A Socratic seminar is a group discussion with the fundamental goal of developing a deeper understanding of the topic. It is not a debate or a basic surface-level discussion. It is a deep discussion involving critical thinking, clear communication, questioning, reflection, and collaboration. Each seminar has an element of preparation required in order for the discussion to work.
In order to hold a Socratic seminar, students must already be familiar with the topic to be discussed. This can happen by having them pre-read a text, listen to audio, watch a video, or any combination of these. My preferred way to use a Socratic seminar is to allow students time to do some research and make sure they come to the seminar with notes ready to discuss. In addition to their notes, I want the students to be prepared with questions they would like to either discuss or want answers to. These questions often help in the beginning to get the discussion moving. It is important that questions are mostly open-ended to help ensure deeper learning is occurring and not simple comprehension. If you consider Bloom's taxonomy, students should have covered remembering and understanding in their own research. They are now looking to go deeper to clarify and challenge this understanding, as well as considering how to apply analyse and evaluate this understanding.
Throughout the discussion, the students will need to listen closely to what each other says. The aim of the discussion is for each student to walk away with a deeper understanding of the topic. According to Understanding by Design, there are 6 facets of understanding:
It can be useful to cycle through these facets and ensure students are familiar with them to enable them to really go deep.
Students should ask questions in order to clarify points raised or to request the evidence others are using. Such questions should always be respectful and push towards the goal of a deeper understanding for all. Your students will need reminding this discussion is not a debate. There will be times when they have different points of view, their goal is always to learn from the other point of view and consider what they may have missed, not to convince the other person they are wrong.
Socratic seminars work best when there is a discussion leader who is able to provoke discussion and monitor what is happening. To begin with, this is often you, the teacher, but as you model this it is important to strain the students and move to student lead seminars. It helps empower students and gives them the skills they need in order to improve their own learning.
An aspect of Socratic seminars often forgotten is the time given afterwards for reflection. During the discussion, students are going to be considering various new perspectives and ideas they had not thought of and had not come across. In order to help students to come away with a deeper understanding, they need time to reflect and construct that understanding. Planning for and allowing this time is crucial. It is often after a discussion our perspective may be swayed, and our brain needs time to consider what was said in order to make the appropriate connections that aid understanding. This reflection time may need to be scaffolded to begin with. Providing some basic questions such as "what did I learn from the discussion?" or "what points did you find fascinating and why?" can help students. Even asking them to reflect on other student positions they found challenging and get them to consider why it was challenging for them can have a deep impact. As the students become more familiar with the process of a Socratic seminar they will require less and less scaffolding.
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