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Socratic Dialogues



Socratic Dialogues

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How does a teacher set the stage for effective whiteboard use in a classroom?

Whiteboards are most effectively used with pedagogical practices such as showing solutions to homework sets, or interpreting data from inquiry labs. More specifically, whiteboards are put to their most effective use when students are asked to employ them to demonstrate inductive or deductive reasoning processes, including arguing conclusions from evidence. Using whiteboards this way, a teacher can obtain a detailed understanding of student comprehension and thinking processes. Asking students working in small groups to “whiteboard their results” takes advantage of a natural propensity of students to illustrate their data and findings. Even used once or twice, students quickly come to understand the value and meaning of whiteboarding. Experience has shown that they really like it.

Aren’t whiteboard presentations essentially the same as students giving reports?

While this might at first appear to be the case, it is quite untrue. Whiteboarding involves much more than mere student reporting. Yost (2003) made a clear distinction between whiteboarding and reporting when he wrote, “Whiteboarding and reporting actually have different purposes. The report is a presentation intended to demonstrate competence and is usually graded. Whiteboarding, on the other hand, is an active learning process in which evaluation is an ongoing process designed to probe a student’s prior understanding, and to construct strategies to bring the student to a more complete comprehension.” Reports are often one-way expressions; whiteboard presentations include substantial back-and-forth communication between teacher and student and are teacher directed. In whiteboarding, other students are often asked to join in on the discussion. In the end, two essential goals of whiteboarding are to make explicit student understanding and, when necessary, expose deficiencies in student explanations (Schmitt & Lattery, 2004). Whiteboarding also ensures that allow students to provide a complete evidence-based justification for their conclusions. This is not always the case with mere reporting.

How should a teacher guide whiteboarding groups as they work?

Teachers should manage group composition, arranging students into groups of two or three. Each group should represent a mix of ability levels; girls typically should be put into groups by twos. Students should be assigned roles in the group activity such as leader, recorder, and critic. Student work groups should be allowed to work freely on a clearly defined goal, but they should also be monitored for appropriate social behaviors that appear not to be a natural consequence of the socialization process of school. Watch for frustration levels. While learning comes from hard work, frustration can impede the process if not kept at appropriate levels. Move among the student work groups periodically asking such questions as “Why did you choose to do that?” and “What conclusions have you reached so far?” Avoid being a source of information, and avoid making prescriptive or value statements.

How does a teacher implement oral whiteboard presentations?

Many whiteboard presentations will begin with the teacher restating the initial problem that led to the whiteboarding presentation. The group responsible for the whiteboard presentation then makes an uninterrupted presentation. This presentation might be made by one or all of the students in the group. The whole group is responsible for the content of the whiteboard presentation, and each is individually accountable for learning associated with the process. Following the initial presentation, other students and the teacher are allowed to ask questions of the group or specific individuals. As much emphasis should be placed on the process as the product of learning. Questions posed by the teacher generally should do no more than stimulate independent thinking. Such questioning should, however, clearly help students gain and understanding that is consistent with reality. If students have made a mistake in their experimental or thinking processes, critical questioning by the teacher should help students come to this realization. 

How can a teacher minimize student anxiety associated with whiteboarding?

The anxiety sometimes associated with whiteboarding can have a motivational effect on students. Students who know that they must make a whiteboard presentation before a class – explaining and defending evidence-based conclusions – can serve as a positive motivator. However, if a group of students – especially a young group – is not comfortable making presentations in front of class, it proves less stressful for students to present using a circular classroom arrangement. The teacher usually moves behind the students arranged in this configuration.

How should a teacher engage classroom students in Socratic dialogue?

It should be noted that the Socratic method per se is discussion process whereby a facilitator promotes independent, reflective, and critical thinking. The conversation that results from using the Socratic method is known as Socratic dialogue. The general goals of a Socratic dialogue are to hold students accountable for learning, make students’ conceptual understanding and thinking processes clear to the teacher and other students, help all students understand how knowledge is constructed from experience, and build autonomy and self-confidence in students’ own thinking in relation to a particular question that is undertaken in common. The teacher never badgers a student, or criticizes answers. He or she merely asks students to explain their reasoning which, if flawed, can be quickly corrected by questions seeking clarification.

What if students are hesitant to participate in Socratic dialogues?

