Socrates, Thou Wast a Genius!

I’ve been using Socratic seminars since I started teaching upper school five years ago, and while some seminars have gone better than others, generally I’ve had great success with this method of instruction.  I wanted to write a post about Socratic seminars in hopes of encouraging others to give them a try as well. Unsure what exactly a Socratic seminar is?  Read on.

Socratic seminars are text-based discussions that are centered around one overarching question that does not have a single correct answer.  Students, through their discussion, create meaning out of the text and pose possible answers to the question.  The teacher acts both as the leader of the discussion but also as a participant, modeling how to read a text, ask questions of the text, and pose possible responses to the text.  It may seem like Socratic seminars work best with the humanities, but the truth is they can work in any discipline, including mathematics and science.  Likewise, they can work with ANY grade level, even elementary students.  If you don’t believe me, see this video which includes groups of third graders, eighth graders, and twelfth graders participating in Socratic seminars.  I, myself, have used this technique with both advanced and regular college prep students.

This past Friday, my Advanced Placement United States history class participated in a Socratic seminar.  Because this particular group of students has participated in such seminars in the past, I actually tasked two students with leading the discussion instead of leading the seminar myself.  I sat outside the discussion, taking notes on who said what and what was said.  The students discussed two articles dealing with the question Was conflict between Native Americans and European settlers inevitable?  I could tell the students felt a bit awkward in the beginning, especially not having me there to guide them, but they ended up doing a great job pulling the articles apart, coming up with their own questions, and posing possible responses to those questions.  They referred to the specifics in the articles, responded respectfully towards each other, and communicated their ideas clearly and effectively.  I couldn’t have been more pleased with how the first seminar of the year went.

Wanna give this technique a try?  Here’s some things to keep in mind when using Socratic seminars.

  • Pick meaty, controversial texts with lots of food for thought.
  • Give students plenty of time to read the text ahead of time and require a “ticket” in order to participate in the seminar – a short, written response to the text that students bring on the day of the seminar; No ticket – no entry to the discussion, and the student receives a 0 on the assignment.
  • Have students sit in a circle so they can see one another, and allow them to have the annotated text with them.
  • Number the lines of the text (I mark every five lines), and encourage students to refer to specifics in the text.  Ex. “In line 45, the author says…”
  • Do not require students to raise their hands, but require them to speak one at a time.
  • Require students to respond to the last comment or question before moving the conversation forward with a new thought.
  • Encourage students to converse with and question each other rather than the teacher.  Once the discussion is going, take yourself out of the equation as much as possible and let the conversation flow naturally among the students.
  • Grade students on the quality (and to a lesser extent the quantity) of their participation.
  • Do not feel like students have to walk away from the discussion with clear answers.  It’s okay for them to walk away still thinking.  In fact, that’s what we want!
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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Monday Morning Roundup #6 « Wiser Today and Still Learning

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