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TEO091479

UNDERSTANDING THE USE OF SOCRATIC QUESTIONING TO ENHANCE THE LEARNING OF


BIOLOGY FOR HIGH-ABILITY LEARNERS IN RAFFLES INSTITUTION

Teo Chai Yaw [Raffles Institution, Singapore (chaiyaw.teo@ri.edu.sg)]

Abstract:

This is a small-scale exploratory study attempting to understand the use of Socratic Questioning with high-
ability learners from Raffles Institution (RI). The research triangulated the data collected via lesson
observations, interviews with the curriculum experts from the Ministry of Education, heads of departments in RI
and a focused group discussion with selected students. Curriculum experts and highly experienced teachers
shared their views about the use of Socratic Questioning to enhance critical thinking with particular application
to the teaching of Biology. The data indicated that while students found value in the use of Socratic
Questioning in enhancing learning in science, there is a need to examine more closely how the science
curriculum is structured and delivered. A recommendation is put forth for the teachers from the Science and
Philosophy departments to engage in closer collaboration and professional learning in the development of
quality science education.

Introduction:

Research on thinking and gifted education has received much interest from the international community. In the
U.S., many organizations such as the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), Thinking Foundation
led by Dr David Heryle and Foundation for Critical Thinking founded by Richard Paul, dedicate their
organizational efforts to the understanding and nurturing of effective thinking to support learning. The mission
statement on the webpage of the Foundation for Critical Thinking reads, “critical thinking is essential if we are
to get to the root of our problems and develop reasonable solutions. After all, the quality of everything we do is
determined by the quality of our thinking”, clearly states the importance of quality thinking.

In Singapore, the announcement by the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1997 on the
mission of “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” (TSLN) was a major milestone in the education landscape of
Singapore. According to the Singapore Ministry of Education, the vision of TSLN is critical to the survival of
Singapore on the global stage, as highlighted by the following statement: “This (TSLN) vision describes a
nation of thinking and committed citizens capable of meeting the challenges of the future, and an education
system geared to the needs of the 21st century” (Education Statistic Digest 2008, p.7).

Critical Thinking
Developing critical thinking skills in students has been the subject of much study in schools (Brady, 2008;
Costa, 2008; Swartz, 2008). Instructional approaches such as classroom assessment techniques, cooperative
learning, and case study pedagogy have been used to develop students’ critical thinking skills (Chin, 2006).
Research in developing thinking in schools has generally examined two main areas: the teacher’ teaching
techniques and the environment students are in. Many scholars have argued that teachers need to constantly
encourage and model critical thinking in order to teach students thinking (Epstein, 2008; Nodding, 2008;
Ritchart & Perkin, 2008). Others have similarly argued that equal emphasis on the learning environment is
important and that the teachers’ influence on the learning environment is an important one. Thus, the effective
use of teaching techniques in the classroom is very much a function of teachers’ modeling the desired
dispositions in the classrooms.

The development of thinking skills among students is not without debate. For years, educators have put
emphasis on content, which reflects the traditional view of teachers as the source of knowledge. Whether
critical thinking or content should come first, is very much a subject of contention. For content-based subjects,
Brady (2008) has argued that the inculcation of thinking skills is limited by the common view that covering the
content is more important than developing thinking skills. In the article, “All Our Students Thinking”, Nodding
(2008) suggested that students can learn thinking as long as teachers teach in an intellectually challenging
manner. The teacher plays an instrumental role in students’ learning in the classroom. Teachers serve as good
role models in demonstrating effective thinking during lessons.

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Socratic Questioning
Renowned scholars in the field of thinking, Richard Paul and Hilda Taba have suggested that the types and
levels of questions asked reflect levels of thinking (Taba, 1966). Paul argues that thinking is driven by
questions and that questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues. On the other hand, answers
that are given directly often signal closure to the thinking process. Richard Paul suggests that critical thinking
and Socratic Questioning share a common end, which is to establish disciplined thinking (Paul, 1990; Scriven &
Paul, 2004). Socratic Questioning is a process of thinking that is transferable across disciplines, regardless of
subject matter. The Socratic method seeks to develop in students clarity of thought.