It is not unusual at first to encounter student resistance to Socratic dialogues. Students have often been immersed in a classroom atmosphere where they are treated as receptacles to be filled with knowledge. Socratic dialogues require students to become active pursuers of knowledge. In order for students to be more fully engaged in Socratic dialogues, teachers must address the changed classroom climate, and regularly perform the process of climate setting. Climate setting has two critical components – the role of the teacher and the role of the student. Students need to understand what the authentic role of the teacher is – preparing situations under which students can learn. They must understand that learning is the responsibility of students. Teachers should make clear to students that they might ask questions even if they know the answer; that they might ask “why?” two or three times in a row, and that they might ask student peers to explain and justify their conclusions on the basis of evidence. It is never wrong to seek clarification or to ask questions that deal with extensions of the problem. Teachers must point out that questioning an idea does not mean that it is wrong. Students need to understand that their role is to speak up, confronting apparent fallacies and ask questions when they don’t understand. They must see the educational process as the construction of knowledge in which ideas are based on evidence, clearly stated, and clearly evaluated. They need to know that no question is “stupid”, and that the only poor question is the question that is not asked. Students must assume responsibility for constructing meaning from facts that they have gathered as part of the learning process.

What are the indispensable features of Socratic dialogue as it relates to whiteboard presentations?

German author Dieter Krohn (Heckmann, 1981) has enunciated four essential features of Socratic dialogues. These features have been adapted here to the discussion that naturally arises about how to manage a whiteboard presentation. The four features are:

  • Start with the concrete and remain in contact with concrete experience. The initial focus in the whiteboard presentation should be on what evidence students have collected. This is consistent with the fact that sciences of all sorts – social, life, and physical – are empirical. That is, conclusions are based upon observable evidence. Whiteboarding, when used in the sciences, should give precedence to facts and the conclusions drawn from them. In the end, the final question should be, are your conclusions consistent with verified facts?
  • Ensure full understanding between participants. Whiteboarding presentations are an opportunity for all students to learn, not just those making the presentation. All students should be held accountable for not only making and defending their own work and conclusions, but for analyzing the work and conclusions of others. All students in a classroom should be engaged in a whiteboard presentation as either presenters or critics.
  • Adhere to a subsidiary question until it is answered. Has an answer to each question along the way been provided? While providing an answer to the original guiding question is critical, the means by which that answer was arrived at is also critical. Have errors been made in any of the processes? Is the line of reasoning correct? Has anything been overlooked? Is the logic defensible? If at any time questions such as these arise, they must be answered before moving on. 
  • Strive for consensus. Has the answer to both the original question and subsidiary questions been provided satisfactorily to the agreement of all who have participated in the process? If not, then it’s “back to the whiteboard”. Remember, no form of science – be it social, life, or physical – is the private domain of the individual. Science of all forms works upon the consensus model. Helping students arrive at a final consensus for all questions is useful in helping them understand the values of the research community.

Please provide an example of a Socratic dialogue.

In order to best characterize the nature of a Socratic dialogue, it will pay dividends to see negative as well as positive examples. Consider three types of questioning patterns:

  • Initiation-Response-Feedback (Mehan, 1979). This is the most prevalent form of interaction in the classroom. With this approach, the teacher asks a question, the student responds, and the teacher provides a counter-response. For example,

Teacher: What is the equation one could use to determine the acceleration given initial velocity, final velocity, and distance?

Student: It’s the difference between the final velocity squared and the initial velocity squared all divided by two times the distance.

Teacher: That’s correct; v-final squared minus v-initial squared divided by 2x.

This sort of interaction does little to stimulate student thinking and provides no insight into the process by which the student chose to provide the given response. A common form of questioning that some might confuse with effective dialoguing would be the more interactive “funneling” method.

  • Funneling (Wood, 1998). Sometimes teachers new to Socratic dialogues will assume that the following pattern of question and response is a desirable form of Socratic dialogue. This is not so. Consider the following example:

Teacher: A ball has been dropped from rest from the top of a bridge. What is the speed of the ball when it is 5 meters below the drop point?

[Long pause – no response from the students.]

Teacher: Okay, let’s see. What do we know about the acceleration of the ball?

Students: It’s 9.8 meters per second squared.

Teacher: Good. Now, are we looking for an average speed or an instantaneous speed?

Students: Instantaneous. We want to know the speed of the ball when it is 5 meters – no more and no less – below the point of release.

Teacher: Precisely! So, how can we find the speed at this point?

[Long pause – no response from the students.]

Teacher: Let’s think about it. What equation can we use that relates instantaneous speed and distance? Anyone?

