When’s the last time you had to take a timed test at work? I’m willing to bet it’s been a while.
What about the last time you had an authentic conversation where you needed to express and support your own ideas? Chances are this second activity is a more likely occurrence.
And believe it or not, one of the most effective teaching techniques for promoting conversation skills and deeper understanding dates back thousands of years to ancient Greece. Socratic seminars.
A Socratic seminar is a formal discussion that is based on a text and driven by open-ended questions.
Teachers love this activity because it is incredibly versatile.
Socratic seminars work with third graders and high schoolers alike. And they’re great for everything from literature to even CTE.
There are plenty of different ways to structure a socratic seminar to meet students’ needs.
And with just a bit of practice, you’ll find that socratic seminars can be both rewarding and fun!
The Benefits of Socratic Seminars
While it may not be as straightforward as a multiple choice test, the benefits that come from the open-ended nature of a socratic seminar are powerful.
Where a typical exam might not leave much room for creative thinking, a socratic seminar is chock full of opportunities for creative and critical thought.
Through seminars, students are given a flexible forum where there is no one right answer.
Additionally, students learn the value of effective verbal communication. It won’t take long for students to realize that how you communicate your ideas matters as much as the ideas themselves.
Finally, in a space where careful listening is just as important as talking, students will develop empathy and the ability to appreciate diverse perspectives.
A successful socratic seminar will definitely take some planning, and will likely be a struggle for students at first. Nonetheless, once students grow accustomed to the format and expectations, it can quickly become a favorite way to demonstrate learning.
Implementing in Your Classroom
There are dozens of ways that you can organize and implement socratic seminars in your classroom. That said, there are a few common guidelines to observe.
Below are the non-negotiables:
All students come prepared. Usually socratic seminars are based on a text or group of texts (but films and images are fair game too). Students need to have read the text/s ahead of time, either as homework or during class.
No raising hands. It’s important to remember that a socratic seminar is a conversation between students. Students need to take the initiative to jump in with their ideas once someone has finished speaking without talking over each other. (Heads up: this part will take practice!)
Listen actively and respectfully when you aren’t speaking. Just because you aren’t talking doesn’t mean that you aren’t participating. Listening to the ideas of others is just as important as contributing your own ideas.
All ideas deserve respect. It’s fine to disagree with someone (hey, that’s part of the process), but it is NEVER ok to criticize or ridicule someone else’s opinion or thought.
Support ideas with evidence. Depending on the age of your students, this might take a number of forms. At the end of the day, though, we want students to learn that ideas need to be supported with either text evidence, personal experiences, or connections to something else the class has learned.
The five requirements above generally apply to all socratic seminars. From these foundational elements, there are a number of ways that you can structure the activity.
Try a “fish bowl” socratic seminar. This is a particularly useful for first time seminars or for larger classes.
Organize desks into two concentric circles with the same number of desks in each circle. For the first half of the socratic seminar only the students in the inner circle can speak. Meanwhile, the students in the outer circle are observing. Halfway through, switch positions.
Give listeners a job. Whether in a fish bowl or whole class format, it can be useful to give students a specific task to work on while they aren’t speaking. One option is to pair all students up and ask them to take notes on what their partner shares, and then evaluate their partner’s performance.
Another option is to have students keep track of whose ideas they most agree with, or to write down three questions during the activity. You want tasks to promote active listening without being distracting.
Scaffold participation. In most classrooms there are students who continuously talk and other students who keep their mouths shut.
If this is the case, you may want to either set a minimum number of times that each student participates, or make a rule that all students need to share before someone can share twice. You can track this by giving students post-it notes and taking them away each time a student speaks.
Require academic language. Socratic seminars are a great space to get students using academic language in conversation.
Provide students with sentences starters that they should use during discussion and let them practice before you get started. It may feel silly to say things like, “Jaylyn, I respectfully disagree with you because…” at first, but soon students will realize how professional they sound and will be quick to add more of these phrases to their daily language.
There are hundreds of resources online to help teachers plan and execute a socratic seminar. Start simple and make adjustments as you go. Things may not be flawless the first time, but like with all things, practice makes perfect!