What is the Socratic method and what is it used for?

The Socratic method is an ancient technique widely used by educators and psychotherapists. The main objective is the development of critical and self-reflective thinking.

Last update: 03 November, 2021

The Socratic method is perhaps one of the oldest educational approaches, whose main objective is to promote self-reflection and critical thinking. This procedure consists of constant questioning, which helps people eliminate claims of certainty and gain a deeper understanding of a particular topic.

As its name implies, this method is due to Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC), a philosopher of Ancient Greece who used the technique to encourage critical thinking in his students.

Despite its antiquity, today the Socratic method is implemented in various educational centers worldwide. It has even become a technique widely used by psychologists in their therapeutic approaches. If you want to know the details of this procedure, we invite you to continue reading.

Origin of the Socratic method

The origin of the Socratic method dates back to Ancient Greece, thanks to the philosopher Socrates. This thinker is known for the dialogues that he established with different people; in them he tried to define complex general ideas such as beauty, justice or friendship.

During his philosophical conversations, Socrates questioned practically any perspective on the subject at hand. Even if he had a relative knowledge about it.

Usually the application of the Socratic method It consists of a dialogue between two or more people; one of them guides, through a series of questions, towards the resolution of doubts and conflicts. This guide is merely helpful, since the objective of this technique is not to give an answer to the questions of others, but to help the other to delve into their own psyche and reflect on their thoughts.

Uses and importance of the Socratic method

The importance of the Socratic method is in encourage critical thinking through dialogue. Through this procedure we will be able to question the realities that we took for granted and begin to look for alternatives. That is why it is a widely used technique in education and psychotherapy.

In education

The Socratic method is widely used in various educational institutions, as a tool to promote critical thinking in students. In this case, the classroom experience is a shared dialogue between teacher and students. You are both responsible for driving a conversation based on questioning.

The teacher or dialogue leader asks probing questions in an effort to explore and expose the underlying beliefs that shape students’ views and opinions.

The inquiry progresses interactively and the teacher is both a participant and a guide to the discussion. Furthermore, the investigation is open. There is no predetermined plot or term that the teacher tries to lead students to. Without a lesson plan, the group follows the dialogue.

In schools that apply the Socratic method, there is a different bond between teachers and students.

In psychotherapy

The application of the Socratic method in psychotherapy is common, since it is a technique that invites you to mobilize and take advantage of the patient’s own resources to achieve their improvement. One of the currents that uses it the most is cognitive-behavioral.

The most illustrative example is the questioning of maladaptive beliefs. In this case, the person exposes a deeply rooted thought or belief that causes suffering and discomfort, such as believing that it is useless.

The therapist will find out what it means “Be of no use”, in what situations does this idea appear, what consequences would it have, the fears behind it … until reaching a point where the person could not do a deeper introspection.

After that, an attempt is made to redirect the session, asking if there could be alternative interpretations and it will be sought for the person to rebuild a more adaptive reality with their own resources. What we have just described is a process linked to cognitive restructuring.

Characteristics of the Socratic method

To better understand what this method consists of, here are its characteristics:

  • It is developed through a debate on a topic, in which all preconceived notions are questioned to try to discover the true meaning.
  • The purpose of the Socratic method is not to define or affirm what the subject matter is, but increase compression on it. To do this, the guide uses the individual’s own words to convince him that he knows less than he thought, being forced to open his mind to new possibilities that he had not considered before.
  • It aims to eliminate any notion of certainty on a certain topic, in order to break down the barriers to achieving a higher level of understanding.

What should be taken into account when applying this method?

When applying the Socratic method it is important to use a series of questions to analyze a specific thought. Note that participation requires listening and active engagement at all times. That is, it is not enough to insert a single comment in the discussion and then be silent for the rest.

You have to always be open to learning something new. Don’t pretend to be a sage. Avoid interpretations of thoughts and responses such as Right or incorrect.

The psychological therapy with the Socratic method stimulates the resolution of problems with the resources that the patient already has.

What is not the Socratic method?

The Socratic method is often misunderstood and wrongly implemented. To avoid confusion, here is what this technique is not:

  • It is not to disagree with the answers of the interlocutors or not take them into account.
  • It does not imply answering the interlocutor’s questions, as if we were possessors of the truth. Faced with these questions, we could return the question.
  • It does not lead to persuading the interlocutors with previously established alternative thoughts.
  • It cannot consist of asking random, purposeless questions. Rather it is to make suggestions or solve problems of the interlocutors.

Socratic dialogues

If you want to learn this method, the best way is to go to the Socratic dialogues, written by Plato (such as the Phaedrus or the Meno). In them the conversations of Socrates applying this technique are evidenced.

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