Socratic Seminars

We often talk about discussing the main themes of a text in class, but what does this mean? Are we telling the students the themes and providing evidence? Are they providing evidence for the themes we identify for them? Are students identifying the themes and the evidence? Is it a lecture or a large-group conversation? How much are students actually understanding about the texts? Which of these is our goal and which of these is what happens?

The Socratic Seminar method aims to get students actively involved in conversations about the text and finding the evidence to support their assertions. The teacher’s role is less “sage on stage” and more “traveling companion on a journey of discovery” (or at least the traveling companion who might have the map). The goal of the conversation is that students to develop an answer to a particular question as a class. Many of the insights of this method can be adapted to improve all class discussions.

How it works

  • First, explain what will be expected of students in the seminar and why it is a good method of instruction. This may be a good time to tell your students the rules of the Socratic seminar: ground all discussion in the text, address comments to everyone (not to a neighbor or the teacher/facilitator who should sit at the same eye-level as the students), listen to each other carefully, respond to each other’s comments respectfully and with the goal of developing and improving upon interpretations (not tearing down other students or their ideas), don’t raise hands, don’t interrupt, don’t dominate the conversation, be bold enough to offer your interpretation but be flexible enough to accept other students’ ideas, and ask for clarification if a comment is confusing. Everyone should also sit in a circle facing each other.
  • Second, students read a text or watch a film, while taking notes or annotating the text. You should make sure that students understand how and why to annotate texts or that they are given something to help them think about the text. You could give them reading questions, a worksheet, or ask them to complete a prompt: “I am confused about…” or “I want to talk about…” or “This passage was interesting…”
  • At the beginning of class, it might be beneficial to review the behavior expectations for a Socratic seminar, and it is necessary to establish a Big Question to be answered by the discussion. This can ask about the text’s main/major theme, a moral dilemma in the text, the author’s purpose or perspective, the meaning of a phrase, renaming the text, or the most important sentence/paragraph. The Big Question could focus on a skill you are trying to teach or the major topic of discussion among scholars about the text, but remember many of these questions are interconnected. For example, in a discussion about the Antigone, you might ask “What is the major dilemma in the play?” Based on the play and the majority of scholarship, I would expect the discussion would focus on ‘Should Antigone follow the natural law to bury her brother or her state’s law to not bury her brother the traitor? Should Creon have made her choose and enforced the temporal law unyieldingly?’ This discussion will require students to identify the most important passages related to this theme.
  • At the beginning of the discussion, I have found it is very helpful for students to summarize what happened–maybe discussing this in a smaller group. The summary helps students remember what the text is about and who is important. In our example: they need to understand who Antigone and Creon are, and what they did. (This is the time for guided questions, when we are low on Bloom’s Taxonomy.)
  • During the discussion, students raise various ideas and hopefully move to a sound interpretation supported by the text and agreed upon by the class. As the facilitator, you can ask various (not guided) questions to help the conversation: where do you find evidence for that in the text? Can you clarify what you said? Is there something unclear in the text? How does that relate to what someone else said? Who hasn’t talked yet? Who has a different perspective? Has anyone changed their mind? You could also summarize or ask someone to summarize what has been said already. Allow there to be silence for awhile so students warm up or find answers or are more willing to talk.  Naturally, some of these questions can be planned in advance or I like to have a list of these broad prompts in front of me.
  • At the end of the discussion, debrief students by asking if their knowledge has improved or if they followed the rules of the discussion, or by sharing your thoughts on the discussion, or why the Big Question or theme of the text is important. You could also ask students to relate their interpretation of the text to the modern world, or to offer their own opinions about the main theme of the text (because they just spent the whole time analyzing the text)–what law should Antigone have followed? This debriefing could be in the form of further conversation, a short in-class writing task, a blog post at home, or a more extensive writing assignment.

Pros

  • Students are actively engaging with the text, and so learning about it better. You can also encourage students to ground it in the text a lot more.
  • It models how to have a productive and respectful conversation among people with varying viewpoints.  Importantly, it established ground rules for doing so.
  • Even if you don’t follow the method perfectly, it suggests some ways to ask questions that make students more active and more free, or that lead to more fruitful and engaging discussions, than if you only asked guided/pointed questions.

Con

  • It may not work with every group of students or it might take some students awhile to catch on to this habit.  To mediate this con, be clear about the expectations/rules of the discussion, start using the strategy from the beginning of the term, or gradually make the discussion more complex as the term progresses (just like we would gradually guide our students through Bloom’s Taxonomy throughout the term).  And if it just isn’t working with a group of students, or they just don’t want to talk, find a strategy that does work with them (such as a more guided discussion or more in-class writing).
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