Richard Paul’s Elements of Thought and Socratic Questioning


Elements of Thought describe the concepts which are present whenever thinking takes place. The eight elements
are purpose of the thinking, question at issue, information, interpretation & inference, concepts, assumptions,
implications & consequences and points of view. In the use of Socratic Questioning with reference to the
components of the Elements of Thought, it is also important to refer to the Universal Intellectual Standards
during discussion (Elder & Paul, 1998). The USA National Research Council (NRC), in discussing the National
Science Education Standards, elaborates the standards expected in the learning of nature of science (National
Academy of Science, 1998). The importance of standards in learning science thus warrants attention.
Universal Intellectual Standards are standards which must be applied to thinking whenever one is interested in
checking the quality of reasoning about a problem, issue, or situation. These are: clarity, accuracy, precision,
relevance, depth, breadth and logic (www.critical thinking.org). With reference to the Elements of Thought, I
am proposing to examine students’ thinking in three aspects: examine the thinking of students by examining the
information that is relevant to the topic, the intepretation of the data and the assumptions students make. The
rationale for focusing on these three Elements of Thought stems from the traditional notion of Biology as a
factual subject and that the questions generated in this discipline are mainly related to those of information,
assumptions and interpretation.

Socratic Questioning in education has been used in many situations, such as promoting critical thinking skills
through Asynchronous Discussion Forum (ADF) (Yang, Newby & Bill, 2005) and in a web-based course on
electricity and electronics (Rose, Moore, Vanlehn & Allbritton, 1996). The research studies showed positive
outcomes in the use of the Socratic method to long term learning and in enhancing the critical thinking skills of
learners. Maiorana however, pointed out the possibility that if used ineffectively by teachers and students who
are ill-prepared or lack appropriate thinking competencies, the amount of teachable content may be relatively
limited. She also raised the concern that in the traditional classrooms, it is likely that teachers bear most of the
responsibilities for questioning, rather than the students in the classroom (Maiorana, 1990).

Nature of Science (NOS)


In terms of human interactions, people generate complex and delicate connections biologically, psychologically,
physically and emotionally. This complicated network of interactions results from the ability of the human
being to observe, experiment, validate and infer using the information gathered. This is the fundamental
philosophy of the nature of science that differentiates science from non-science (AAAS, 2008). N.G. Lederman
from the Department of Science and Mathematics Education, Oregon State University concluded that scientific
knowledge is tentative, subjective and value-laden (Lederman, 1992; Lederman, 1999). The very fact that
scientific knowledge is tentative and subjective provides room for the use of Socratic Questioning to further
challenge minds to pursue truth, although “truth” in itself may take on a number of different truths, each of
which continues to be a subjective interpretation of empirical data. This continuous cycle of questioning
information and questioning assumptions used in interpreting data is therefore fundamentally related to the
concept of reasoning proposed by Richard Paul, using the Elements of Thought and Paul’s Wheel of Reasoning.
It is thus necessary for us to draw from the philosophies and work in the Nature of Science to better understand
the use of Socratic Questioning in the teaching of biology.

Science education in Singapore


In the last decade or so, education in Singapore has given much focus to the development of thinking skills
among students. Given the impetus of the “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” initiative in 1997, curriculum
planners from Curriculum Planning and Development Division (CPDD), MOE have rolled out curriculum
packages to teach thinking skills. However, an important question remains in need of further investigation:
How much of the focus on teaching thinking skills has translated to evidence of effective thinking in
classrooms?

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Venthan (2006) in his study of Secondary Science Education in Singapore Classrooms concluded that classroom
practices were found to be heavily teacher-centered, science teaching in Singapore secondary science
classrooms were mostly accomplished through teacher-fronted explanations (p.68) and students’ ability to put
forth their points in verbal or textual mode was not emphasized. Venthan’s study has shed some light on the
lack of verbal interactions between teachers and students. In another study, Christine Chin examined Singapore
classrooms involving six science teachers from four schools (Chin, 2007). Chin concluded that teacher
questioning in the science classrooms was very purposeful and that the questions served as a “cognitive ladder”
to scaffold students to higher levels of knowledge and understanding (p.837). Chin made an interesting
observation and highlighted that while the questioning strategies used by teachers were influenced by Western
philosophies, the processes were constrained by large classes and the prevailing Confucian views of teachers as
a master, virtuoso performer and coach, resulting in the greater use of whole-class talk as compared to the use of
questioning, including Socratic Questioning.

