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Socratic Seminar

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It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.
- Jacob Bronowski

What Makes A Socratic Seminar Different...

As its name implies, this teaching strategy dates back to Socrates. Its essential characteristic is discussion that is driven by questions. A seminar usually focuses on a piece of text, although “text” can be defined broadly to include a painting, graph, data set, math problem, as well as essays, poems, song lyrics, and short stories.

The purpose of a Socratic Seminar is to develop a deeper understanding of the focal point of the discussion through sharing of perspectives, questions, and interpretations. By participating in a seminar, students learn to:

  • Listen actively
  • Converse directly other students, without the need for mediation by the teacher
  • Clarify, amplify, and recognizeimplications in the text
  • Build upon what others say
  • Question the text and fellow participants.

The teacher’s principal responsibilities are to select the discussion topic and to facilitate the seminar by posing questions, clarifying ideas, and ensuring equitable student participation. Eventually, students’ seminar skills improve and the teacher may choose to step outside the seminar and assume the role of observer. This step requires that students be well prepared to generate probing questions for analyzing the text.

How A Socratic Seminar Works...

Before the Seminar…Select a Focus

  1. Some desirable characteristics for the focus of a Seminar are that the topic be challenging, interesting, complex, somewhat ambiguous, based on a big idea, etc.
  2. All seminar participants will examine a particular text, image, object, song, etc. This is often completed as homework the night before. If the text is brief, it can be studied in class immediately before the seminar.
  3. If students have not learned how to “mark-up” a text, instruction needs to be provided. Marking up the text consists of identifying its key passages.
  4. An effective pre-seminar strategy is to have students write a pre-seminar passage that can be used later to prompt a post-seminar writing assignment.

During the Seminar…Define the Task

  1. Divide the class in half. One half forms the inner circle and participates in the discussion.
  2. Each member of the outer circle maintains silence and is given a specific task to perform.
    • Tasks can focus on either process skills for effective seminars (e.g. building on what others say, asking questions of each other, making direct references to the text, etc.) or the content of the seminar (e.g. identifying main themes, insights, etc.).
    • In the first few seminars, a class typically focuses on group process skills. After students become skilled seminar participants, attention shifts to the actual content of the discussion.
  3. The leader (early seminars should beled by the teacher) begins the seminar with an opening question.
    • It is sometimes worthwhile to begin with a “whip”; a relatively simple question to which every participant responds briefly.
    • A good opening question is: “What do you think is the most important sentence in this piece? Please read it as we go around the circle.” This activates the seminar by giving everyone the opportunity to contribute their ideas.
  4. From this point on, the seminar isdriven by questions from both the leader and the participants.
  5. At the end of the seminar, membersof the outer circle report their findings.
  6. If time permits, participants switch circles and conduct another seminar on the same or similar text.

After the Seminar…Conduct the Formative Assessment

  1. One of the most important goals of a seminar is to expand understanding of the text. An excellent post-seminar task is a writing assignment in which the students describe new knowledge gained during the seminar.
  2. The final Seminar activity is to use feedback from the outer circle to set process goals for the next seminar.

Socratic Seminar Preparation Hints...

Guiding Questions

Socratic Seminars tend to employ questions that promote analysis of ideas, synthesis and application of new information, and evaluation of people’s thinking. The leader should:

  • Identify the big question that will be used to kick off the Socratic Seminar.
  • Prepare an additional 6-10 follow-up questions that are apt to be used during the Seminar.

Possible Outer Circle Questions/Tasks

  1. What were the other participants doing while someone was talking? Take notes.
  2. How many times did each person speak? Keep a written tally.
  3. How many times did males and females speak? Keep a written tally.
  4. Did the seminar touch on many different ideas or did it remain focused on one or two? Note the ideas that were discussed.
  5. How many times were direct references made to the text? Note examples.
  6. How many times did a participant ask a question of another participant? Make note of a few of these questions.
  7. How many times did a participant respond to or build on the comment of another seminar participant? Make note of examples.
  8. Was there any evidence that a participant changed his or her opinion or position as a result of what was discussed in the seminar? Make note of instances.
  9. What did the seminar leader do during the seminar? Take notes.
  10. Did anyone ask another participant to clarify or explain something that someone said? Note examples.
  11. Observe the seminar participant across from you. Make note of what he/she is doing during the seminar.

Suggested Socratic Seminar Ground Rules

  • All members of the inner circle are expected to actively participate in the discussion.
  • Anyone who doesn’t wish to answer a question should so indicate by saying, “I’d like to pass.”
  • Try to direct your comments and questions to each other and not to the Seminar leader.
  • Please maintain rules of “civil discourse.” It’s fine to disagree with a person’s ideas, but never to criticize the person offering them.
  • Members of the outer circle must remain silent until the seminar is over.

Socratic Seminar Self Assessment...

If you develop a Socratic Seminar, you can use this rubric as a quick self-check. Revise the lesson as necessary based on your honest self-appraisal of its different elements. If you are part of a Professional Learning Community you could ask a colleague to review the lesson with the rubric.

Socratic Seminar Resources…