The Definition Of A Socratic Seminar

what is a Socratic Seminar

What Is A Socratic Seminar?

If correctly prepared for, a Socratic seminar can be a powerful catalyst for social learning.

Many teachers we know have remarked that individual and collective insights and experiences from Socratic seminars are the moments that most impact students, the moments they remember most poignantly.

Simply put, the Socratic method is an ongoing dialogue that uses questions and answers to gradually eliminate hypotheses. Grant Wiggins offered a definition for the Socratic Seminar — something he would also call simply a ‘Seminar’:

“A Seminar is a question-focused, student-led, and teacher-facilitated discussion, based on appropriate texts. Sometimes we call this activity a ‘Socratic Seminar’–after Socrates, well known for his open-ended dialogues. Sometimes we call it a ‘class discussion’ to signal that the class will discuss, with the teacher playing a moderator role. Whatever we call it, a seminar is different from a talk/recitation/ lecture-with-discussion. The goal is not the acquisition of knowledge via the expert; the aim is student understanding via active thinking out loud and probing of ideas by all students.”

The ultimate goal of using the Socratic method is to foster critical thinking by examining one’s inaccurate or incomplete beliefs, and the biases, blind spots, and assumptions that lead to them. Ideally, a student will emerge from a Socratic seminar with greater clarity and depth of their own understanding. Empathy is another benefit that teachers often notice when students show respect for one another by listening actively, acknowledging one another’s input, and sharing diverse perspectives.

How Should Teachers Structure A Socratic Seminar?

Socratic seminars are appropriate for any age group and any content area. It’s helpful to conceive of a Socratic seminar in considering what students are doing before, during, and after it — all of the activities prompt students to use and practice desired critical thinking, discussion, listening, and reflection skills.

Before A Seminar

If the purpose of a Socratic seminar is to deepen understanding of complex concepts through intentional dialogue, then the text is the conduit through which those skills are applied and refined. Students will first read a shared text of any length, from a haiku, photograph, painting, or song to an article, essay, short story, or novel.

Facilitators may differentiate their approach to helping students grapple with concepts or ‘big ideas’ from the text. Some facilitators may simply assign the text for students to read prior to the Socratic seminar. Others might encourage or model annotating — using teacher-assigned or student-developed symbols and shorthand to interact with the text through questioning, analyzing, and making connections. For example, a student might use the following symbols:

  • Underlining (main ideas, emphasis)
  • Using an asterisk to indicate text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • Circling key vocabulary terms
  • Writing a question mark to indicate confusion or a need for clarification
  • Noting questions in the margins and assigning them numbers for future grouping by type of question

Other teachers might deploy a brief formative assessment to check that students have read the text before they launch into a discussion centered on topics that come from the text. Regardless of how facilitators introduce students to a text, the facilitator should convey that students will be reading the text in order to participate in a discussion, and give them sufficient time to prepare.

Facilitators should prioritize making the text as accessible as possible to all of the learners in the classroom. This can be accomplished in various ways, with some mentioned here:

  • Distribute three different poems — all revealing the same theme — that correspond to different levels of complexity
  • Assign nonfiction and news articles by lexile level through sites like Newsela
  • Give three different forms of media — like a video, poem, and essay — to three different groups of students, to analyze how a theme is conveyed across multiple formats

After reading and interacting with a text, it is then time to define essential question(s), which will serve as guideposts for the discussion. The facilitator and/or the students can create the questions. Here are several scenarios for determining the questions that will guide a Socratic seminar:

  • The facilitator assigns 1-5 questions and students respond to them in writing while/after reading a text. This could be considered a structured discussion.
  • After reading a shared text, each student submits a question in writing. The facilitator aggregates the responses and selects 5-10 questions from the students’ submissions. The students then respond in writing to those questions. This could be considered a semi-structured discussion.
  • Instead of co-creating shared questions, each student comes prepared for a discussion with their own questions, resulting in an unstructured discussion.

