A student-led discussion offers a low-stakes way for kids to wonder, ask questions, and change their minds. In the classroom, Socratic dialogue encourages students to think like scientists and engineers as they connect new information to their current knowledge, learn from their peers, and strengthen their understanding of the world around them. Socratic dialogue is the second step in the KnowAtom Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)-led lesson routine.
What is Socratic Dialogue?
Socratic dialogue is a classroom discussion led by the students that promotes critical thinking. It replaces the ping-pong style of question-respond-evaluate teacher-led discussions with a class forum of student-to-student questioning. While students unpack the threads of a big idea, they practice supportive reasoning, confront alternative viewpoints, and engage in contradictory evidence-based reasoning.
Successful implementation of Socratic dialogue is a process that starts with small group discussions and teacher modeling. The inner circle-outer circle model is a good starting point. Students in the center practice Socratic dialogue, while the outer circle actively listens and provides feedback through structured peer evaluations. Each classroom discussion is an opportunity for students to improve how they challenge new ideas and learn from others’ perspectives in an open and judgment-free environment.
Socratic dialogue encourages students to think more deeply about the ideas they encounter in class. As teachers shift from the traditional role of asking questions, they take on the role of a magistrate, providing a safe space for students to ask questions, take intellectual risks, and challenge their peers. When combined with storyline pedagogy, Socratic dialogue gives students a chance to interact with and question the ideas of others while providing insight into questions they may want to investigate hands-on. It also provides an opportunity to practice career skills, including small-group communication, persuasion, and active listening.
Integrating Socratic Dialogue within NGSS Storylines
NGSS storyline pedagogy and Socratic dialogue promote thinking about big ideas. An NGSS storyline is not a script; it’s a personal journey that students go on together that engages them in critical thinking and personal reflection. In a KnowAtom lesson, Socratic dialogue is the second part of storyline development between picture thinking and planning scientific or engineering investigations.
Teachers can help kick off the conversation about a big idea with a seed question. The seed question needs to be authentic, which means it does not have a known answer. For example, if the students are learning about Newton’s laws of motion, you might start the conversation with: How do Newton’s laws of motion shape our experience as school bus passengers [bicycle riders or pedestrians]?
This type of question could spark conversation in many different directions. It asks the student to consider how the phenomena they are learning about in class affects real-world situations and their own life. It requires them to use scientific vocabulary to respond. In this case, it also helps set up the next stage of the lesson, engineering or scientific investigation into the laws of motion.
A less engaging question to start the Socratic dialogue is: What are the laws of motion, or Why does a driver’s body move forward in the seat when they slam on the car’s brakes? These questions relate to the phenomenon but can be answered quickly and decisively, so they won’t generate a complex, in-depth conversation about big ideas.
Depending on how skilled the class is at Socratic dialogue, the teacher may play a more active or passive role in guiding the conversation. To get students wondering about the big ideas and continuing the conversation, you can ask additional seed questions throughout, as needed. “I wonder” or conditional “how could” questions are good tools to get students thinking bigger.
- How could the laws of motion shape the way engineers design cars?
- What would you change about the streets or highways around us to protect people from the laws of motion?
- I wonder how speed changes driver safety because of the laws of motion. How do you think F1 track designers use the laws of motion when designing track features to keep the drivers safe?
Older students and classes with more experience with Socratic dialogue will begin to ask questions like these of each other and themselves as they follow, unpack, and feed their curiosity. At this level, teachers can sit back, ensure they maintain a safe space for active inquiry, and model curiosity by asking seed questions when necessary.
Socratic Dialogue and Storylines in Action with KnowAtom
Another tool for hosting engaging Socratic dialogues in your class is concept mapping. Concept mapping asks students to draw connections between concepts or big ideas, linking them with a word or phrase. This teaching tool can be used as a knowledge inventory and organizing schema when moving from introducing a new phenomenon into Socratic dialogue.
A concept map prompts the students to model their understanding through concept connections and begin to identify gaps in their own understanding. This basic knowledge inventory can be a confidence-building activity that makes speaking up in a classroom discussion easier for some.
Concept maps give students a visual prompt to link new phenomena with what they know and think about the lesson's big ideas. When used together, concept mapping and scientific discourse encourage more in-depth thinking. Socratic dialogue also makes student thinking visible to teachers by reflecting their depth of knowledge and uncovering misconceptions.
When listening in on the discussion, the teacher can ask themselves:
- Do my students understand the key concepts related to the new phenomena?
- What questions do they have? What misconceptions and gaps are surfacing in their thinking?
- Are the students using their reasoning skills to connect with the phenomena?
- What personal experiences do they have with the phenomena?
Resources for Facilitating Skillful Socratic Dialogue
When teachers take on the role of facilitator rather than discussion leader, they can look for opportunities to help students make more robust and more personal connections and develop a more in-depth understanding of the phenomena. Seed questions, concept mapping, and sentence starters can help get the ball rolling during Socratic dialogue and help students think more critically about the big ideas.
Good sentence starters encourage students to use evidence to link new concepts with real-world phenomena and their own personal experiences. The KnowAtom Socratic Dialogue Sentence Frames tool is a great place to start. Teachers can use skillful questioning to help students reflect, connect, and think more deeply about big ideas using prompts like these:
- Can you tell me more about that?
- Where else have you seen/heard something like this?
- Can you show us where you see that happening?
- Can you connect that idea to any other phenomena we’ve encountered?
As the students continue to improve at Socratic dialogue, questions like these will come directly from them to their peers.
Socratic Dialogue Sentence Starters for Elementary School
Here are some common sentence starters to prompt student discussion about weather patterns.
- What is an example of _SUMMER WEATHER_?
- How is _SUMMER WEATHER_ different from _WINTER WEATHER_?
- Can you think of another way to describe _DROUGHT CONDITIONS_?
- How are _FOG_, _ RAIN_ and _SNOW_ similar [different]?
- I thought about that also, and I’m wondering why _SNOW STICKS TO GRASS FIRST BEFORE THE SIDEWALK_?
- What do you think of when you think of ___SPRING___? Does anyone think of something different?
- How do you feel when you think of _____AUTUMN____? What makes you feel that way?
Socratic Dialogue Sentence Starters for Middle School
Here are some common sentence starters to prompt student discussion at the middle school level.
- I was wondering [why the track designer used gravel rather than sand or synthetic grass to help slow down the race cars that go off-track]?
- This is what I heard you say_______, can you explain what you mean by____
- Is there an important assumption necessary to support this idea?
- Does anyone have an alternative reason this may be happening?
- Can someone give different evidence to support that idea?
- hadn’t thought about that. Can you tell us more about ______________?
Socratic Dialogue Peer Review Assessment
Peer assessment promotes active listening, especially when using the outer-circle, inner-circle model of Socratic dialogue. The KnowAtom Socratic Dialogue Peer Review Assessment tool gives students examples of things to listen for. It also helps them identify ways their partner can improve, from building on others’ ideas and using science vocabulary to describe new phenomena to avoid interrupting a speaker.
Receiving feedback from their peers can help students and the class as a whole improve at Socratic dialogue. Peer feedback is also a meaningful career and leadership skill for students to learn.