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Engaging Students in Socratic Seminars

January 25, 2018 / by Gretchen Vierstra

Ready to teach like Socrates? We’ve got the videos to show you just how to do it!

In its simplest form, a Socratic Seminar is a structured conversation that students facilitate through open-ended questioning, listening carefully to one another, sharing their thoughts, and making meaning together. Traditionally, the seminar focuses on a text or set of texts, but there are many variations. The main idea is that the teacher is off-stage, and it’s the student inquiry that leads the show.

Whether you’re just starting out with these seminars or a full-fledged expert, there’s always something to be learned by watching how others do it. Some of our most popular Teaching Channel videos are of Socratic Seminars for that very reason! Here are four tips you can learn from watching these videos.

Build Up To It

If your students have never participated in one before, take small steps towards the end goal of a full-fledged seminar. In Scaffolding for Socratic Seminar, high school English teacher Johanna Paraiso uses a strategy she calls a “moral reasoning conversation” in order to give her students meaningful practice in communicating and justifying their thinking. She gives her students a controversial topic to discuss related to a class text and scaffolds the conversation through modeling, prewriting, and layered question prompts. Watch the video to see how she does it.

Scaffolding for Socratic Seminar

VIDEO: Scaffolding for Socratic Seminar

Teach Talk Moves

Socratic Seminars require students to be able to lead a discussion by posing thoughtful and engaging questions without teacher intervention. Students also need to listen carefully to others and carry the conversation forward by adding on, agreeing or disagreeing, and asking clarifying questions. Give your students a toolkit of talk moves to make sure they are ready to go. Watch how eighth grade teacher Tamica Groves prepares her students for academic discussions with talk moves in this video.

Talk Moves in Academic Discussions

VIDEO: Talk Moves in Academic Discussions

Have Patience

The first time you try a full Socratic Seminar, sitting back and letting your students lead the conversation, you may experience awkward silence. Practice your wait time and let it play out. Watch this video to see how high school English teacher Paige Price handles the initial silence at the start of her seminar.

Socratic Seminars: Patience & Practice

VIDEO: Socratic Seminars: Patience & Practice

And it’s not just about what happens during the seminar. Paige says self-reflection and rubrics are important to help her students learn from the experience and better prepare for the next one. Check out the supporting resources below her video to see her scoring guides.

Practice and Adapt

Once you and your students have the hang of it, you can use the Socratic method with all types of discussions, not just those centered on a text. You can even adapt the format to have students discuss their own projects, reflecting on and discussing their work with one another. Check out Adapting Socratic Seminar to see this idea in action.

Adapting Socratic Seminar: Senior Project Reflection

VIDEO: Adapting Socratic Seminar: Senior Project Reflection

How do you teach like Socrates? Whether you’ve run zero or hundreds of Socratic Seminars, we’d love to hear from you. 

Topics: Professional Learning, Lesson Planning, Engagement, Video Playlist

Gretchen Vierstra

Written by Gretchen Vierstra

Gretchen Vierstra taught middle school for ten years in the San Francisco Bay Area. During her 15+ years in education, she’s also been a department chair, new teacher coach, curriculum developer, and policy analyst. She is Director of Educational Content at Teaching Channel.

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