Background to the problem and purpose of study


The Raffles Programme in Raffles Institution is an integrated programme that culminates in the “A” level
examination. As students do not need to take the “O” Level Examination, the programme provides many
opportunities for students to experience the essence of the Raffles Programme – the breath and depth of the
otherwise regular curriculum. The use of Socratic Questioning serves to create a community of learners who
can manage their own thinking and learning, across topics, subjects and disciplines.

The Ministry of Education's (MOE) vision of "Thinking Schools, Learning Nation" (TSLN) in 1997 has
heralded major educational reforms in Singapore, and has led educators to examine more closely the quality of
teaching in Singapore classrooms. Brady (2008) asserts: “pupils should not be taught to think, but rather,
pupils’ should learn how to examine, elaborate and put thinking into deliberate use to convert information into
knowledge” (p.66). Existing research in the teaching of science has focused largely on the understanding of
learning environments to promote critical thinking in students (Epstein, 2008; Ritchart & Perkins, 2000;
Windschilt, 2006) and significance of critical thinking on students, with samples based largely on samples in the
U.S.

The Socratic Questioning framework (Paul, 1990) provides a powerful platform to probe and challenge student
thinking during lessons. Biological Science requires the learning of a huge body of factual knowledge, and it is
necessary to ensure basic facts are taught (and learned) before further thinking can be challenged. The use of
Socratic Questioning to challenge the thinking of students in Biology is a promising approach to help students
develop better reasoning and thinking skills in Biology lessons. Understanding the use of Socratic Questioning
with high-ability learners in a top school in Singapore will serve to provide a closer re-examination of how
Science is taught and a better understanding of the challenges to nurture critical thinking in Science, even
among high-ability learners.

The purpose of this study is to understand the use of Socratic Questioning in the teaching of Biological Science.
On a broader note, the study seeks to understand how students can develop critical thinking in the learning of
science. The study draws on the systematic use of Socratic Questioning based on Richard Paul’s Elements of
Thought (Paul 1989, 1990, 1995, 1997) to provide a platform for enhancing the learning of science in secondary
school. This study aims to contribute to the learning of Biological Science in the Singapore classroom for high-
ability learners (HALs). This will also serve to inform institutional practice in the regular classrooms for
mainstream schools. Hence, in the larger context in Singapore, the study seeks to encourage a shift from the
traditional approach of teaching for factual knowledge in Biological Science to teaching for understanding
through the use of Socratic Questioning. Through the use of the Socratic method, the study also seeks to help
teachers understand how the use of Socratic Questioning provide students with positive learning experiences as
they learn the art of asking questions, and are in turn, inspired to embrace the heart of critical thinking
(Maxwell, 2007). Specifically, this study aims to answer two research questions: firstly, how Socratic
Questioning can be used to enhance critical thinking among high-ability learners. Secondly, what some of the
ways are in which Socratic Questioning can be used to enhance critical thinking in the teaching of Secondary
Biology for high-ability learners.

Method:

Setting and Paricipants


The primary data for this study was collected through interviews with two curriculum specialists from the Gifted
Education Branch Ministry of Education, lesson observations and interviews with Head2 Science and Head
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Philosophy in Raffles Institution, as well as a Focused Group Discussion (FGD) with students from Raffles
Academy (RA) doing Biology. The RA students were selected because they form a purposive sample of the top
students in the Secondary Four Biology cohort who would be able to share insights on the use of Socratic
Questioning in Biology.

Procedure
The interview with the curriculum specialists was conducted at the Gifted Education Branch of the Singapore
Ministry of Education. Both specialists train teachers from all disciplines who work with high-ability learners in
both primary and secondary schools. The purpose of the interview was to seek understanding of use of Socratic
Questioning to enhance critical thinking among high-ability learners. The first lesson observation with Head2
Science was during an inquiry lesson for the Raffles Academy students doing Biology. The lesson was a
continuation of an earlier lesson on basic theories in disease transmission. A focused group discussion (FGD)
was then conducted with ten students from the Raffles Academy Biology class with whom Head2 Science had
earlier conducted the inquiry lesson using Socratic Questioning. The lesson by Head Philosophy was with a
group of secondary three and four students taking the Philosophy elective module. The class discussed the idea
of censorship on artists, and opinions on their performances that can be interpreted differently by different
people.

