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Socratic Seminar Guidelines: A Practical Guide

Socrates & His Socratic Seminar

Socrates & His Socratic Seminar

Introduction

Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.

—Henry Ford

This famous quotation about teamwork by Henry Ford effectively summarizes the work of Socratic Seminar—to bring a group of people together, teach them how to engage with one another, and thereby open new worlds of understanding that were previously out of reach. Volumes of literature have been written about Socratic Seminar (see the link to the right), but much of this material, being filled with valuable historical material and background research, makes it difficult to get the practical tools and information one needs to directly implement the approach.

This article, based on my own years of using Socratic Seminar in my classes, is designed to present the activity in simple and practical terms. By including notes, reflections, creative options, and links to my own original files for real-time use, it is my hope that this will help you quickly maximize the potential value of Socratic Seminar and customize its broad options to your individual needs.

Hey, look at that!

Hey, look at that!

Contents

Note: If you are already familiar with the basics of Socratic Seminar, I suggest you jump to Practical Tips for Running a Good Socratic Seminar.

socratic-seminar-a-practical-guide

What is Socratic Seminar?

Socratic Seminar is based on an intellectual tradition generally associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who lived during the fifth century B.C.E. Socrates believed that the best way to achieve understanding came from developing and pursuing insightful questions. Socratic Seminar establishes a framework for holding discussions centered on this ideal while promoting equal participation among all members of the group. With this in mind, the leader of a Socratic Seminar takes on the role of facilitator instead of direct instructor, helping to provide the participants with a rich opportunity to explore independent inductive discovery.

Traditionally, Socratic Seminar is used to contemplate literature and art, but it can easily be adapted to discuss almost anything a group of people might want to consider: music, a sculpture, a news article, a historical primary source, and even a science experiment. Additionally, Socratic Seminar is effective for discussions with people of virtually any age, kindergarten to doctoral studies to adult book clubs.

Benefits of Socratic Seminar:

  • places the participants in charge of their own learning, facilitating self-driven discovery
  • teaches the importance of personal responsibility since the success of the discussion is dependent on well-prepared and actively engaged participants
  • teaches participants to become conversant in relevant terminology
  • provides numerous opportunities to learn and practice respectful group interaction
  • provides opportunities for those who speak too much to learn to listen
  • provides opportunities for those who speak too little to build up the courage to share

Challenges of Socratic Seminar:

  • can be uncomfortable for those who find public speaking difficult
  • can challenge discussion leaders (especially teachers) in their ability to “let go” of direct control over the flow of conversation

Teaching Seminar and Running a Great Socratic Discussion

NOTE: Since Socratic Seminar can be used by a wide variety of people for discussions around a wide variety of topics, I will refer to the story, novel, artwork, composition or whatever else might be under study as the “piece” and those involved in the discussion as “participants."

Basic Outline of Socratic Seminar Structure:

  1. Participants prepare a piece for discussion (always involves analysis, though it may involve other tasks as well)
  2. Participants sit in a circle for thirty minutes to an hour and discuss the piece
  3. The discussion leader and participants reflect on the success of the discussion
socratic-seminar-a-practical-guide

Simple Annotation Demonstration Video

Preparing for Socratic Seminar: Preliminary Analysis

Regardless of the form the piece under study takes—short story, artwork, musical composition, etc.—preparation will always involve the participants completing a close analysis of the piece. With text-based pieces, having the participants annotate the text is a good idea. This is also the point in the process where the discussion leader can provide more specific prompts, questions, and relevant analytical vocabulary that will focus the participants’ attention on particular elements of the piece under examination. The methods for doing this vary greatly, but any method that helps the participants develop a strong familiarity with the details and subtleties of the piece will be helpful.

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The preparation process will also include the development of discussion questions. Either the discussion leader, the participants, or both can participate in this part of the process. Each approach has distinct strengths and weaknesses:

Question Development ApproachAdvantagesDisadvantages

Leader-Developed Questions

Tightly controlled focus

Severely limits participant inquiry

Participant-Developed Questions

Wide open opportunities for independent inquiry

Control requires well-trained participants

Both

Can achieve a good balance of controlled focus and independent inquiry

Still stifles participant's individual inquiry

The very best conversations I have experienced in my classes came from preparation based exclusively on participant-developed questions. I was able to begin the conversation and sit through the entire class without speaking. Invariably, the participants discovered significant ideas that would never have occurred to me had I tried to take more control. Thus, I am always pushing for participant independence.

Achieving this takes a long time, however, and I have found leader-developed questions to be valuable for both modeling how to craft questions and directing the conversation toward essential concepts. Still, I try to do this as rarely as possible and continually phase it out as time goes by.

Socratic Seminar Questions

Socratic Seminar Questions

FREE Practical Resources

I have created a variety of professional resources for making this happen with your students at Newfangled Notions.

The "General Guidelines" Handout

  • Covers the basic behavioral expectations
  • Overviews the 5 essential Socratic question types

The "Question Development Page" Student Worksheet

  • Provides a clear organization for developing questions
  • Creates an easy-to-follow procedure for asking questions

The "Feedback Flip Chart"

  • Helps create a clear path of expectations for students
  • Provides real-time feedback on discussion progress

The "Short Form Data Collector"

  • Helps establish qualitative levels for student comments
  • Provides students with real-time individual feedback

Includes complete Instructions for everything!


Preparing for Socratic Seminar: The Socratic Seminar Questions

Note: The information below is available on a printable handout I have created for distribution to participants.