Students: Doesn’t it have something to do with the v-squared equation?

Teacher: Yes, v-final squared minus v-initial squared divided by 2ax where a is the acceleration and x is the distance.

Students: So, solve for x; we know that acceleration equals 9.8 meters per second squared.

Teacher: You’ve got it!

When students respond to the teacher’s second question, the funneling process begins. The teacher funnels the students through a series of logical steps until they arrive at a pre-determined conclusion. The teacher does the thinking, and the students only need to provide responses to simple questions. They fail to understand the underlying logic and complexity of the problem-solving process – even though they appear to have solved the problem.

A second interpretation of funneling is that the teacher is providing scaffolding for the students to learn the problem solving process. This is possible assuming that students learn well by example. In the science classroom, this is often not the case because the thinking that under girds the teacher’s intellectual process is not clearly evident. Only if the teacher discusses the various questions and why (s)he asked them will it become clearly evident to students what the purpose of each question was. In such a process of modeling the problem-solving process, leading questions must gradually be removed.

  • Focusing (Wood, 1998). Focusing is very closely related to the process of Socratic dialogue. It consists of the teacher carefully listening to the answers of each student, and pursuing follow-up questions that make clear student thinking. By asking leading questions, students can gently be directed to solving problems, clarifying and justifying their thinking, and learning how to problem solve during the process. Consider the following example.

Teacher: A ball has been dropped from rest from the top of a bridge. What is the speed of the ball when it is 5 meters below the drop point?

[Long pause – no response from the students.]

Teacher: How does one go about solving such a problem? What question do we need to address first?

Students: We need to relate the given variables to the unknown.

Teacher: Okay, so what are the given variables and what is the unknown?

Students: We know that the ball started at rest.

Teacher: So what does that tell us?

Students: The initial velocity was zero.

Teacher: What is the initial acceleration?

Students: Zero, it’s not going anywhere to start.

Teacher: Hmm, how does one define acceleration?

Students: It’s the rate of change of velocity.

Teacher: So, if the velocity isn’t changing to start, how can the ball even fall?

Students: Oh, yeah, it has to have a non-zero acceleration or it won’t even move.

Teacher: Precisely! So, what else do we know?

Students: We know the distance – 5 meters.

Teacher: What about the 5 meters?

Students: It’s the distance that the ball has fallen when we need to find the final velocity.

Teacher: Is that the ball’s final velocity? I mean, won’t the ball keep on falling? Maybe the bridge is 15 meters high.

Students: We need to know the speed right at 5 meters.

Teacher: What else might we call the speed at that point?

Students: Instantaneous velocity.

Teacher: Good. Now, we have acceleration, initial velocity, and distance of fall. We are looking for instantaneous velocity. Do we need anything else?

Students: No, we should be able to solve the problem.

Teacher: And how will we do this? How are the variables related?

Students: v-final squared minus v-initial squared divided by 2gx where g is the acceleration and x is the distance.

Teacher: And why did you choose that equation? What’s wrong with distance equals one-half g t-squared?

Students: That second equation contains an unknown, t-squared. We can’t use that equation as a result. We need to use an equation that contains only one unknown; everything else must be known.

Teacher: Excellent. So if we put all the known quantities into the first equation and solve for the single unknown, what do we get? Assume that the acceleration due to gravity is 10 meters per second squared.

Students: 10 meters per second, downward.

Teacher: Very good!

When the students provide answers to questions, the teacher asks for conceptual clarifications of statements or explanations of intellectual processes. The focus here is on the process of solving the problem as well as actually solving the problem itself. Process and product are equally valued. Only if the teacher focuses student attention on the process of problem solving will they come to understand how one reasons their way through such a process. Thinking is made explicit. This also helps the teacher to identify, confront, and resolve any misconceptions that students might have, and helps students learn problem solving through vicarious experiences.

This then is the general nature of the questioning process in the Socratic dialogue?

Generally, but not quite. Socratic dialogues so named will include both focusing and the four essential features noted by Dieter Krohn (Heckmann, 1981). The Socratic dialogue works exceptionally well with the whiteboarding process where students use inductive and/or deductive processes based on data. Consider a group of students in front of class who are making their whiteboard presentation. They present the following information on their whiteboard and give a brief presentation as indicated in the notes section.

Teacher:Well done. Now, can you explain to the group why you chose to use a proportional relationship (y=mx)  rather than a linear relationship (y=mx+b) as the basis of your best-fit line?