Analysis of data
During the data analysis, broad themes were identified and categorized. The main findings were then counter-
checked with teachers and students for further clarification. Member checking (Creswell, 2008) is an important
process to check the accuracy of information provided by the participants in the study.

Findings:

Research question 1: How can Socratic Questioning be used to enhance critical thinking among high-ability
learners?

Curriculum specialists’ perspectives


The curriculum specialists stressed the importance for teachers to be clear about the purpose of the lesson using
Socratic Questioning - if it is purely to ensure the retention of facts or to elicit understanding of specific issues
or concepts. It is important for a teacher to understand issues or concepts before the teacher is able to create
open-ended questions for class discussions. In planning the use of Socratic Questioning in any lesson, it is
important to ensure that the questioning process is sustainable, i.e. the underlying problem or issue must be
clearly stated and have sufficient scope and depth so that there will be opportunities provided during the lessons
to uncover knowledge and perspectives through discussions. According to the curriculum experts in planning
for Socratic lessons, the following strategies are recommended:

a) Use Richard Paul’s Wheel of Reasoning with the Elements of Thoughts as the starting point in planning
lessons. The teacher should firstly understand key concepts that students should learn. Content related
to the topic is then developed, followed by essential questions to be asked in the class.
b) Model the thinking process – the teacher should ensure that students are familiar with process and basic
elements in thinking, such as the Elements of Thought and the Universal Intellectual Standards. Use
techniques such as “pumping”, “tossing” and “reflective challenge” (Chin, 2006) in the class to create a
platform for students to ask and answer questions. These techniques would help the class to keep away
from didactic questions and responses which lead to closure in the thinking process.
c) Write down students’ answers on the white board to guide discussions. This would also help to honor
learners who are visual-spatial learners, as the classroom discussion usually involves verbalization of
the answers, which favors students who are auditory learners.

Teachers’ perspectives
Head2 Science employed Socratic Questioning strategies using an article about John Snow’s research, to elicit
students’ understanding of the disease transmission processes. Head2 Science commented that the preparedness
of students in taking part in an inquiry lesson is crucial to the success of a Socratic lesson. A Socratic session
requires learners to be ready for the discussion. In short, a Socratic session requires learners to be prepared for
the discussion. Head2 Science stressed that the teacher should know the structure of Socratic Questioning well,
prepare a number of questions beforehand, have some idea of the direction that the teacher would like the
discussion to go to, but also to be prepared not to be too rigid about the planned lesson. At the end of the lesson,

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it is still important to fully summarize the learner outcomes, so that pupils are clear about the key focus of the
lesson.

The lesson by Head Philosophy was about discussing the idea of censorship on artists. Head Philosophy said
that a lot of scaffolding and teaching of other basic skills (such as formulating an argument, argument writing)
were needed to be carried out effectively before students could think with such rigor. In Raffles Institution, all
secondary one students are required to do a Philosophy module. The module includes the philosophy of science.
This provides students with the thinking skills and dispositions for Socratic Questioning and provides the
foundation for inquiry lessons in the later years in school.

The importance of scaffolding is supported by previous research conducted in Singapore classrooms by Chin
(2006). With respect to Socratic Questioning, Chin described the teacher as an “interlocutor and a coach who
provided scaffolding through asking guiding questions to advance students’ thinking” (p. 836). Head
Philosophy also recognized the challenge to balance the expectations of rigor, precision framing and
development of arguments on one hand, with the desire to inculcate good thinking habits, on the other. As with
Head2 Science, Head Philosophy also outlined some important factors for consideration when preparing for a
Socratic lesson. Teachers need to consider: (a) what key understanding(s) that students are to arrive at; (b) what
background knowledge students need to know to arrive at key understandings; (c) what skills are needed for
students to have (for example, turn-taking, seeking / checking for clarity and relevance); and (d) if there is a
need for an absolute closure to the issues discussed or if it is preferable for issues to be left open as a
controversy (these considerations need to be in alignment with the specific instructional objectives of the
lesson/unit). Head Philosophy added that Socratic Questioning need not be fronted only by teachers. The
students should eventually be ready to take on the role of questioner to model good thinking disposition and
create a community of learners.

