Socratic seminars are a democratic, student-centered, approach to class discussions. They can be used at any grade level with any subject area. In a Socratic Seminar, members meet in a circle (or more likely an oval, because, let’s be real, circles are really hard to create) and share their insights. Participants do not raise their hands or call on names. Because there’s no discussion leader, each member can comment or ask follow-up questions to one another. This approach can be empowering for participants because they own the conversation. Unlike a typical class discussion, the conversation moves fluidly back and forth rather than having to go through the teacher.
Check out the visual below. On the left, the traditional discussion has the teacher at the center and then arrows going to and from students. In a Socratic Seminar, the arrows go back and forth between all the students, not necessarily going through the teacher.
Why Socratic Seminars?
The Socratic Method isn’t exactly new. It’s been around since . . . well . . . Socrates. Actually, it likely predates Socrates. But sometimes older methods are actually more relevant because they reveal the deeply human skills we need in a world of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Often, the most innovative approaches take these classic ideas and re-envision them in light of a new context. We end up with an overlap of “best practices” and “next practices.” Such is the case with the Socratic Seminar.
When students engage in Socratic Seminars, they learn deeply human skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives. They engage in critical thinking and learn how to see truth as nuanced and complex. They learn how to speak up boldly and how to listen with empathy. What appears, on the surface, to be a messy conversation is actually an opportunity to develop the skills they’ll use in a democratic society.
From an academic standpoint, Socratic Seminars are a great opportunity to engage in retrieval practice and to make key connections between ideas. In the process, the knowledge shifts is more likely to move into long-term memory.
However, there is a risk that certain people will dominate the conversation and quieter participants won’t speak up. It can be tricky for introverts who need additional processing time. It can also be challenging for ELL students who need language supports. Moreover, members of marginalized groups might be more reluctant to share their thoughts. That’s why I’d like to explore some ways that we can design our Socratic Seminars so that every student can thrive in the process. But first, let’s explore the features of a Socratic Seminar and some of the options for conducting them.
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Key Features of a Socratic Seminar
Socratic Seminars are ultimately student-centered. While the structures differ, here are some key components:
- Students ask and answer the questions while the teacher remains silent.
- Students sit in a circle facing one another.
- There is neither the raising of hands nor the calling of names. It moves in a free-flowing way.
- The best discussions are explanatory and open rather than cut-and-dry debates. While a question might lead to persuasive thought, the goal should be to examine points of view and construct deeper meaning rather than argue two different binary options.
Choosing an Approach
Here are a few options for the classroom environment:
- The Giant Circle Approach: Students sit together in a large circle. Desks are pushed all the way back so that there are no physical barriers between students. There is no “front” of the room in this approach. Students then have an ongoing conversation.
- The “Fish Bowl” Approach: Arrange an inner circle where students have the Socratic Seminar discussion and an outside circle with observers. Students on the outside can take notes on key ideas and ask clarifying questions. Here, when the discussion is over, they can ask the whole group or individuals in the “inside” specific questions. In some cases, you might do something like have students track how many times various people spoke.
- The Round Table Approach: Unlike the fishbowl, students gather around a singular round table where they can lean in and discuss ideas. This can often lead to closer proximity but it lacks some of the openness of the fishbowl. This option works well for smaller groups.
- The Scattered Approach: In this approach, students scatter in a semi-circle. Students might sit “kindergarten style” in a laid-back style. Or they might both stand and sit in a giant circle (with students sitting in chairs or standing and leaning toward the back). This approach is intentionally interactive and open.
- Multiple Seminars: Here, you break a larger group up into 2-4 separate Socratic Seminars and you, as a teacher walk around and monitor each group. This can feel more challenging to manage but can allow more students to participate.
- Online/Offline Seminars: With this option, half the class engages in a discussion through a chat (online) while others have the Socratic Seminar in person.
The Socratic Seminar Process
Here’s a sample of how I’ve run my Socratic Seminars. It’s a blend of multiple formats based on classrooms I’ve observed.
Phase #1: Explain the Process
Explain the Socratic Seminar structure ahead of time. Include the elements that might feel different. You might even have students practice the open discussion process in a small group first. You might also spend some time front-loading vocabulary as well.
Phase #2: Set the Tone
In this phase, you’ll need to establish or review the norms for the discussion. These might include things like “listen intently” or “wait and give space before speaking in” or “assume the best motives in others.” Here are some examples of students norms:
- Keep the language respectful. Avoid insults or putdowns.
- Be clear and truthful. Don’t be afraid to speak up when others disagree with you.
- Listen intently. This means waiting for the other person to finish speaking before you speak up. It also means listening with the goal of understanding the other person’s view rather than listening to then prove them wrong.
- Trust the other person’s intentions. If someone says something disagreeable, consider their intentions first.
- Focus on ways that you can back your claims up with facts and reason rather than merely stating an opinion. Give a rationale for what you believe.
Phase #3: Prepare for the Discussion
Begin with a starting provocation. This might be a short concept-attainment lesson in a social studies or science classroom. It might be a quick experiment or demonstration in science. It might be a problem-solving scenario in math. Often, it’s a mentor text, podcast, or video in social studies or language arts.
