Socratic Seminar

Socratic seminars are used to help students dig deeper into a resource (text, video) that is complex and has room for different interpretations. Students will sit in a circle and basically lead themselves in a dialogue where different points of view and questions are heard.

Step 1 – Select a resource and a discussion prompt

Make sure your students have read and annotated the text first (or viewed / taken notes of a video). That will give them material for discussion.  There are many options for materials that support a socratic seminar (Source: Socratic Seminars in the SS Classroom by Ellaine Cabellon)

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As students read, they can already consider the big discussion theme they will engage in during the Socratic Seminar. That will help them write down questions to the text as they read, and use those during the Socratic dialogue.

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Step 2 – Prepare for “dialogue” and different forms of participation

To be prepared, students need to understand the difference between dialogue and debate. They need to understand that in a Socratic Seminar, there will be a dialogue. ( (Source: Socratic Seminars in the SS Classroom by Ellaine Cabellon)

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There are many ways that students can participate and you have to lay out those options clearly for the students ahead of time. If students have few clear options for participation, it will be easier for them. Here are some suggestions:

  • Give an opinion
  • Comment on someone’s opinion or interpretation
  • Ask a clarifying question
  • Ask for reactions
  • Offer examples from the text
  • Make connections to other text, situations, personal experience, etc.
  • Summarise, restate

You can use colored-coded cards to help students participate in different ways. So you can give each student a “card kit” containing a certain number of cards for each form of participation. In this way you can encourage those who are not sure how to participate, and also create parameters for those who tend to dominate. Below is an example of a coloured card kit for students to hold during a Socratic Seminar to wait for their turn, and also to account for their participation:

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Step 4 – Set ground rules for interaction

The Socratic Seminar has to be run by the students, so some ground rules are important to keep the dialogue flowing. Here are some suggested rules:

  • Talk to each other, not to the teacher
  • Invite others to speak, if necessary
  • Wait until others have finished speaking before your contribute
  • Listen to each other attentively
  • Stay open to change
  • State your opinion without judging others
  • Come back to the main question
  • There is no right answer

A strategy that is often used during Socratic Seminars is the Fishbowl. You organize students in two circles: the inner circle students are the ones active in dialogue; the outer circle students act as “shadowers” and/or recorders. Edutopia provides a list of possible roles for students in the outer circle. The shadower is a very important role as it is a partner who can give feedback.

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In this video, you will see that outer circle students are using a backchannel application to take notes. You could use any other form of notetaking. Notice how the inner circle students stop midway to receive feedback from their outer circle shadowers.

Video from Tolisano, Silvia. Socratic Seminar and the Backchannel

Step 5 – Debrief & Follow-Up Activity

It is really important to bring closure to all the ideas and interpretations brought by the whole group during the Socratic Seminar. At some point later, students can synthesise and analyse the group thinking using outer circle recorder notes as a guide. That can also be a good opportunity for asking students to organize ideas into writing, for example. In this way, the Socratic Seminar becomes a powerful source of ideas and deeper thinking for each student individually.