts, and inferences. The goal of the person guiding the Socratic Dialog is to help the learner challenge and synthesize information so they can develop insights.  

There are several excellent lists of questions for each category on the internet.  Most of the questions are for using Socratic Questions in a classroom scenario. For example Gene Hughson, Form Follows Function Blog and columnist on the Software Process and Measurement Cast,  when asked about why using Socratic Questions important describe using it when he was a trainer in a sheriff’s office: 

It was critical that the students were beyond the memorize and regurgitate level of understanding, so I used questions a lot to make sure that they had the concepts down and could apply them. 

Every leader and coach I have discussed the topic of Socratic Questions with are actively using this technique. Jeremy Berriault, QA Corner and columnist on the Software Process and Measurement Cast, in his role as leader and manager summarized why he uses the technique in the statement:

Mostly to help them get the answer and understand it on their own. I never tell them the answer or direct them explicitly. I find when I use this method they don’t come back with the same issue or problem.

In our next post in this theme, we will dive into an example of using a Socratic Dialog as an agile coach.


Socratic Questions 

Types of Socratic Questions – today

Using Socratic Questions  – next