Students’ perspectives
During the focused group discussion with the RA Biology students, the students suggested the need for an
antithesis – a counter proposition that challenges the facts and views presented earlier. They noted that a lack of
antithesis tended to make discussions seem one sided, i.e., the students had no choice but to accept what was
presented as correct. In the case of the RA Biology lesson, the class discussion was that what John Snow did
was right. This was because the points of discussion were only from one source, i.e. all the points brought up
during the lesson were derived from the article. Without any antithesis, the probing will stop (as one
interviewee pointed out during the FGD). Having a premature closure to the discussion would counter the
objectives of Socratic Questioning in the teaching of Science. The students in the FGD panel also noted that
Socratic questions should be used to discuss issues and as a closure to a topic, i.e. at the end of the unit. The
students felt that over-use of Socratic Questioning in an earlier part of a lesson unit is not meaningful. This is
due to their perception that science is a factual subject and should be taught directly and inductively.

In summary, in order for Socratic Questioning to be used effectively to enhance the learning of the high-ability
learners, (a) teachers need to change their mindsets to adopt a more inquiry-based, Socratic approach in lessons,
as appropriate, and be aware of the reasoning process needed for such lessons to be conducted effectively, rather
than focus solely on subject based content-knowledge; (b) teachers need to be more conscientious in the use of
questions that develop students’ thinking, and in the use of the different elements in Paul’s Wheel of Reasoning,
as appropriate, to model thinking processes and dispositions in the classrooms; and (c) students need to be ready
in terms of the basic knowledge of a particular discipline and willing to contribute to a Socratic lesson as active
and engaged learners.

Research question 2: What are some of the ways in which Socratic Questioning can be used to enhance critical
thinking in the teaching of Secondary Biology for high-ability learners?

Curriculum specialists’ perspectives


It is important for students to understand Richard Paul’s Elements of Thought even before beginning the journey
of Socratic Questioning in the class. The Elements of Thought should also be used with sensitivity to the
Universal Intellectual Standards. If students understand the Elements of Thought, they will be more
conscientious with their thinking and thus able to generate questions through critical thinking and the habit can
be self-sustained. For a start, it will be good for teachers to show students the diagram that depicts the Elements
of Thought on the whiteboard / projector from time to time to students to use these tools to facilitate thinking.
Teachers need to conscientiously model the process of questioning using the elements and standards to inculcate
the habits of mind in the students. During the questioning process, it is important for teachers to regularly refer
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students’ responses to the Universal Intellectual Standards to help students understand how their responses are
aligned with the intellectual standards and assess the quality and clarity of one’s thinking. In order to probe
understanding, it is also important for teachers to ensure the students in class are at the similar level in terms of
their understanding of a particular concept. This can be done through the use of strategies like exit cards (Exit1-
2-3), concept mapping / summarizing or getting students to create and critique each others’ questions. In
Biology, the curriculum specialists noted that Socratic Questioning can be used to help students understand the
use of terminology in the subject. For example, many terms in Biology are formed from the use of the prefix
and suffix. Students can be asked to examine the historical development of the Biological terms, and the use of
Socratic Questioning would facilitate this process.

Teachers’ perspectives
Head2 Science, Raffles Institution
Head2 Science noted that it is essentially possible to apply Socratic Questioning to any topic in the Biology
curriculum, but to use Socratic Questioning only when necessary and appropriate. This does not necessarily
mean that Socratic questions can only be used with topics that have ethical issues to deliberate upon. It is
necessary for teachers to rethink “issues” and “concepts”. Some strategies that teachers can consider to teach
Biology through Socratic Questioning are:

a) The students can be asked about a concept or to critique experiments or research work that has been
done and to link the learning back to the Nature of Science. This can be done in all topics in the
Biology curriculum. For example, students can compare different theories of the cell and be engaged
to ask why different inferences were made by different groups of scientists.
b) Teachers should link the content taught in Biology to the Nature of Science (NOS). Rather than a mere
focus on content, students can be asked to interpret the information presented by books and research
articles by connecting their learning to the background knowledge the students have acquired in class.
All students’ learning outcomes must eventually be tied back to the Specific Instructional Objectives
(SIOs) of the unit.
c) Lessons can begin with didactic classroom teaching on the basic concepts /facts about a concept,
followed by more in-depth class discussions facilitated by Socratic Questioning, where appropriate.
d) Students can be asked to read an article or write-up about an experiment. Students are then asked to
suggest and justify how else the scientist can conduct the experiment.

