How to Implement the Socratic Seminar Teaching Strategy in Your Classroom
In a Socratic seminar learning activity, learners help one another understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in a piece of content through a group discussion format. Learners are responsible for facilitating their group discussion around the ideas in the content; they must not utilize the forum to assert their opinions or prove an argument. Through this type of a debate, learners practice how to listen to one another, make meaning, and find common ground while partaking in a conversation.
- Select an Appropriate Text: The Socratic seminar method is based on close textual analysis, so it is essential to select content that provides ample avenues for interpretation and discussion. If you choose simple content where the meaning is relatively straightforward, there won’t be much for learners to discuss. Also, the content must not be too lengthy to read carefully in the allotted amount of time. Often, instructors select content ranging from one paragraph to one page. Examples of content commonly utilized as the basis of Socratic seminar activities include the preamble to the US Constitution, Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and the reading “No Time to Think” from our resource Holocaust and Human Behavior.
- Give Learners Time to Prepare: Before beginning the seminar, learners must have time to prepare ideas. Learners must annotate the content before the start of the class discussion. Instructors often assign a discussion leader who generates a few open-ended questions that can be used to begin the session.
- Develop a Classroom Contract: Each seminar has regulations that might not apply to other kinds of discussion, so before beginning the seminar, everyone must be aware of the norms. Below are standard rules utilized to format a Socratic seminar learning activity. You can modify these to fit the needs of your learners.
- Talk to each other.
- Refer to evidence from the content to support your thoughts.
- Ask questions if you do not comprehend what someone has said, or you can summarize what another learner has said for clarification.
- You do not have to raise your hand for permission to speak.
- Don’t interrupt.
- Don’t “put down” the thoughts of another learner. Without judging the learner, you disagree with, state your alternate interpretation, or ask a follow-up question to help probe or clarify a concept.
Common statements or questions used during a Socratic seminar learning activity are:
- Where does that concept come from in the content?
- What does this word mean?
- Can you find some other way to say it?
- What do you think the speaker is attempting to say?
- What else could that mean?
- Who was the audience for this content? How does that shape our translation of these words?
- Who was the author of this content? What do we know about them? How does that shape our comprehension of these words and phrases?
Prior to the seminar, it is also important to remind learners that the goal of the seminar is not to debate or prove a point but to more deeply understand what the author was trying to express in the content.
During the Socratic seminar learning activity with your students, you can take some time to brainstorm the attributes that would make for a great seminar. These attributes or criteria can be explained on a rubric and utilized to assess the seminar at the end of the class period. Criteria that you may use to assess a Socratic seminar learning activity include engagement, respect, meaning-making, and use of evidence.
- The Socratic Seminar: A Socratic seminar learning activity often begins with the discussion leader, a learner, or the instructor, asking an open-ended question. A traditional initial prompt is: What do you think this content means? Silence is fine. It may take a few minutes for learners to warm up. Sometimes, instructors organize a Socratic seminar learning activity like a fishbowl learning activity, with some learners participating in the discussion and the rest of the class having specific jobs as observers. At least 15 minutes must be allotted to the learning activity, and it can often last 30 minutes or more. As learners become more familiar with the Socratic seminar format, they will be able to discuss the content for more extended periods without instructor intervention.
- Reflect and Assess: After the Socratic seminar learning activity, give learners the opportunity to assess the process in general and their performance explicitly. Reflecting on the seminar process helps learners improve their capability to participate in future discussions. Here are some questions you may discuss or have learners write about when reflecting on the learning activity:
- Did the seminar stick to the dialogue? Did it ever “go off script,” and if so, how did you handle it.
- Were people actively listening to other people’s ideas? What evidence do you have to support this?
- How has your comprehension of this content been changed by the concepts examined in this seminar?
- What parts of the discussion did you find most and least interesting?
- As a participant, what will you do differently the next time you are in a seminar?