Teaching Open-Ended Socratic Questions: Encourage Students to Think Critically

Socrates: Master Questioner

In ancient Greece, Socrates developed a means of teaching by asking questions as if he had no clue of the subject. This technique

Sanzio 01 Socrates

allowed his students to express their views prior to teaching. The Socratic Method of teaching is still a valuable tool for any classroom.

Utilizing the Socratic Method is to teach critical thinking to students. Often, students feel their opinion means nothing in the classroom. The give and take of good open-ended questions removes these feelings, allowing students to take an active part in their education.

There are six types of Socratic questions used in teaching. They are questions that clarify, probe reasons or evidence, probe assumptions, probe implications or consequences, and even question other questions! Most questions begin with how, what, or why. Avoid "can you…" or "do you…" questions, as they often lead to "yes" or "no" answers.

Show Me an Example

The following are examples of good open-ended questions found across the curriculum.

English Literature

  • How does the author create tension in this story?
  • Why is the main character portrayed as a hero?
  • What evidence is there of conflict between character X and Y?
  • When do you find the climax of this story?
  • Where does the author use imagery in the story?

Language Arts

  • Why do we have poetry?
  • What is the difference between simile and metaphor?
  • How does "He does not" differ from "He does not have"?


  • What are the reasons for the decrease of lake and river water?
  • How can gravity be proven?
  • Why is the invention of the cotton gin an important discovery?
  • What is the process of blood flow through the heart and arteries?


  • How do we find the circumference of a circle?
  • What are the practical uses for geometry?
  • Why are numbers infinite?

Social Studies

  • What were the results of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • Why was the Great Wall of China built?
  • How would you compare technology today with advances made during the Industrial Revolution?
  • What similarities are found between the Buddhist of Tibet and the Hopi peoples of the Southwestern United States?


  • What are the purposes for music in life?
  • What are the differences between rock and roll and folk music?
  • Why is the orchestra divided into sections?


  • What effect would the use of light have on a painting?
  • How do you know that Van Gogh had a troubled life?
  • What difference does art make in the lives of ordinary people?

Teach Me

Teaching open-ended questions will enable students to look more critically at the world around them. The best means to teach this skill is by example; model good open-ended questions for your students. Explain the six types of open-ended questions. During a class, have the students practice asking open-ended questions to each other by pairing them up. Give them a specific topic to discuss.

If you want to make this a fun challenge, give student points for each good open-ended question they develop. If their question leads to a one-word answer (yes or no), take a 1/2 point off their score. Doing this will give the students an opportunity to really think before they speak, which is one very important way that teaching open-ended questions helps to develop critical literacy.