One of the oldest and most powerful teaching techniques is simply to guide the learner by asking directed questions. This basic tutoring approach is sometimes referred to as the Socratic Method or the “inquiry method.”

The idea behind this approach is that providing answers upfront puts the learner in a passive role of receiving information. Whereas an interrogative approach inherently fosters a self-directed thought process, through which learners can arrive at their own conclusions and build knowledge, versus simply receiving information.

Of course, many times students – especially adults in my experience — would prefer that you simply give them the information. And certainly that’s appropriate at times. The benefit of the inquiry method is that it helps learners “train their brains” to develop the capacity and confidence to reason out solutions and make neural and cognitive connections that will help keep them moving forward.

The ability to connect what we know to what we are trying to figure out is especially helpful with math and writing problems, such as on standardized tests. Beyond the realm of solving specific problems, the inquiry method helps learners engage with, and develop genuine interest in, the bigger picture that surrounds the specifics. I really like this professional tutor’s explanation of how and why the inquiry method works.

I often lead trips and walks for kids and adults who are new to birdwatching. In that context I enjoy taking the role of a “mentor” asking questions versus “the expert” dispensing facts. For example, when we’re observing herons and egrets in the local salt marsh, I love to ask, “Why do you think Snowy Egrets have yellow feet?” Kids get right into this but it usually drives adults crazy! But as they guess and ponder, with the help of a few additional questions everyone quickly realizes the amazing answer: the birds use their feet as fishing lures. We can even observe them doing this! What does that say about avian intelligence, or about evolution? The difference between an answer and a question is the difference between “uh-huh” and the natural world opening up…

Now here’s a question: is the inquiry method and the Socratic Method really the same thing? Or are there many different styles of inquiry oriented tutoring that end up being called the “Socratic Method” by default? Max Maxwell offers an historically grounded, in-depth explication of what defines the Socratic Method as Socrates, Plato and their lineage of students applied it. Wikipedia also offers a broad and engaging discourse on the topic. This author refers to the generic approach of the “inquiry method” as “Socratic questioning.”

And then there’s the “dreaded Socratic Method” as an instructional style in law school classrooms. Also called the “case method” or “Socratic instruction,” it entails direct questioning and limited lecturing. The idea is that students must prepare in advance not to regurgitate the facts of a case, but to reason beyond the presenting issues to the broader implications. Again, the goal is to build critical reasoning skills and the confidence to apply them under pressure – whether in a courtroom or on a standardized test.

In researching this topic I also appreciated the viewpoint of this Air Force officer, who applies a highly goal-oriented Socratic approach to improve performance and leadership skills among military personnel. While this context may not constitute tutoring per se, the article offers experiential insights of value to educators who want to take their own inquiry methods to a higher level.

For many tutors, it probably isn’t essential or optimal to adhere to a strict application of an “inquiry method.” Rather, the mode of asking questions in response to questions might ideally be viewed as a way to keep learning light and fun, and learners engaged and open. Where you want to take it in your tutoring practice is up to you.

Are you using a Socratic approach in your tutoring practice? How did you learn it and how do you advise others to build these useful interrogative skills? Please comment and share your experiences and advice.

Featured image courtesy of Brújulo.

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