Unit Two: Socratic Discussions in Theory


Socratic Discussions in Theory

Target Objectives

1. Users of this course will understand the basic components and principles of a Socratic Discussion after seeing examples of this tool in use and participating in one.

2. Users of this course will evaluate the effectiveness of a Socratic Discussion and be able to demonstrate its use to engage students in class discussion, with long-term impacts on reading, writing, and speaking skills.

Unit Objectives

·Demonstrate an understanding of “good” vs. “bad” open-ended discussion questions

·Create an evaluation tool for a lesson using a Socratic Discussion

Lesson One: Importance and Use in the ELA Classroom

In classrooms that are so heavily dominated by the Common Core, it can be a struggle to include new and fun ideas into the ELA classroom. A Socratic Discussion helps you to meet several Common Core standards about speaking and can help you to meet some of the critical thinking and analysis standards that are so important when it comes to testing. Using this tool can take some of the pressure off of the teacher and allow the students to explore and analyze their own ideas and the ideas of their classmates with guided questioning.

Many of the questions you, as the teacher, want the students to answer from an analytical viewpoint fall upon deaf ears when asked in a traditional classroom setting. The main strength of using a Socratic Discussion is that it allows students to formulate thoughts and ideas about the question before answering. They are given time to reflect upon the responses of their peers and can write down notes about what was said and be able to recall pertinent ideas to further the discussion.

Questions for Personal and Professional Reflection

1. Do you remember the last discussion you led about a literary text in your ELA classroom? How well did the discussion go? What do you think were the strengths and weaknesses of the way that the discussion was led?

2. How could these same discussion questions lead to further analysis and understanding when done in a Socratic Discussion format?


1. If you are currently teaching a novel (or any other type of literary work), ask students open-ended questions in the way you would normally lead a class discussion. Record student participation and response. The next class period, introduce the Socratic Discussion format and have students respond to one pre-determined open-ended question asked and discussed in the previous class. Use observer evaluations (see Lesson 3) to compare participation and student response to the question. Reflect upon the differences with the same analysis content. What were the strengths and weaknesses of each approach? What could you do to improve upon this in the future?

Lesson Two: Good vs. Bad

When creating or facilitating a Socratic Discussion, it is important to begin the discussion with open-ended questions. As ELA teachers, or future ELA teachers, most of us are aware that we will only get simple “yes” or “no” responses when we ask students Yes or No questions. Students do not often elaborate or achieve higher thinking levels if we are not prompting them to do so with our questioning.

In general, a “bad” discussion question is one that does not illicit student response. This can be questions that have “yes” or “no” answers.

Ex. Did you like To Kill a Mockingbird?

After finishing Of Mice and Men, do you think George made the right decision?

Questions that have “either…….or……” answers.

Ex. Who was your favorite character in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Billingsley or Mr. Darcy

Who would you defend, Caesar or Brutus?

“Good” discussion questions are those that inspire and provoke critical thinking. Often these questions cannot be answered without giving the students time for thought and reflection. As teachers on strict time constraints, we want to progress the flow of the classroom. We ask students to perform activities and skills or to answer questions that require higher thinking levels that may not necessarily be immediate responses for students. One of the key strengths of success in a Socratic Discussion is allotting time before the discussion begins for students to reflect on the question and record some of their own thoughts for reference as they begin responding to the question and to their peers. Good discussion questions should promote higher-level thinking and require complexity of answers. Students should not be able to restate parts of the question as their answer (Ex. “Mr. Darcy was my favorite character.”) Additional information should be required in response to a good discussion question.

This link provides a basic framework for creating good questions for a Socratic Discussion. This list was complied from The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning. [1]


Lesson Three: Evaluating the Socratic Discussion

Students should be given written guidelines prior to the Socratic Discussion. The teacher should outline expectations, as should be done with any lesson where students will be participating in an unfamiliar activity.

Socratic Discussions may be done two different ways: 1. (formal) With participants and observers actively taking notes about what is said for further evaluation, and 2. (informal) as a whole-group discussion without a formal evaluation of the discussion.

When Socratic Discussions are done in an informal setting, it is up to the teacher to create an evaluation. This can be done as simply as a mental evaluation of how well the discussion went and how in-depth students went into the text, or as complexly as keeping track of how many times each student participated and keeping a record of what was said.

If a Socratic Discussion is done in a formal setting instructions should be given to observers on how they are to evaluate their peers. A Socratic Discussion can be used to evaluate content, participation, and even speaking. Depending on the purpose or focus of the lesson, each Socratic Discussion lesson could have a different type of evaluation. However, it is essential that the observers know what their responsibilities are and what they should be looking for from their peers. In most cases, the class would be divided in half with each student given a partner. One student would be involved in the discussion and their partner would be the observer. The observing partner should be given a written list of things to observe about their partner. This will serve as a participation evaluation so the teacher does not need to keep track of all of this on their own for every student, as well as a personal evaluation of skills for the partner being observed.

There is an extensive list of the kinds of things that could be on this evaluation. For basic reference and for ideas of an outline please see “The Art of Socratic Questioning Checklist” on pgs. 10-11 from the following link: [1]



1. Create a list of open-ended questions based upon the text you are currently teaching, or text for an upcoming unit. (For future teachers, chose a text that you would like to teach).

2. Show your list to a colleague and ask for advice upon how to improve your open-ended questions for further discussion. For a different viewpoint, consult with a colleague who teachers a different content subject. They may have found a positive way to generate discussion by asking certain types of questions with the same group of students in your classroom. Their insight may be just as beneficial (if not more beneficial) than the insight of another ELA teacher.


[1] Paul, Richard, and Linda Elder. The Thinker's Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2006. Print.