Head2 Science has been giving her class of RA Biology students a series of open-ended assignments as an on-
going practice. She feels that this is necessary so as to train students to adapt to the Socratic way of questioning
and thinking. The regular practice also serves as a means to monitor those students who choose not to talk much
during a Socratic lesson and provides a way for these students to stay focused in the thinking process despite
doing less talk in the lesson as compared to the other students. Head2 Science concluded that “while Socratic
Questioning in the fullest sense of the word is not often used in a science lesson that wants to go in depth into
the facts, the use of Socratic questions has its place as a way of discussing issues that enable pupils to examine
their thinking”. Although Head2 Science feels that science is best learnt with hands-on experiments and
activities Socratic questions are useful even when done for a short span of time within a lesson. She
recommended that infusing Socratic Questioning in a lesson, irrespective of the amount of time spent, has its
place in challenging students to acquire higher order thinking skills.

Head Philosophy, Raffles Institution


Head Philosophy suggested that one of the major considerations to the successful use of Socratic Questioning in
science is the ability of science teachers to craft suitable questions that map the inquiry process. The key to
effective use of Socratic questions lies in the congruency of the series of Socratic questions (leading questions)
used in science lessons that should eventually lead to greater clarity, breadth and depth, as aligned with Paul’s
intellectual standards. It is thus important for teachers in the Science Department to review the essential
questions that are crafted in lesson exemplars. The need for questions to be thoughtfully crafted and sequenced
was also underscored by Chin (2006).

Responding to students’ feedback that Socratic Questioning should only be used as a closure to a lesson unit,
Head Philosophy suggested that Socratic questions can be used in the beginning of a unit to create “puzzlement”
that will spur students to read on and generate interest within the scope of the lesson unit. When Socratic
questions are used at the end of a unit, Socratic Questioning again creates “puzzlement”, but this time it serves
to extend and to broaden the curriculum unit.

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Students’ perspectives
Socratic questions are useful in terms of the breadth of discussions. However, the student panel commented that
the use of Socratic questions is limited in science subjects, especially Biology. This is because the students
viewed scientific knowledge as very much inductive in nature. They indicated that excessive probing of facts
using the Socratic technique was not meaningful. In fact, this may bore students, especially high-ability
learners. Consider the following excerpt from the focused group discussion (FGD) with the Secondary 4 Raffles
Academy (RA) students:

Researcher : “Do you think SQ (Socratic Questioning) is affected by the type of learner
you are, in terms of your preference for science or humanities subjects?”
Student ZY : “I am not sure but I think for someone who is not a humanities person, I do
not relate well with SQ, with a discussion style of teaching that raises factors
but does not come to a common end.”
Researcher : “Does this mean that SQ does not enhance your learning as a science
student?”
Student ZY : “SQ enhances my learning by getting me to see a lot more things, but I am
not sure if the learning of science is really concerned with SQ.”
Student AT : “Ya, I think fundamentally SQ is only applicable for those no “yes” or no
“wrong” responses, I mean for the current state of science, it is not suitable
to use SQ on facts; but rather for future maybe for research, maybe we
can use SQ to falsify theories.

As the above exchange illustrates, the students are somewhat skeptical of the use of Socratic Questioning in the
teaching of science, although they seem to appreciate the fact that the Socratic method provides depth and
breadth to the subject. The students seemed to perceive science as focusing on the retention of facts and seemed
to regard the current state of science taught in school as associated with knowing facts. Despite the fact that
these high-ability learners in the Raffles Academy Biology class do not seem to see Socratic Questioning as
highly relevant in science lessons, the students welcomed the selective use of this questioning technique during
lessons, but not in the early phase of a curriculum unit. In the early stage of a unit, the students indicated that
they prefer a more didactic mode of teaching, rather than the use of Socratic Questioning. They are concerned
with the fact that they will not be able to appreciate the key understandings of a unit if Socratic Questioning is
used too early and too frequently in a unit.