When considering the questions that will guide a seminar, facilitators and students should strive to write questions at higher-order levels of thinking; meaning, they should be using faculties at Levels 2-3 of Costa’s levels of thinking, and levels 3-6 of Bloom’s taxonomy. Avoid lower-level questions that prioritize recall and recognition of information, as they don’t really advance the purpose of a Socratic seminar. Questions should accomplish the following:

  • Be structured as open-ended vs. yes-or-no
  • Encourage critical thinking skills and growth
  • Analyze multiple meanings and perspectives
  • Examine biases, blind spots, and assumptions
  • Discover universal themes and connections
  • Include evidence as support for a claim
  • Express ideas clearly and with confidence

After reading a text and defining essential questions, the facilitator may find it beneficial to provide more insight into what a Socratic seminar might look like — this can be especially helpful for beginners, who may not be used to the physical set-up of desks, the coaching role, or question-driven discussions. Teachers have shared that students feel more confident going into a Socratic seminar if they know what it looks and sounds like. Below are some helpful visuals and videos for demystifying the structure for students:

Finally, the class should review the rules of a Socratic seminar, which seem basic, but are sometimes difficult for students to follow:

  • Discuss and ask questions (not debate)
  • Only members of the inner circle may speak
  • Only one person may speak at one time
  • Be respectful of different perspectives (no put-downs)
  • Seek a deeper understanding

Prior to and during a Socratic seminar, it may be helpful to keep the rules displayed in a prominent location. The facilitator can point to the rules during a speaking round if they notice students getting off track.

During A Seminar

It’s time for the seminar! The facilitator will want to have set up the desks prior to students entering the classroom so that when they do, they can immediately get their materials out and prepare for the discussion with their peer coaches. The facilitator can assign peer coaches whom they think will work well together, or the students can choose their own. If there are several students who are less confident in seeking out good partners, the facilitator can assign just those several pairs.

The structure of the discussion depends on the length of your class period. A 45- to 60-minute classroom might use the following schedule:

  • 00-05 minutes — Speaker 1 prepare with peer coach
  • 05-20 minutes — Round 1 Speaker 1
  • 20-25 minutes — Break/Speaker 2 prepare with peer coach
  • 25-40 minutes — Round 2 Speaker 2
  • 40-50 minutes — Self-evaluation and peer evaluation
  • 50-60 minutes — Debrief

A 60- to 90-minute classroom obviously affords more room for flexibility. A facilitator in this type of class might schedule the seminar in the following way:

  • 00-10 minutes — Review rules and Speaker 1 prepares with peer coach
  • 10-25 minutes — Round 1 Speaker 1
  • 25-30 minutes — Peer coach gives feedback to Speaker 1
  • 30-40 minutes — Round 2 Speaker 1
  • 40-45 minutes — Speaker 2 prepares with peer coach
  • 45-60 minutes — Round 1 Speaker 2
  • 60-65 minutes — Peer coach gives feedback to Speaker 2
  • 65-75 minutes — Round 2 Speaker 2
  • 75-85 minutes — Peer and self evaluation
  • 85-90 minutes — Debrief

During the Socratic seminar, the speakers sit in the inner circle, while their peer coaches set directly behind them in an outer circle. Since only the inner circle members are able to speak, facilitators can allow peer coaches to communicate with each other via Post-It notes. For example, a peer coach might notice an opportunity for the speaker to relate one of their connections to the current discussion. In this way, the peer coach can validate what the speaker may already be thinking, giving them further confidence to share their insights with the rest of the members of the inner circle. Speakers can contribute to a discussion through:

  • Asking questions
  • Summarizing
  • Clarifying
  • Synthesizing
  • Agreeing/disagreeing thoughtfully
  • Supporting responses with textual evidence
  • Listening actively
  • Including others

The role of the peer coach is to observe and encourage the speaker’s contributions and determine strategies they can use to enter and advance the discussion via higher-order thinking and questioning. This peer feedback can be more effective than feedback from a single facilitator who is also observing 10 to 15 other speakers (and their peer coaches).

After A Seminar

The time following a Socratic seminar, which is usually brief, is devoted to evaluation, reflection, and goal-setting. Self-evaluations are highly encouraged — this reflection can help the facilitator work with the student to set reasonable goals for progress in future discussions. Examples of questions include:

  • What was my greatest contribution to the Socratic seminar?
  • What was an opportunity I missed out on in this seminar, and how can I become more aware of it in the next discussion?
  • What critical thinking skills did I perform well?
  • Which discussion strategies did I avoid, and why?
  • Name one classmate who employed a particular strategy with great expertise, and explain how they did it.
  • Rate yourself 1-5 (not well to very well) on the following indicators: I showed up prepared, I showed respect to others, I asked good questions, I included myself in the discussion, I included others in the discussion.

