What is a Socratic Seminar?

I first came across socractic seminars when learning about flipped learning. This might sound strange, but actually, flipping your classroom allows for better use of class time and using a socractic seminar in your classroom is a fantastic use of this limited resource because it helps to students to engage with content knowledge, collaborate, learn to provide evidence for their perspective, listen to others, critically evaluate information and develop deeper understandings.

4 Steps to a Socratic Seminar

1. Choose a text

It is important when designing a socractic seminar that you select a text which can be debated, requires critical thinking, and has various access points for stimulating a discussion among the students. This text does not have to be written, it could be a video, performance or anything that communicates meaning, but it does need t directly relate to your learning goals and help students work towards the success criteria. For example, students could debate a ballet performance, a scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, evaluate a news article or multiple news reportings of an incident, a TED talk, a scene from a movie, and ancient text or a recording from a radio transmission during World War I.

2. Preparation

Once the text has been chosen and allocated it is important to ensure your students have had ample time to engage with the text and are well prepared for the seminar to follow. If you flip your classroom, students should engage with the text before arriving for the lesson, if not, make sure you allow your students enough time to engage. Whether this be taking notes, highlighting, mind-mapping or making audio notes, students need to have engaged with the text in a meaningful way as they will need to be able to refer back to the text throughout the seminar.

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3. The Seminar

The seminar itself is characteristed by focused discussion between the students that is managed by a discussion leader (often a teacher, but students can also fill this role). The seminar often begins with an open question, such as “what does this text mean? and grows from there. The group leader should prepare 4 or 5 such questions in order to stimulate discussion as needed. Throughout the seminar the goal is to have students develop a deeper and more holistic perspective on the text, its content and context NOT for them to argue their point, be right or prove someone else wrong.

Running a good seminar requires the students to understand the purpose of the activity and how to best engage with it. Often teachers establish ground rules such as:

  1. Talk to each other, not just the discussion leader
  2. Statements need to be backed up by the text
  3. Questions should be asked for clarification or to prob each other more deeply to gain further understanding. This is especially important when the perspective is not your own.
  4. Don’t interrupt or put others down
  5.  When you disagree with another student you need to phrase your response by referring to the text and stating your alternative position or questioning the student without judgment.
  6. Monitor how much time you spend speaking to ensure others have a chance to present their interpretations.

4. Reflect and evaluate

When you set up your first socratic seminar it is a great practice to brainstorm as a class the qualities that make a great seminar discussion. You can then use these qualities to create a rubric or criteria that is used after the seminar for reflection and evaluation. Such criteria could include:

  1. Respect
  2. Engagement
  3. Creating deeper understanding
  4. The use of evidence from the text

It is important that students reflect on their own and others participation in order to improve their skills for future seminars. Providing guiding questions such as, what evidence did you see of students listening? how and why did your understanding of the text deepen or grow? how did you engage and contribute to the understanding of the text? and what would you do differently next time? can prove helpful. 

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