If you’re choosing a mentor text, you might use a structure like connect-extend-challenge from Making Thinking Visible. Or you might start with a graphic organizer. It could be as simple as a who, what, where, when, why, chart. Another option might be a simple t-chart with claims and evidence.
From there, you move into texts that dig deeper into analysis:
- What is the main idea of the text?
- How is the text constructed? Does it make sense?
- What facts is the author using to convey their message? What claims does the author make? What evidence does the author present?
- What is the tone of the piece?
- What type of bias exists within this text? What loaded language conveys this bias?
In some cases, students might explore two mentor texts and do a comparison and contrast with a Venn Diagram:
Phase #4: Begin the Socratic Seminar
Now it’s time to start the Socratic Seminar. You might move the furniture around and review the norms or expectations. The actual starting place depends on whether you want to anchor your initial discussion in a mentor text. Here are two options for a starting place.
Option 1: Start with a mentor text
If you’re starting with a mentor text, you might want to have students begin by making connections to the text:
- What is the main idea?
- What stands out to you?
- Was there anything confusing? What would you like to clarify?
- What does this text get right or wrong?
- Do you agree with the text? Why or why not?
- Where can you find evidence to back up the main premise of the text? What evidence might contradict it?
- What is the relevance of the text?
- How does this text relate to your world?
With this first option, you start with the text and then gradually move from analysis to broader discussion. In some cases, you might have a Socratic Seminar discussion leader. However, you might allow the entire group to select which questions they want to ask one another and take it in a messier, more democratic approach.
Option 2: Start with a driving question
Other times, you might simply use the text as a background question and instead use an overall driving question. The following sentence stems address driving questions:
- What is the purpose of __________?
- What role does _________ play in __________?
- What would happen if ___________?
- Should _________ be allowed to ____________?
- What would you change about ___________?
- What evidence can you present for or against __________?
- How does __________ contrast with __________?
- What is the significance of __________?
- What distinction would you make between __________ and __________?
- Why is __________?
- What are the pros and cons of __________?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of __________?
In this option, students will cite the mentor text but will ultimately focus on the core ideas in an open-ended discussion. I realize that some people would say this isn’t a “real” Socratic Seminar. But I’d like to point out Socrates was adamantly opposed to written text. Honestly, it depends on the subject, the age, and the context.
Phase #5: Broaden the Discussion
After starting with the text or the driving question, students broaden out the discussion. It moves democratically with students both asking and answering questions of one another. There are no hand-raising requirements, so students might need a reminder to slow down and listen to one another. It’s important to remember that this process is messy and doesn’t have to adhere tightly to the initial set of questions students explored.
Phase #6: Clarify and Close
At some point, have students end by clarifying any ideas, identifying misunderstandings, and paraphrasing key ideas. While I generally like Socratic Seminars to be open, I have found that a round robin structure works best for this part. Here are some of the guiding questions you might use:
Are there any questions you still have?
Is there anything that still feels unsettled or unclear?
What was a key take-away?
Phase #7: The Debrief
Here, students have the opportunity to debrief the process. Here is my debriefing process.
Individually – Answer one or more of the following questions:
- What was this experience like for you?
- Did you feel understood by your peers?
- How did the group communicate?
- What were some points that challenged your thinking?
- Are there any new ideas that you have based on the discussion?
What was this process like for you?
- What was one thing someone else said that really pushed your thinking?
- What was the process like for you?
- What could we have done to improve the process?
Ensuring All Students Can Participate
The following are some questions you might have about helping ensure that all students can participate.
What happens if one student dominates the discussion?
One option is to give students “talking chips” so that they can’t speak too many times. Another option is to speak in to the group and interrupt the discussion by asking, “Is there anyone who has not spoken up yet that wants to share?”
What happens if a student doesn’t participate?
You might require all students to participate or you might allow certain students to have a pre-written statement if they’re uncomfortable with the Seminar structure. But it’s also important to remember that actively listening is a form of participation and a quieter student might actually be highly engaged.
What about the introverts who need additional individual processing time?
One simple solution is to start the Socratic Seminar in silence. Begin with the discussion questions or driving questions and encourage students to think silently for the first 3-5 minutes before the Socratic Seminar starts. Later, you might pause the Socratic Seminar and institute a two minute silent think time in the middle of the discussion. A more natural approach would be to have a member of the group tasked with ensuring that the group takes two different “thinking breaks” throughout the discussion.
How can you ensure that ELL students have access to the language?
Start the process by front-loading the vocabulary. A simple 5-10 minute mini-lesson or review can help with this process. In some cases, you might even review the verb tense. For example, if the discussion is about something that could have happened, teach students about the conditional format. If it’s a discussion on something that will happen in the future, teach them about the future progressive or future perfect.
As students move into the Socratic Seminar, it can help to create sentence stems for ELL students. You can write these on the board or print them out for students. Remind students that everyone can use these sentence frames. It also helps to institute a “wait time” between each student. Ask students to count to ten silently after each person has spoken. This will allow many emerging English speakers the necessary think time to gather their thoughts and formulate what they want to say. In some cases, you might provide translators and allow students to speak in their native language to a peer. Other times, students might want to write out what they want to say and read it to the group. Although the focus is on listening and speaking, this type of scaffold can reduce the affective filter.