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Not long ago, I was asked to teach Socratic questioning to some doctors specialising in accident and emergency medicine. This might seem like a strange piece of work to take on. Doctors in emergency medicine commonly work fast and under great pressure. They have to recall and apply factual knowledge at speed, and to teach their trainees to do the same. Socratic questioning, by contrast, is a way of teaching that depends on slowing things down. Named after the Greek philosopher Socrates, the method rests on the assumption that people gain a fuller understanding of a problem if they work out each stage of the answer for themselves.1 Teachers therefore avoid asking any leading questions, offering direct information, or confronting students openly with their ignorance. Instead, they use a progression of open questions to help students think about any problem logically. A typical series of Socratic questions from a clinical teacher might be: ‘What explanations could account for these symptoms?”, ‘Which seems the most likely cause?”, ‘Why do you think so?’ and ‘How would you establish that for certain?’
I was teaching the emergency doctors with a colleague who was not herself a doctor but a professional educator. We knew it would be hard for them to use Socratic questions in the hurly-burly of their everyday work, but we wanted to show how there might be a place for these in more relaxed moments, for example in case discussions before or after seeing patients. We expected there might be some scepticism, and were not surprised when one of the participants challenged us quite early on, saying that he could see absolutely no place for such an approach in his work, or …
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