Teaching strategies: Dialogic questions

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in February 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

Dialogic Questioning

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” – Socrates

Learning by teaching…

In my recent article on teacher explanations and modelling, I argued that explanations should be pitched in what Lev Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development”.

In other words, they should be differentiated so that they are challenging and yet accessible to all students.

And in my article about hinge questions, I explored one way of locating a student’s zone of proximal development – or “sweet spot” as Robert Bjork calls it: the humble hinge question.

A hinge question is a multiple-choice question which acts as a diagnostic assessment tool. All the students in a class show their response to a hinge question simultaneously – perhaps using cue cards or mini-whiteboards – and the teacher assesses their understanding before deciding whether to move on or recap.

However, before students show their responses, I said, the teacher needs to set a pass rate for what they consider to be an acceptable level of “mastery”. For example, a teacher might decide they will move on to the next topic if in excess of 80 per cent of students answer the hinge question correctly.

Of course, the teacher will then need to consider how they will support the 20 per cent who got the question wrong.

For example, the teacher could set a task for the 80 per cent to do independently or in groups while working with the 20 per cent.

Or perhaps the teacher could enlist some of the 80 per cent as peer-teachers to explain the topic to the other 20 per cent. This notion of students acting as teachers is proven to be extremely effective, not just for the student being taught but also for the student doing the teaching.

Peer-teaching works on the basis that only once you have taught something have you truly learned it.

Learning by teaching is an effective strategy because, by teaching, students gain feedback and make better sense of a topic.

Learning by teaching is also effective because it is a form of learning by doing, of practising, and thus addresses the want and the need to learn. See my article on the conditions of learning for more (Creating the conditions for learning, SecEd, November 2016: http://bit.ly/2ksfRGj).

Also, research shows that students tend to achieve more in cooperative learning settings whereby they have to explain things to other students, as well as themselves. But why should this be? Well, one reason is that cooperative learning affords opportunities for students to gather feedback from their peers about correct as well as incorrect responses, and this increases their motivation and their capacity to learn.

Cooperative learning is also a useful means of helping less able students because it provides them with additional direct instruction from a fellow novice who is often better equipped to explain things in a way that makes sense.

It’s good to talk…

Peer-teaching or cooperative learning, whatever you wish to call it, is a form of dialogic teaching because it involves classroom discussion.

As I said in my article on hinge questions, there are only two valid reasons for asking a question in class: either to provide information to the teacher about what to do next, or to cause students to think.

Hinge questions accomplished the former, dialogic questions achieve the latter.

Dialogic questions are questions that encourage discussion, questions that are open, philosophical, and challenging. Dialogic questions – such as Socratic questions – don’t just cause thinking, they promote critical thinking.

Critical thinking provides students with the tools they need to be able to monitor, assess and reconstitute their thoughts and actions. Critical thinking also provides students with a powerful inner voice for reasoning.

If it can be said that the act of thinking has three possible functions – to express a subjective preference, to establish an objective fact, or to formulate the best solution to a problem from various competing points of view – then critical thinking enables students to determine which of these three functions a question requires, and then to come to a conclusion.

John Dewey described critical thinking as a process “in which the thinker turns a subject over in the mind, giving it serious and consecutive consideration”.

Open questions which cause students to think are well known to be effective teaching strategies – as Socrates said, “questioning is the only defensible form of teaching”. Indeed, the very term “education” comes from the Latin “ex duco” which means “to lead out” because Socrates and his contemporaries taught by asking questions in order “to lead out” answers from their students.

It is also well known that thinking is driven, not by answers, but by questions. And we might go as far as to argue that every intellectual field is born of questions to which answers are either required or else desired.

Professor Robert Coe says that “learning happens when people have to think hard”, and big, open, philosophical questions – when skilfully managed – can certainly accomplish that aim.

Socratic questions

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel” – Socrates

Dialogic teaching strategies, then, make use of the power of talk in order to stimulate and extend students’ thinking, as well as to advance their learning and understanding.

Dialogic teaching enables the teacher to diagnose and assess students’ understandings and misunderstandings through speaking and listening, and questioning.