During the focused group discussion, the students suggested the need for a focus to a discussion during the
lesson as discussions may go wild without a focus. They felt that a teacher needs to guide discussions closely so
that at the end of the lesson, the discussion points are consolidated in relation to the learning outcomes stated for
the lesson. In other words, the discussion should be tied back to the current reality, after using Socratic
Questioning to challenge learners to think broadly about an issue. This is fundamentally an important feature of
the Nature of Science that has its roots in empiricism in the current realities of things. For example, after a
Socratic discussion on abortion on ethical and moral issues, students may be encouraged to look at issues locally
and in other countries, linking the ideas discussed in the class and interpreting the realities occurring locally and
elsewhere. Nonetheless, the students in the FGD generally agreed that Socratic teaching enables them to widen
their perspectives of a topic. This allows them to continue pursuing learning beyond what is taught.

Analysis:

Implications for instruction


Socratic Questioning and the Nature of Science
Science is characterized by the systematic gathering of information through various forms of direct and indirect
observations and the testing of this information by methods including, but not limited to, experimentation. The
principal product of science is knowledge in the form of naturalistic concepts and the laws and theories related
to those concepts (NSTA, July 2000). Joe Schwartz and Stephen Barret suggest that science is a truth-seeking
process and it is often difficult to give categorical “Yes” or “No” answers to scientific questions (Schwartz &
Barret, 1999). This implies that science is not so “inductive” after all as suggested by the students from the
Raffles Academy Biology class. Thus learning of science, in particular, Biology should not be purely inductive
in nature in which students merely accept the facts that are derived by scientists and experts. Instead, students
should be encouraged to engage in conscientious, relentless thinking about the facts they are confronted with.

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William F. McComas in his article entitled, “Keys to Teaching the Nature of Science” shared a few core ideas
about the Nature of Science. Among them, two of the elements are that knowledge production in science
includes many common features and shared habits of mind, and science has a subjective element. Inspite of
such commonalities there is no single step-by-step scientific method by which all science is done (McComas,
2004). In other words, although there are logical steps in the scientific method, there are still many idiosyncratic
ways of learning science that requires learners to apply reasoning skills into the formulation of knowledge. As
science is a human activity, there is an inevitable element of human subjectivity. Science students need to
recognize this subjectivity and confront this subjective component with reasoning skills that can be cross
referenced to Paul’s Universal Intellectual Standards, and eventually come to an agreed acceptance of scientific
facts. The effective and appropriate use of Socratic Questioning is well placed to approach science from the
Nature of Science philosophical lens.

During the focused group discussion, students in the RA Biology class commented that after using Socratic
Questioning to challenge learners to think broadly about an issue, discussions should be tied back to current
reality. For example, as noted earlier, after a Socratic discussion on abortion on ethical and moral issues,
students may be encouraged to look at issues locally and in other countries. This idea of linking scientific
learning to societal and global context is an important recommendation put forth by Ann Cavallo from The
University of Utah. Cavallo stressed the importance of inculcating global citizenry with awareness of changing
scientific knowledge in local and global contexts (Cavalo, 2008). From the response of the students in FGD,
there is a need for teachers to rethink how science is taught to students, not only to the high-ability learners in
Raffles Institution, but also students in other schools. Probably, the need to complete syllabus results in the
focus on teaching, rather than on learning and the process of thinking that leads to the creation of new
knowledge. While in Singapore, schools have been successful in improving achievement scores in national
examinations and students do well in international measures such as the TIMSS, this study impliesthat teachers
need to do more to teach and empower students in the thinking process, even with high-abilitylearners in top
schools.

