Writing an essay, Socratic method

Writing an essay by using the Socratic method

The Socratic method is often synonymous with law education as it is a popular tool used by law instructors to help prepare prospective students for careers as lawyers. The main crux behind the method, aside from the excitement of a lively debate, is to encourage and improve critical thinking skills amongst students.
When debating using this method, the concept is to win the debate simply by having the other contestant question his or her position and eventually disprove their argument with a series of prompt questions, known as socratic questioning. In an educational setting the execution of this is generally less intense and involves the teacher playing the role of the questioner, and the student as the answerer. The hope is that by constantly questioning a student on a particular issue the teacher will help expose doubts and uncertainties on the topic and enable students to further understand the underlying message or lesson being conveyed.

The socratic method and your essay

So considering the normal application of the socratic method, how can it then be applied to writing? Since one of the cornerstones of this method is contradictions - when writing a paper using this method, one approach could be to weed out contradictions through a similar debate style of questioning in the form of a conversation or dialogue. Another approach could be to argue both sides of an issue in a compare and contrast style format of writing.
But knowing that the socratic method is usually limited to debates, discussions, and teaching methods- there really is no right or wrong format to use. The main objective of all of them would be to simply present a piece of writing that shows traces of the socratic method somewhere within its framework. So to start off you can first work to identify which topics would make a good discussion.

Step 1. Choose one or two issues to debate

Considering the richness of socratic debates, a lot of careful thinking should go into choosing a suitable topic to argue. Generally things that are seen as controversial, or cause a lot of disagreement amongst people, are the types of topics that should be considered for an essay. In retrospect, it may be helpful to plan for it as you would a comparison and contrast or argumentative essay. Some helpful questions to ask yourself...
  • Is my topic interesting enough to engage the reader?
  • If I am arguing both sides of a debate do I have enough information to adequately support each side?
  • Have these topics been previously explored and can I use other writings as reference points?
  • Is each topic comprehensive enough to be 'argued down' using the socratic method?
  • Will I hit a brick wall when trying to defend or argue either issue?

Step 2. Decide the format of your paper

As mentioned earlier the concept of using the socratic method as a form of writing is rare and really takes the method outside of its original context - which was to be used as a teaching strategy as well a method for debating. Because of this the different formats in which you can present your paper are merely suggestions.
Possible formats


This option may be a bit difficult to incorporate into an essay but in reality it is the one presentation method that most closely illustrates the socratic method and socratic style of questioning. Suggestions for constructing an essay using a dialogue format are as follows;
  • The dialogue itself would be considered the body of the paper
  • The introduction would naturally serve its purpose and introduce the topic and 'set the stage' for the debate or dialogue
  • A small discussion section would follow the dialogue to provide a brief analysis as to how the conversation demonstrated the critical thinking skills known to the socratic method
  • A conclusion would simply revisit important concepts mentioned in the introduction and provide some final thoughts on the end result of the dialogue and what was accomplished through the use of the socratic questioning

Exploratory format

Exploratory writing is writing that is usually done to explore a particular topic of interest. The unique characteristics of this form of writing is that it takes the reader on a journey through the various stages of exploration that the writer experiences. For instance, in finding out information on a topic the writer would explain to the reader why he chose one resource over that one and so on. So following this scheme of writing a writer can execute strategies unique to the socratic method by arguing an issue in the form of several questions or 'a lonely debate.' In this way the socratic questioning is still taking place but rather than it being in dialogue form it is written as a traditional essay. This strategy may also resemble that of the personal essay.

Compare and contrast style

This approach to embedding the socratic method may be easy for many due to its commonality in writing. The comparison and contrast essay is a famous one and used often to compare two or more things. When setting up this type of essay the formatting generally follows either a block style of writing or a point by point method. Similarly when implementing socratic questioning each point of view up for debate can be seen as an item to compare and contrast. In using the block method the writer would fully argue or debate one side of the issue using a series of questions as a basis and then follow with an argument for the other side in a similar fashion. A conclusion or discussion section at the end may be used to unite both viewpoints and bring closure to the essay by identifying a 'winning' side and why one opinion overpowers the other.
Overall, some benefits seen from the usage of this method are not only the critical thinking skills that are required to process questions but also the ability to refine a topic extensively until the main issue or 'core', so to speak, is unmasked. And the usage of it as a teaching tool may also encourage students to challenge some common assumptions with the hope of providing new and more precise insights into certain topics and ideas. Though one can argue that this objective can also be achieved by other means as well, some that do not involve such coarse series of questioning. This point may be a valid one considering some students dislike and anxiety towards the usage of socratic questioning in the classroom today.

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