What is Socratic Dialogue in the Classroom?

“Socratic dialogue” is a term that is usually associated with a pedagogy in which a teacher asks his/her students deeply probing questions about the material being considered in a classroom.   The teacher does not provide answers for students; he/she answers students’ questions with more questions, encouraging the   learners to delve deeply into the material and search for the answers themselves. This pedagogy can be used in any discipline with and with any age group. It stems from the work of Socrates, who believed that knowledge that “wisdom begins in wonder” and that “education is the kindling of a flame, not the lighting of a vessel.”  While this pedagogy is not a teacher directed approach per se, it remains a teacher facilitated approach to learning.

I have used the Socratic Method in my classroom for the past 30 years, and I have become convinced that we can need to create learning environments   which deepens student voice and encourage young people to be more active participants in their own learning. We must align classroom practice with recent  research in brain  science that indicates that students learn best if they are actively engaged with the material- i.e., “the one that does the  work, does the learning.“ As Justin Tarte has observed, “The most engaged classrooms aren’t where teachers are asking good questions, they are the classrooms where the kids are asking good questions.”

Learner voice gives learners a chance to share their opinions about something they believe in. There are so many aspects of “school” and “learning” where learners have not been given the opportunity to be active participants. Some learners, especially those that are concerned about extrinsic factors like grades, may not feel comfortable expressing their own opinions. Giving learners voice encourages them to participate in and eventually to own and drive their learning. This means a complete shift from the traditional approach of teaching compliance that develops a “learned helplessness” to encouraging voice where there is authenticity in the learning. (http://www.personalizelearning.com/2015/10/learner-voice-demonstrates-commitment.html)

As we work to transform schools, we must begin to shift classroom practice from methodologies that are teacher-directed to practices that are teacher-facilitated to instructional approaches where students drive the conversations in the classroom and ask the essential questions.  The “Harkness approach“ is the term given to an approach in which students work as a learning community wrestle with materials,  exercise their voices and collaborate to make meaning curriculum materials- whether that  be a  primary source text,   a science experiment or a math problem.    The role of the teacher is redefined to be that of a curriculum planner and in the classroom, a co-learner. The role of the student is equally redefined to be an active participant in class discussions and to engage with peers to create meaning from materials.

This pedagogy moves classroom instruction one step further towards student centered learning on Barbara Bray’s Continuum of Engagement:



Similarly, the Harkness approach also encourages student voice and shifts the focus of the classroom to more Learner Driven Instruction as outlined in Bray’s Continuum of Voice:


( http://www.personalizelearning.com/2016/01/continuum-of-voice-what-it-means-for.html)

Socratic dialogue, specifically the Harkness approach, places students at the center of the educational process; it fundamentally shifts the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship and places ownership and initiative for learning on the student. “It reduces the impact of misconception, aids students in organizing knowledge, cultivates higher order thinking skills, and helps students to direct and monitor their own learning” (Lam, 2011).

School transformation must begin in the classroom, on a daily basis. We must undo what previous schooling has done to inhibit curiosity and the creative thinking of students. “If we want to engage students in thinking through our content we must stimulate their thinking with questions that lead them to further questions. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called “artificial cogitation” (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration)” (Paul, Martin, Adamson, 1989).  Shifting classroom practice is the way to begin.

Perhaps most importantly, this pedagogy promotes critical thinking skills, active listening and the ability to advocate for one’s own perspective while appreciating the interests of others. It encourages community and collaboration. It provides students with a model for civil discourse, which is noticeably absent in our world today. When our candidates for public office model shaming, blaming  and the inability to listen to one other, the  work in our classrooms is more important than ever if our democracy is to survive.



Kathy Cadwell, 2016 Cohort

At Harwood Union High School Kathy works with students, faculty and administration to integrate Socratic dialogue into the fabric of her school, beginning in the ninth grade Core, the Advisory program, and the Personal and Future Explorations class (PFE) where students conceptualize their Personalized Learning Plans.
To read more about Kathy’s work with Socratic dialog at Harwood UHS make sure to visit her site Socratic Dialogue in the Classroom.
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