X
TEACHING STRATEGY

Socratic Seminar

Community Inquiry
Grade Level

What?
A structured discussion in which students examine issues and respond to open-ended questions about a text. Students use dialogue rather than debate to communicate with each other.


When?

After reading


Why?

Socratic seminars can be structured in different ways, yet the purpose remains the same: to gain a deeper understanding of the ideas in a text. Named in homage to the Greek philosopher Socrates, this strategy reflects the belief that there is intrinsic value in inquiry. The collaborative and social nature of the seminar favors dialogue over debate. Students listen attentively to each other and respond civilly, but they are also expected to think critically, make persuasive claims and counterclaims, and generate questions supported by evidence. In this way, Socratic Seminar teaches students to have the mature and thoughtful conversations essential for success in college, careers and in a democratic society. The strategy also gives students practice making claims and counterclaims orally prior to putting their ideas into formal writing.
 

How?

Select a central text for students to read independently.
  1. Prepare a series of text-dependent questions related to the text’s central ideas and themes.
  2. Divide the class into teams of three to five students. Instruct the groups to discuss each listed question using textual evidence to support their claim and ideas.
  3. Provide each student with a capture sheet to record the ideas from the small-group discussion. For each question, have students record their response and any supporting evidence from the text, from other classes or from their own experiences. Next, ask students to record possible counterclaims and which evidence they would use to refute them.
  4. Begin the seminar once small-group discussions have ended. Place as many chairs as there are teams in a circle in the center of the room. Instruct each team to send a representative to the center.
  5. Once the representatives are seated, allow students to drive the discussion. A “talking piece,” like a ball or stick, can be used to designate the speaker who has the floor.
  6. Students in the center should address the list of questions about the text—offering claims and counterclaims based on textual evidence—and pose new questions. They should clearly communicate their small group’s perspective, line of reasoning and supporting evidence. Students should respond to all presented views by evaluating each other’s claims, reasoning and evidence to determine if they disagree with what has been said and to ask further questions.
  7. Students outside the center should take notes on the discussion. All students should have the central text in front of them and refer back to it appropriately, drawing attention to specific pages and passages.
  8. Track participation by awarding points for appropriate language and strong arguments. Guide the dialogue by reminding students when to clarify and elaborate on their statements or when important viewpoints have been overlooked.
  9. After the seminar, students should return to their teams to reflect on the discussion.

NOTE: It is unlikely that everyone will have a chance to sit in the center circle. Move around the room during small group discussions to see that everyone participates. During the seminar, a team member can tap out his representative and switch places. You may require that each team tap someone out at least once and give extra points to teams who put up every member.


English language learners

This higher-order strategy works best with high-intermediate-to advanced-fluency English language learners. To ensure these students have an opportunity to participate during Socratic Seminar, provide every student with an equal number of talking chips. Students must give up a chip each time they speak.


Connection to anti-bias education

Socratic seminars teach students how to engage in intellectual discussion in a manner that promotes inquiry and collaboration, values essential to an anti-bias classroom. Having the confidence to make claims and civilly disagree with others equips middle and high school students for broader discourses around diversity and social justice. Regular participation in Socratic Seminar empowers students to employ their discussion skills outside of class, thus taking ownership of communication.

To see Socratic Seminar in action, click here.