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Four Ways to Create Equitable Discussion Using Socratic Seminar

September 24, 2019 / by Oscar Graybill

Consistently including each of the interwoven Elements of a Socratic Seminar guarantees that our students are on the path to becoming creative and divergent thinkers, ready for the intellectual and social challenges in school and beyond. 

Student achievement comes from student engagement, which comes from classrooms where students are heard, understood, and valued.  These classrooms are healthy balances between intellectual curiosity, academic challenge, and emotional comfort. The regular practice and consistent teaching and modeling of the four Elements of Socratic Seminars accomplish this and more.

Socrates believed that enabling students to think for themselves was more important than filling their heads with "right" answers. In a Socratic Seminar, participants in grades K-12 seek deeper understanding of complex ideas through rigorously thoughtful dialogue about a particular text, rather than by memorizing bits of information or meeting arbitrary demands for 'coverage.' Socratic Seminars usually range from 30-50 minutes, longer if time allows, once a week, and contain the following four key elements to ensure success.

1.    Select a Text

Socratic Seminar texts are chosen for their richness in ideas, issues, and values and their ability to stimulate extended, thoughtful dialogue. A seminar text can be drawn from readings in literature, history, science, math, health, and philosophy or from works of art or music. A good text raises important questions in the participants' minds, questions for which there are no right or wrong answers. At the end of a successful Socratic Seminar, participants often leave with more questions than they brought with them. Learn more.

2.    Create a Question

A Socratic Seminar opens with a question either posed by the leader or solicited from participants as they acquire more experience in seminars. An opening question has no correct answer; it is an “open-ended question” that has multiple, supportable, plausible responses. Most importantly it reflects a genuine curiosity on the part of the leader. A good opening question leads participants back to the text as they speculate, evaluate, define, and clarify the issues involved. Responses to the opening question generate new questions from the leader and participants, leading to new responses. In this way, the line of inquiry in a Socratic Seminar evolves on the spot rather than being predetermined by the leader. Learn more.

3.    Prepare the Leader

The leader plays a dual role as leader and participant by remaining in the circle alongside the students. The seminar leader consciously demonstrates and models the habits of mind that lead to a thoughtful exploration of the ideas in the text by keeping the discussion focused on the text, asking follow-up questions, helping participants clarify their positions when contributions become confusing, and balancing the involvement of reluctant participants with restraining their more vocal peers.

As a seminar participant, the leader actively engages in the group's exploration of the text. To do this effectively, the leader must know the text well enough to anticipate varied interpretations and recognize important possibilities in each. The leader must also be patient to allow participants' understandings to evolve and be willing to help participants explore non-traditional insights and unexpected interpretations. Learn more.

4.    Ready the Participants

Participants share the responsibility for the quality of the seminar. Good seminars occur when participants read and study the text closely, listen actively, share their ideas and questions in response to the ideas and questions of others, and search for evidence in the text to support their ideas.

Participants learn good seminar behaviors through participating regularly in seminars and reflecting on them afterward. Our experience suggests that it takes 6-8 seminars with reflection on the process before both the leader and the students start to ‘get it’: civility and thoughtfulness.

Before each new seminar, the leader also offers coaching and practice in specific habits of mind that improve reading, thinking, and discussing. After each seminar, the leader and participants discuss the experience and identify ways of improving the next seminar.  Eventually, when participants realize the leader is not seeking right answers, but is encouraging them to think out loud and to exchange ideas openly, they discover the excitement of exploring important issues through shared inquiry. This excitement creates willing participants, eager to examine ideas in a rigorous, meaning, and thoughtful manner. 

To learn more about the steps in using Socratic Seminar, download this guide.

Topics: Coaching, Lesson Planning, Engagement

Oscar Graybill

Written by Oscar Graybill

Oscar Graybill, M.Ed., Director and National Presenter is a former San Diego City Schools’ EXCEL Outstanding Teacher and former California Mentor Teacher, Oscar Graybill used Cooperative Learning and Socratic Seminar in his classroom teaching career. Oscar worked for thirteen years as an English teacher at Walla Walla High School in Walla Walla, Washington, after spending his first seventeen years at Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego, California. As Director of Socratic Seminars International, Oscar works with scores of teachers and administrators throughout the United States in the art and practice of Socratic Seminar leadership.

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