The Socratic Scientist – Marcel Pinheiro

Though the togas and sandals have largely been left in the past, Socrates’ method of education is one that would be revolutionary in the modern science class. The Socratic method is, at its simplest, questions and discussion. But, as described by award-winning Stanford Professor Rob Reich, it is “emphatically not teaching.” Rather than providing information, an instructor instead participates in a discussion with students about the material. To begin, an instructor’s carefully crafted, open-ended question is asked and the students provide their answers; sometimes, only best guesses. An example question in biology could be what is a gene? or how do we define a species? But any answer provided by the students merely starts the discussion. The role of the instructor is to tactfully ask probing questions of the students to frame and support their understanding of the topic. 

In this way, it may be considered more akin to our own scientific method, where a series of questions and follow-up questions probe the student’s understanding of the topic as it flows from the group, and their peers try to defend their answers.  By teasing out misunderstanding or misconceptions held by a group, they journey together through logic, the literature, and past scientific discoveries to unveil the answer to the problem at hand.

The result is less time spent in lecture covering material readily available to the student in their textbook, and more time dedicated to understanding concepts, and the underlying science to solve problems. Consequently, prior to participating in class discussion, students must have some familiarity with the material, even if it is rudimentary. With class time now dedicated to discussion, it is necessary to let go of the idea that material needs to be explicitly transmitted from textbook to student via the power point slide. Instead, assign readings or assignments – expecting them to actually be done! Ultimately, Socratic method provides students with a forum to develop and test critical thinking skills, and a paradigm-shifting opportunity, inspired by the original gadfly, to take responsibility for their own education.

Socratic method is commonplace in law and medical schools, yet is relegated to only holding untapped potential for the science classroom to demonstrate complexity. When asked specifically on application to science instruction Prof. Reich noted that Socratic method excels at uncovering “underlying structures or competing hypothesis about how to explain certain events.” But as a tool for an instructor, the entire process rests on creating an environment that encourages students to participate in discussion. In many cases these open-ended questions do not have absolute answers – like many research problems in general. Thus, students must be encouraged to take risks and provide responses to questions they may be unsure of, and even the “crazy idea” can take the discussion in thought-provoking ways, which tests the limit of their ignorance.

The thought of three hundred students all trying to provide their opinion or conversely (and more common-place in the average science class), staring at the well-meaning instructor in silence, may seem inevitable. The truth, however, is that Socratic method may be adapted to function in a large group with little effort. One of the simplest methods is the use of small (3-9 student) break-out groups. After asking a question and before opening the floor to the group at large, the instructor can ask students to discuss their thoughts with a small number of students surrounding them. This prevents timid students from having to stand out in the large group, while also building confidence. One pitfall is the freedom it gives students – an instructor must allow the discussion to explore tangents when addressing a question, but must recognize when to ease the discussion back on track.

Probing questions are the main tool in the instructor’s arsenal to move the discussion forward, and there are a number of types of probing questions. Generally, these probing questions target either the student’s definition of terms, assumptions underlying their answer, or extensions from their conclusions – with best results when taken to the extreme! Using elements of the Socratic method when teaching is a step away from the overuse of rote memorization, commonplace in large lecture classes, and has powerful advantages in developing critical thinking and confidence.

Avoiding the single-answer memory recall (or “jeopardy”) questions in favour of a more thought-provoking one, the instructor sends their students on a path towards becoming well informed citizens (if not scientists). The resulting students are primed to critically form opinions on anything from vaccinations to global warming. Not providing students a regular forum to question their understanding of the material begs the question, what are we teaching our science students to do?

Resources on Socratic teaching:

Rob Reich, “The Socratic Method: What it is and how to use it in the classroom” May 2003. 

MacKnight, C.B. (2000). Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussions. Educause Quarterly 4:38-41.

Marcel Pinheiro is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biology and participant in the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) Program.


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Svitlana Taraban-Gordon

As a Senior Instructional Developer, Svitlana Taraban Gordon oversees all aspects of the Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program and works with graduate students who are interested in developing their instructional skills and expanding their teaching horizons. She is also developing new programming related to the internationalization and university teaching. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Svitlana worked with the international education office at York's Faculty of Education, taught several courses at York's teacher preparation program and coordinated Microsoft-funded project on youth and technology through her work with Toronto-based NGO TakingITGlobal. She received her PhD in Education (Language, Culture and Teaching) in 2006 from York University. In her free time, Svitlana enjoys traveling with her husband and young son.

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