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January 8, 2015

Socratic Seminars: The Ultimate Teaching Weapon

All teachers want to build their students’ collaborative, critical-thinking, and reasoning skills, but it’s rare to implement one activity that engages students in all of these areas… until now! Introducing Socratic Seminars, the ultimate weapon in the 21st century teacher’s arsenal.

What is a Socratic Seminar?

In a Socratic Seminar, students seek to answer essential questions and gain insight into a text through reflective and rigorous dialogue with their peers. Through a process of listening, exchange, and finding common ground, students develop critical-thinking and analytical skills and construct meaning from a text.

For an example of an effective Socratic Seminar, check out this video from The Teaching Channel.

Major Benefits of a Socratic Seminar

Getting Started with Socratic Seminars

Selecting an Appropriate Text

The text (or film,photograph, etc.) is an essential component of the Socratic Seminar. For a rich discussion, the text must be appropriately complex, relate to standards and course content, and lend itself to multiple interpretations.

Preparing for the Seminar

  • Before the Seminar, give students ample time to read and analyze the text.
  • Assign a discussion leader who generates open-ended questions or post initial key questions to start the dialogue. For a comprehensive list of question ideas, click here.
  • Arrange the classroom so that students can look at each other directly, as this promotes friendly exchanges and helps students establish common ground.

Establishing Group Norms

Set group norms that encourage participation in a safe, collaborative environment and set clear expectations. These norms ensure that students are respectful of the process and each other, and understand how to engage in the Seminar productively.

Facilitating the Seminar

  • Begin the Seminar with the discussion leader asking an open-ended, essential question, like “What do you think is the meaning of this text?” For more discussion starter ideas there are also valuable resources online.
  • Be patient! It may take a few minutes for students to warm up.
  • Based on the complexity of the text and students’ abilities, the seminar can last 15-60 minutes.
  • Your role is to refocus the conversation if it steers off track, summarize key points, and encourage all students to participate.

Reflection and Evaluation

After the Seminar, give students an opportunity to evaluate the process and their own participation. Also, take some time to evaluate how you think the Seminar went. Create a running list of ideas to improve the process and jot down what worked and what didn’t. Review this fantastic resource for additional class reflection ideas.

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