The Socratic Method: Teaching children through guided inquiry

Socrates’ method of discussion involved asking so-called experts a series of questions to show that they didn’t know anything. When teaching science to children, I often employ a similar but reversed version of this method: By asking a series of questions, I help guide students to knowledge they didn’t know they already had. Children can access a great wealth of knowledge simply by applying inferences and simple logic to what they already know.

Young girl talking to old man

Examples of the Socratic Teaching Method

The weather is a complex topic that many children have trouble understanding. But after learning only a few basic principles, they can figure out a lot for themselves with the right guidance.

Take this this question: “If you stand on a beach in the afternoon, will the wind blow from the land to the sea, or from the sea to the land?” Using only a few pieces of information about temperature and pressure, students can find the answer, even if they’ve never been to the beach. At the end of the post, you can find an example of how this conversation might go.

I use this method when teaching high-school physics, too. Instead of providing students with complex formulas, I show them how these formulas could be derived from the simple formulas they already know. This teaches the students that they knew the complex formulas all along - they just didn’t know it!

Young girl learning formulas

There is a downside to the Socratic teaching method: It’s slow. In the physics example, I could have covered more material if I had just given the students the formulas. So, what are the upsides?

  1. The Socratic method improves understanding. When I used to teach students about the weather by simply giving them all the information, they were terribly confused. With the Socratic method, students cannot move onto the next question until the previous one has been answered and understood. This ensures that there is understanding every step along the way.

  2. The Socratic method improves retention. The students must embark on a journey to discover the information, which makes the revelation at the end of the journey more memorable. Even if they forget something that they learned later, they can go through the thought process to figure it out again on their own. This leads me to the third and most important benefit.

  3. The Socratic method teaches kids how to figure out things on their own. This is a crucial problem-solving skill that children can apply to many areas of their lives.

How to Apply the Socratic Teaching Method

The method is great when a child asks what a word means. For example, I recently had a student ask me what “unmapped” means. I started off with, “What’s a map?” and we moved from there.

This works with more technical words, too. Just the other day, a couple science students were able to infer the meanings of “homozygous” and “heterozygous” genotypes by combining what they’d already learned about genetics and knowledge of the prefixes homo- and hetero-.

Children can also use common sense to answer some questions. I was recently teaching a young girl about internal vs. external development of embryos. Instead of telling her the advantage of internal development, I asked her to take a guess. Applying just a bit of common sense, she easily figured out, all by herself, that internal development keeps the embryo safer.

Pregnant woman with two children

When teaching things related to the atmosphere and weather, which is a relatively challenging topic, I need to use much more guided questions. Here’s an example:

Question: If you stand on a beach in the afternoon, will the wind blow from the land to the sea, or from the sea to the land? Assume they can't answer using first-hand experience.

Background knowledge:

  1. Water changes temperature more slowly than land.
  2. Warm air is less dense (and has lower pressure) than cool air.
  3. Air moves from high to low pressure.

NOTE: These points don't need to be given as facts; students can come to these conclusions through the Socratic method using even more fundamental knowledge. However, for the sake of brevity, I will start here.

Teacher: During the day, when the sun is shining on the land, will the land or the sea heat up faster?
Student: The land.
Teacher: So does the air over the land become cooler or warmer than the air over the sea?
Student: Warmer.
Teacher: As it warms, does the air over the land become more or less dense?
Student: Less dense.
Teacher: Does the air pressure over the land increase or decrease?
Student: Decrease.
Teacher: Does the air over the land now have a higher or lower pressure than the air over the sea?
Student: Lower.
Teacher: Does air move from high to low pressure or low to high pressure?
Student: From high to low pressure.
Teacher: So, in which direction does the air move in the afternoon?
Student: From the sea to the land.