As a teaching staff of Raffles Institution, I am aware of importance of the Socratic Questioning technique in the
Raffles Programme. As a matter of fact, questioning techniques, whether Socratic or not, is commonly used in
science lessons. The traditional approach of “4W1H” – “what, why, when, where and how” is an integral part
of teaching practices in science. What is lacking in the traditional “4W1H” approach is that learning stops at
“knowing”, and that this may not translate to “understanding” the essence of concepts, although some element
of understanding is addressed in the “why” questions. In comparison, the Socratic Questioning technique
focuses on challenging the thinking process, rather than knowing the content. Students will eventually learn to
examine their own thinking for clarity and this would serve to motivate them to understand science at a higher
level. The deeper understanding of science from the perspective of Nature of Science and the effective use of
Socratic Questioning will lead to a fuller understanding of scientific concepts and processes and thus enhance
overall scientific literacy of the students.

Significance of the study


This study shed some light in the understanding of using Socratic Questioning in enhancing the learning of
science. Secondary learning point interestingly points out the need to further understanding the way the high-
ability learners appreciate science. This study also argues for closer integration of Philosophy lesson into the
learning of science. This intergration should be considered across all secondary schools offering science
subjects; as a core or optional discipline.

Limitations
This study is based on the triangulation of data obtained from lesson observations and responses from a
purposive sample comprising curriculum experts, heads of departments, teachers and Raffles Academy students
doing Biology. This study is limited by the number of interviews and lesson observations that were possible
within the three months time frame for the research. It would be worthwhile to extend the study and to
interview teachers in the Science Department on their beliefs and practices with respect to the use of Socratic
Questioning in science lessons. Students should also be surveyed and interviewed in relation to their learning of
science. Within the short time frame of this study, the study was nevertheless able to seek some understanding
about the use of Socratic Questioning with particular application to the teaching of Biology to high-ability
learners. In doing so, the study has made a small contribution to the Raffles Programme in Raffles Institution,
in which its primary goals are to provide depth and breadth to students’ learning. This study has made an
important case for the need for teachers to reflect on and review current practice of using Socratic Questioning
during lessons.
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Conclusion:

This study has shown that in the teaching of science, from the philosophical approach of the Nature of Science
taught through the use of Socratic Questioning, it is important to work towards closer collaboration and
professional learning between the Philosophy Department and the Science Department in Raffles Institution.
One project that has emerged as a possible follow-up from this study is the proposal for an integrated package
developed by the two departments that will provide a more holistic and deeper science experience that will focus
on philosophical and critical thought. Areas that the colleagues from the Philosophy department can assist
include mapping of questioning processes, redesigning the essential questions that eventually help to tie back to
the key understandings of the unit and probably more peer teachings with collegues from both departments
coming together.

For the other schools which do not have philosophy lessons in the curriculum, it is advisable to set up one
department dedicated to teaching the students various aspects of philosophical approach to learning science,
with particular reference to the Nature of Science. The scope and sequence of the Philosophy curriculum should
be mapped out clearly to complement the specific instructional objectives of various departments in the school
at various levels. It is also very important to inculcate the spirit of sharing, probably through setting up
professional learning communities (PLC) at various levels, including both the school management and the
teachers from various departmnets.

Richard Paul put forth the importance of developing critical thought, moral integrity and responsible citizenship
as these encompass cognitive and affective dimensions. Together, these three dimensions nurture “intellectual
virtues, intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual good faith or integrity, intellectual perseverance,
intellectual fair-mindedness, and faith in reason”. These are the foundational building blocks to a holistic and
rigorous academic curriculum which Socratic teaching serves to provide students – a platform where they could
be challenged in terms of their ability to think. It allows the inculcation of various intellectual traits such as
intellectual humility, intellectual humility and empathy. Through the process of questioning, students will learn
to appreciate the values of humility and respect as students are challenged to examine their understanding,
assumptions and clarity towards issues discussed. In the long run, students learn to respect different viewpoints
and learn about the notion of change, complexity and uncertainty in dispositions; important traits of education
for the 21st century.

This study was part of an assignment to fulfil Master in Education


(Curriculum & Teaching) conferred to the author in March 2009. The
author is grateful to all the participants of the study. Special thanks go
to the faculty members from the Singapore National Institute of Education,
especially to Associate Professor Mary Anne Heng, Dr Jasmine Sim and
Dr Christina Ratnam, as well as Head Philosophy and Head Science,
Raffles Institution for their further input that opens up possibilities for
future research.

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