Students can submit self-evaluations through a Google Form that includes five Likert scale questions and track their growth over a span of several discussions. Conversely, facilitators may display a set of open-ended questions on the interactive whiteboard while students pick three to respond to on an index card. An alternate method utilizes FlipGrid — students can share a 1-minute video reflecting on their experience and comment on their peers’ videos.

In addition to self-evaluations, students may also complete peer evaluations, which might simply replicate the format of the self-evaluation. It is up to the facilitator to decide how feedback will be shared. Will students share their feedback with each other one-on-one? Will they receive a copy of their peer and self-evaluations, along with feedback from the facilitator? Regardless, feedback should be given in a timely manner, certainly by the start of the next class period following the seminar.

How Can Teachers Facilitate A Socratic Seminar?

The teacher serves as the facilitator in a Socratic seminar. Many teachers who have expertise with this strategy have shared that their initial challenge was refraining from providing too much input. Facilitators really should not be saying anything while the inner circle is speaking. Especially for beginner participants, Socratic seminars may have ‘awkward’ moments — students interrupting each other, inappropriate comments, statements made just to get credit for contributing, and long stretches of awkward silence. Facilitators should resist the urge to ‘grab the wheel’ and leave the silence open, trusting that someone will eventually say something.

Another challenge facilitators may encounter shows up in more ‘lively’ classes, where students often compete to talk over one another. More domineering students in the outer circle may struggle with not inserting themselves into the discussion. Emphasizing their role as a peer coach can provide a meaningful way for them to contribute, by elevating someone else’s performance.

Perhaps one unexpected challenge that other facilitators notice part-way through a seminar is watching more introverted, reserved students struggle with nervous feelings around public speaking. It is painful to watch a student sit silent through 10-15 minutes of an active discussion, knowing that they likely have things to say, but are struggling to get the words out. Particularly if they do not make a single contribution during their speaking time, these students can then be ineffective in their coaching roles, because they are hyper-focused on how they did not perform well during the speaking portion. One adjustment some teachers make is to include a ‘hot seat’ when the students switch roles. This can start off as an empty seat that students from the outer circle (who didn’t contribute when they were in the inner circle) can occupy for either a contribution or a brief amount of time. We’ve found that many students appreciate this chance for redemption, and their classmates are supportive of their peers’ efforts to seize this opportunity.

You can probably see how the true facilitation of a Socratic seminar happens in the preparation. If, for example, the teacher anticipates that a class’ first seminar will be quiet, they can model various sentence stems that prompt students to use higher-order thinking skills on the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Students can even keep a reference guide of stems with them while they’re engaged in discussion. If a facilitator has a particularly boisterous class, they can carefully assign peer coaches in an attempt to provide a more balanced discussion (or personalities, opinions, and volumes).

There are moments when a facilitator might need to pause the discussion, encourage the use of a particular strategy, or highlight positive examples of desired behaviors. But again, the more one frontloads prior to the actual seminar, the fewer facilitator interruptions will be needed. As students gain more experience with this kind of collaborative discussion strategy, the facilitator can focus more energy on observation, assessment, and feedback.

How Can Teachers Assess A Socratic Seminar?

We’ve seen Socratic seminars assessed in a variety of ways. Some educators count it as a summative assessment, similar to an exam, essay, or project. We’ve even seen teachers use it as a final exam. This pathway may be more appropriate for students who have sufficient experience with the strategy. The facilitator can use a rubric or a scoring guide to grade a seminar (see ‘The Difference Between a Scoring Guide & A Rubric’).

On most occasions, Socratic seminars are appropriate as formative assessments. Generally, the power of Socratic seminar as a learning strategy is achieved through its feedback mechanism. The reality is that teachers do not necessarily have to grade a seminar; instead, they can focus their efforts on providing individual feedback to each student regarding their preparation, speaking, listening, coaching, and reflecting.

The Socratic seminar is a powerful strategy for helping students improve their critical thinking, social-emotional, and speaking and listening skills. There are many ways to differentiate this strategy to provide access for all learners: through preparation, texts, questions, structures, supports, and assessments. It is likely that your favorite memories from the semester will come from Socratic seminars, where teachers frequently witness moments where students become more confident in the skills and abilities they’ll need to excel in outside of a K-12 environment.