Dialogic teaching is collective because teachers and students address learning tasks together, whether as a group or as a whole class; it is reciprocal because teachers and students listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative points of view; it is supportive because students articulate their ideas without the fear of failure and help each other to reach a common understanding; it is cumulative because teachers and students build on their own and each others’ ideas and connect them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry; and it is purposeful because teachers plan and steer classroom talk with specific educational goals in view.

As I say above, one popular dialogic technique is the use of Socratic questions which challenge, deepen and polish students’ understandings. Socratic questioning can be used to:

– Control a discussion.
– Explore more complex ideas.
– Uncover assumptions.
– Analyse concepts and ideas.
– Distinguish between what students know and do not know.

Broadly speaking, Socratic questioning performs two functions in the classroom:

– To deeply probe student thinking, to help students begin to distinguish what they know or understand from what they do not know or understand.
– To foster students’ abilities to ask Socratic questions and to help students acquire the powerful tools of Socratic dialogue so that they can use these tools in everyday life (in questioning themselves and others).

The six Socratic questions

“There is only one good: knowledge, and one evil: ignorance.” – Socrates

There are six types of Socratic question which should be used in order. They are as follows:

1 Conceptual clarification questions

The first type of Socratic question is used in order to get students to clarify their thinking. These questions might be:

“Why do you say that?”
“What exactly does this mean?”
“Could you explain that further?”
“What do we already know about that?”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Are you saying … or … ?”
“Can you rephrase that, please?”

2 Probing assumptions questions

The second type of Socratic question is used in order to challenge students about their pre-existing assumptions, and to make them think about their hitherto unquestioned beliefs. This might include the following questions:

“Is that always the case?”
“Why do you think that assumption holds here?”
“Please explain why/how … ?”
“How can you verify/disprove that assumption?”
“What would happen if … ?”
“Do you agree or disagree with … ?”

3 Probing rationale, reasons and evidence questions

The third type of Socratic question is used in order to uncover – and interrogate – the evidence or reasoning upon which students base their argument. In practice, a teacher might ask:

“Why do you say that?”
“Is there reason to doubt the evidence?”
“How do you know this?”
“Show me … ?”
“Can you give me an example of that?”
“Are those reasons good enough?”
“How might it be refuted?”

4 Questioning viewpoints/perspectives questions

The fourth type of Socratic question is used in order to explore alternative points of view and, importantly, to show students that there are other, equally valid viewpoints. This might include asking the following questions:

“What is the counter-argument?”
“Can anyone see this another way?”
“What is the difference between … and …?”
“Why is it better than …?”
“What are the strengths and weaknesses of …?”
“How are … and … similar?”
“How could you look another way at this?”

5 Probing implications and consequences questions

The fifth type of Socratic question is used in order to explore the implications and consequences of an argument, and to consider whether the argument makes sense and if its consequences are desirable. In practice, this might include the following questions:

“But if … happened, what else would then result?”
“How does … affect …. ?”
“What are the implications of … ?”
“How does … fit with what we learned before?”
“Why is … important?”
“What is the best … ? Why?”

6 Questioning the question questions (if you see what I mean).

The sixth and final type of Socratic question is used in order to question the initial question. This involves students in understanding why the teacher asked the question he/she did and perhaps proposing alternative questions. For example, the teacher might ask:

“Why do you think that I asked that question?”
“Why was that question important?”
“Am I making sense? Why not?”
“What else might I ask?”
“What does that mean?”

Using the six questions

Ideally, all six questions should be asked of the same student as a follow-up to the initial “big question”. In other words, the teacher asks a question to which the student offers their initial response. Then the teacher drills down and interrogates the student’s response by asking the six Socratic questions in order. While one student is being interrogated, the rest of the class should observe and, at the end, offer comments or be questioned themselves.

However, this isn’t always feasible or desirable and so the six Socratic questions can instead be asked of six or more different students or be used to frame every student’s written response. In fact, the six Socratic questions can act as extremely useful writing prompts to ensure students’ essays are balanced, detailed and considered. In the next part of this series we will remain on the topic of dialogic questions and we will explore the role of the teacher during Socratic discussions and also look at how to use Socratic seminars as a means of analysing a text.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


One response to “Teaching strategies: Dialogic questions

  1. Pingback: Teaching strategies: Socratic questions | Bromley Education | be inspired·

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