Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) was annoying. According to him, when anyone “preached,” the person listening should ask out loud (or to oneself) 6 types of important questions:

(1)  About concepts:  “What exactly does this mean?”

(2)  About assumptions:  “What did you assume and why?”

(3)  About rationale, reasons and evidence:  “How do you know this?”

(4)  About viewpoints:  “What are other ways of looking at this?”

(5)  About implications:  “How does this fit with what we’ve already learned?

(6)  About the question itself:  “What was the point of asking that question?”

Teachers often fear such interruptions…

[For more use the DOOR.]



So what can I add that would make this pesky Greek intellectual proud?

Look, for example, at the middle of the first century (AD) when Paul was traveling around trying to convince people to become Christians. Whatever did he do day after day, and week after week, trying to change people’s thinking? And with no New Testament (then) to refer to. According to the Bible book of Acts (written later) he lectured, taught, discussed, and argued, in and out of synagogues and homes–sometimes all night–about some very unusual recent history. His audience? Jews familiar with ancient holy books, Greeks, many who knew, or cared little, about such books, street people from every avenue* of life who hungered spiritually, were economically concerned, or were simply curious. Part of this had to be answering loaded questionsThe passionate egghead from Tarsus (a “first-class intellectual” according to former atheist Antony Flew) was driven by a message. He had first persecuted Christians; then he had a blinding personal encounter that changed everything.  His main point: Jesus Christ had supernaturally entered the world, taught, made promises, lived, died, and rose again, fulfilling centuries-old prophecies; and because of this, it made a great deal of difference what people did with this information.

And some believed. Some scoffed. Some became furious and considered Paul a troublemaker. Hence he was beaten and jailed, and according to tradition, was eventually beheaded in Rome.

Centuries before, Socrates had refused to compromise his principles and had drunk poisonous hemlock and died.

But his questions and “attitude” live on. As does Christianity and Paul’s legacy to thinking about God: “Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (I Thess. 5:20-22)

[Wikipedia spins out Socrates stuff in greater detail. Here’s some of it if you want to go farther. It’s all Wiki words, by the way.]


Socrates was one of the greatest educators who taught by asking questions and thus drawing out answers from his pupils (‘ex duco’, means to ‘lead out’, which is the root of ‘education’).  Sadly, he martyred himself by drinking hemlock rather than compromise his principles. Bold, but not a good survival strategy.The overall purpose of Socratic questioning, is to challenge accuracy and completeness of thinking in a way that acts to move people towards their ultimate goal. Conceptual clarification questions Get them to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking about. Prove the concepts behind their argument. Use basic ‘tell me more’ questions that get them to go deeper.

  • Why are you saying that?
  • What exactly does this mean?
  • How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
  • What is the nature of …?
  • What do we already know about this?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Are you saying … or … ?
  • Can you rephrase that, please?

Probing assumptions

Probing their assumptions makes them think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument. This is shaking the bedrock and should get them really going!

  • What else could we assume?
  • You seem to be assuming … ?
  • How did you choose those assumptions?
  • Please explain why/how … ?
  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
  • What would happen if … ?
  • Do you agree or disagree with … ?

Probing rationale, reasons and evidence

When they give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use un-thought-through or weakly-understood supports for their arguments.

  • Why is that happening?
  • How do you know this?
  • Show me … ?
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • What do you think causes … ?
  • What is the nature of this?
  • Are these reasons good enough?
  • Would it stand up in court?
  • How might it be refuted?
  • How can I be sure of what you are saying?
  • Why is … happening?
  • Why? (keep asking it — you’ll never get past a few times)
  • What evidence is there to support what you are saying?
  • On what authority are you basing your argument?

Questioning viewpoints and perspectives

Most arguments are given from a particular position. So attack the position. Show that there are other, equally valid, viewpoints.

  • Another way of looking at this is …, does this seem reasonable?
  • What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
  • Why it is … necessary?
  • Who benefits from this?
  • What is the difference between… and…?
  • Why is it better than …?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • How are … and … similar?
  • What would … say about it?
  • What if you compared … and … ?
  • How could you look another way at this?

Probe implications and consequences

The argument that they give may have logical implications that can be forecast. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?

  • Then what would happen?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • How could … be used to … ?
  • What are the implications of … ?
  • How does … affect … ?
  • How does … fit with what we learned before?
  • Why is … important?
  • What is the best … ? Why?♠

Questions about the question

And you can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. Use their attack against themselves. Bounce the ball back into their court, etc.

  • What was the point of asking that question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • Am I making sense? Why not?
  • What else might I ask?
  • What does that mean?

[*I thought “avenue” was a decent pun…]


[♠] Hmsch: Exploring Socrates’s “rebellious” thinking is grown-up stuff, but it can–and should–be done as soon as kids (and teachers) are ready for it.

Author: John Knapp