Socratic questioning method and emotional health

Active listening approaches, such as coaching with Socratic questions, can support mentees to become more self-aware, encourage reflection and improve problem-solving thinking (Neenan, 2009). Lawrence (2014) argues that the Socratic method, which dates back to the era of the Greek Philosopher Socrates, is the 'key to effective mentoring'. The method involves asking and answering questions aimed at stimulating critical thinking, illuminating ideas and uncover underlying presumptions. Table 10.3 provides some examples of Socratic questions that mentors might use for different purposes.

Case study 10.2 is an example of a role-play dialogue used as a discussion point during primary mentor development training. Maya is a beginning teacher who is usually enthusiastic about teaching but has recently had a difficult time with her class and is feeling quite

Table10.3 Socratic questions

1. Clarification

'What do you mean by ...?' 'Can you give an example?'

2. Challenging assumptions

’Is this always the case?'

'Why do you think that assumption applies here?

3. Probing reasons/evidence

'How do you know that?’

'Why do you say that?'

4. Alternative viewpoints/perspectives

'Are there alternative ways of looking at this?' 'Did anyone see this another way?’

5. Implications/consequences

'What would happen if...?'

'How would...affect...?’

6. Questioning the question

'Why do you think that I asked that question?’ 'Which question was the most important for you?'

negative. She has a good relationship with her mentor, who has arranged a meeting with her. The mentor uses Socratic questions to help Maya unpick and reframe what has been happening.

Case study 10.2 Role-play dialogue

Mentor: So how are things going, Maya?

Maya: I'm a complete failure. I don't have what it takes to be a teacher.

Mentor: You look really fed up when you say that. Do you feel fed up?

Maya: Yes. I'm just rubbish and exhausted.

Mentor: What do you mean when you say, 'I'm just rubbish'?

Maya: I've completely messed up in the classroom. I haven't done anything right.

Mentor: Has something happened to lead you to this conclusion or have you felt this way for a long time?

Maya: I think I see myself more clearly now.

Mentor: So this is a change in your thinking?

Maya: Yes. Erin and I went to that NOT [Newly Qualified Teacher] conference last week and got chatting. She looked so happy and had great stories about her class. And all I could think about was the chaos in my classroom in the afternoons and how much Erin's children seem to like her. And it’s all my fault because I'm just rubbish at teaching. If the children were in Erin’s class they'd be better off.

Mentor: And so, because you care about your children, you then decided that you've let them down.

Maya: That's right.

Mentor: You also indicated this was a change in your thinking. How did you think about yourself as a teacher in the past?

Maya: I guess I used to think I was okay because I try to really listen to the children and be the best teacher that I can be. But I see now that trying isn't enough.

Mentor: I'm not sure I understand. Why is trying not enough?

Maya: Because no matter how hard I try, they still are not doing as well, or seem to be as happy as they would be with another teacher.

Mentor: Is that what they say to you?

Maya: No. But I can see how well children are learning in other classes and how happy they seem to be.

Mentor: And you'd like your class to be happier and to achieve more?

Maya: Yes.

Mentor: What things would you do differently if you weren't feeling so miserable and felt more confident about your abilities as a teacher?

Maya: I think I'd be a lot calmer and would smile a lot more and be much more positive with the children - give them praise for the things they do well more often, like Erin does.

Mentor: Are these things you could do even when you're tired and frustrated?

Maya: Well, yes, I think I could try.

Mentor: Would that feel better to you - trying some new positive approaches rather than feeling cross and upset with the class?

Maya: Yes. I think it would. But I'm not sure it would be enough if I'm still as tired and exhausted as I feel now. I'm just not sure that I have got what it takes.

Mentor: How could you find that out?

Maya: I guess I could try it for a week or so.

Mentor: And how will you evaluate whether these changes are making your children feel happier and learning more?

Maya: I could try using that emotions chart we discussed in the staff meeting last month and Erin mentioned a rewards scheme she uses with her class. Perhaps if they were earning rewards for doing well Iwould know things were going better in class.

Mentor: Are you feeling any better now that we have talked this through?

Maya: Well, I guess yes, a bit... at least I've got something I can try and just talking has made me think more clearly about things.

Mentor: Okay, so shall we make a time to check in next week to see how things are going?

Having read the role-play dialogue, Task 10.4 asks you to consider the use of Socratic guestioning in practice.

Task 10.4 Applying Socratic questioning

  • • Do any of the mentor’s questions from Case study 10.2 fit the six categories of Socratic questioning in the table above?
  • • Think of a mentee you know who has presented negative thoughts. Could coaching with Socratic questions have helped the mentee to see things more positively?
  • • What questions might you ask the mentee?
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