The Socratic Method

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the kindling of a fire.

Questions that make you think hard.

Socrates, a Greek philosopher who specialised in ethics, created a revolutionary method of education based on posing questions rather than prescribing answers. His rigorous and structured approach is still commonly used today to: ‘explore complex ideas; get to the truth of things; open up issues and problems; uncover assumptions; analyse concepts; distinguish what we know from what we do not know; or follow out logical consequences of thought.’ (see Paul & Elder, below).

As such, the Socratic method can be an immensely powerful tool in action learning. It can elicit profound discoveries and learning and, by doing so, create significant shifts in thinking, feeling and behaviour. Richard Paul and Linda Elder (see: Thinkers’ Guide to Socratic Questioning, 2016) identified 6 different types of Socratic questions that can be posed in sequence to help an individual or a group think through an issue. These categories can be very useful in action learning sets.

The 6 types focus on: clarifications; assumptions; rationales; perspectives; implications; meta questions. (James Bowman offers a very useful sample template with examples of related questions here: The Six Types of Socratic Questions). The 6th type, Meta Questions, lends itself well to the review stage of an action learning process. We would add a 7th type, Choosing Solutions, to complete the action learning cycle as it moves from thinking through to deciding, planning and doing.

If you would like to learn more about action learning, or to train to become an action learning facilitator, visit our website at:

Nick Wright is an independent coach, trainer and OD consultant and an associate of Action Learning Associates.

Head of Socrates in the Louvre, perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. Photo by Sting

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *