Data Literacy: Using the Socratic Method

How can data literacy be incorporated in professional development at work, outside of a formal education system?I cannot teach anybody anything.

I can only make them think.

– Socrates The key is to recognize that at the core of it, data literacy skills are critical thinking skills.

And, good questions are the key to developing critical thinking.

No one understood this better than Socrates.

He believed that:The disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine ideas and be able to determine the validity of those ideas.

– What is Socratic QuestioningThis method of stimulating higher level thinking is known as Socratic Questioning (or a Socratic Seminar).

  The keywords “disciplined” and “thoughtful” distinguish Socratic questioning from the general act of asking questions.

Organized and deliberate questions not only help examine the information in front of you, but also help reflect on your own thinking about that information (metacognition).

This kind of reflective thinking helps trace the path taken from information to conclusion and exposes any assumptions made along the way.

In their paper “Socratic Questioning,” Paul and Binker draw the link between Socratic questioning and critical thinking as follows:Use of Socratic questioning presupposes the following points: All thinking has assumptions; makes claims or creates meaning; has implications and consequences; focuses on some things and throws others into the background; uses some concepts or ideas and not others; is defined by purposes, issues, or problems; uses or explains some facts and not others; is relatively clear or unclear; is relatively deep or superficial; is relatively monological or multi-logical.

Critical thinking is thinking done with an effective, self monitoring awareness of these points.

– Richard Paul & A.



Binker, The Critical Thinking Handbook SeriesFurther, Linda Elder and Richard Paul of the Foundation for Critical Thinking identify the following six types of Socratic questions that stimulate high level thinking.

 This method is used in law schools around the country to teach how to expose any logical fallacies in arguments.

 The beauty of this framework is that it can be adapted to any topic of interest.

In our case, Data!When used by individuals to probe a piece of information on their own, it strengthens their understanding of the data, exposes logical pitfalls, and drives insight.

An even more effective application of Socratic questioning is in stimulating a guided discussion among the stakeholders of a data project.

By examining data together and reasoning through it together, the group can impart more context to it and construct a stronger statistical narrative; all the while developing their data literacy skills.

Since the goal of a Socratic seminar is to think better, who better to lead the discussion than a Data thinker.

A Socratic Seminar can also help identify gaps in individual knowledge, promote curiosity, and instill intellectual humility.

The gaps in knowledge and topics of data literacy that are uncovered in this discussion, can than be built upon using more traditional lectures and tutorials.

 Below are example questions for each category.

Not every example question listed here will be applicable to every situation and some questions may fall in more than one category.

The main goal should be to ask questions from all six categories.

Bio: With formal education in Biostatistics and 8 years of experience in managing and analyzing data, Aarzoo Sidhu, author of The Data Thinker, is now on a journey to go beyond data science with the goal to explore the multiple paths that can be taken to go from data to insight.

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