Students: Because if we use a linear relationship, the y-intercept, b, turns out to be –0.0625 volts, and that’s not possible.

Teacher: What’s not possible?

Students: You can’t have any voltage if the current is zero. Voltage in a circuit will produce current. No current, no voltage.

Teacher: So how does that figure into the relationship?

Students: A proportional best-fit line is most consistent with the physical situation. While a linear best-fit equation might fit the data better, the equation doesn’t represent the real world. The physical interpretation is better.

Teacher: So why aren’t the data consistent with reality, or are they?

Students: Everyone knows that there is uncertainty in every measurement, and that’s what caused the scatter in the data points in the graph.

Teacher: What caused the uncertainty of the data?

Students: Maybe the meter isn’t all that accurate, or maybe the connections were a little bit loose or oxidized or corroded. There can be a variety of reasons.

Teacher: So, what does this proportional relationship tell us?

Students: That voltage and current are proportional, and related by a constant.

Teacher: And what is that constant?

Students: 3.01 volts per amp or 3.01 ohms.

Teacher: Is that true in all circumstances or just the one you were examining?

Students: No, just this one situation. The value of the resistance would be different in other circuits. Perhaps we should have said resistance instead of 3.01 ohms as the proportionality constant. That is, voltage is equal to current times resistance. That would be more general.

Teacher: Okay, did other teams reach the same sort of conclusions from their data?

Students: Yes, but we got different values for the slope.

Teacher: And why might that be?

Students: Because we had different resistance elements. The resistors look different from one another – they have different color bands. Our group got a value of 5.25 ohms for our constant of proportionality. It must be because we had a different value of resistance.

Teacher: So, would your team agree with this team as far as general results are concerned?

Students: Yes, we basically got the same result.

Socratic dialogues might be thought, then, as a type of focusing pattern mixed with a bit of imposed structure. Leading questions are eliminated from the Socratic dialogue because the discussion facilitator must promote independent, reflective, and critical thinking. The teacher avoids any type of funneling pattern that might supplant student thinking. Remember, the general goals of a Socratic dialogue are to hold students accountable for learning, make students’ conceptual understanding and thinking processes clear to the teacher, help students understand how knowledge is constructed from experience, and build autonomy and self-confidence in students’ own thinking in relation to a particular question that is undertaken in common. 

Should whiteboard presentations be scored or graded?

Whiteboarding is part of the learning process. It would be unreasonable to grade the performance of a young violinist who is just learning how to play. Students just learning to play naturally make many mistakes; it’s part of the learning process. The goal of whiteboarding is not student reporting; rather, it used by teachers to assess (not evaluate) and help improve student understanding. Teachers should feel free to grade a final performance, but not the learning process. Hence, it is not usually advisable to score or grade the whiteboarding process itself.


Heckmann, G. (1981). Das sokratische gesprich: Erfahrungen in philosophischen. Hochschulseminaren, Hannover: Schroedel.

Herbel-Eisenmann, B.A. & Breyfogle, M.L. (2005). Questioning our patterns of questioning. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 10(9), 484-489.

Hestenes, D. (2000). Finds of the Modeling Workshop Project (1994-2000). Available: http://modeling.asu.edu/R&E/ModelingWorkshopFindings.pdf

Mehan, H. (1979). Learning Lessons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schmitt, J. & Lattery, M. (2004). Facilitating Discourse in the Physics Classroom. NCREL Annual Conference, March 11, 2004. Available: http://planck.phys.uwosh.edu/lattery/_docs/art_mm_fac.pdf

Wood, T. (1998). Alternative patterns of communication in mathematics classes: Funneling or focusing? In Language and Communication in the Mathematics Classroom, edited by Heinz Steinbring, Maria G. Bartolini Bussi, and Anna Sierpinska, Reston, VA: NCTM, 167-78.

Yost, D. (2000). Whiteboarding: A Learning Process. Available: http://modeling.asu.edu/modeling/Whiteboarding_DonYost03.pdf

Yost, D. (2003). Whiteboarding: A Learning Process. Available: http://modeling.asu.edu/modeling/ Whiteboarding_DonYost03.pdf

Yost, D., Groeshel, G., & Hutto, S. (2002) Whiteboarding Is a Tool, a Learning Experience. Available: http://modeling.asu.edu/listserv/wb_ALearningExper_02.pdf


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Last updated August 23, 2012