When studying a Socratic Seminar, discussions may be lively and might lean toward debate rather than dialogue.  What strategies can be used to create a setting in which every opinion and...

When studying a Socratic Seminar, discussions may be lively and might lean toward debate rather than dialogue.  What strategies can be used to create a setting in which every opinion and perspective is honored?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A Socratic Seminar is a classroom discussion format where students ask and answer the questions.  Rather than a teacher-led and focused discussion, the focus of a Socratic Seminar is on the students directing, and to a certain extent directing, the discussion.  It is very important that these discussions take place in an atmosphere of respect, however, or no one will get the full benefit of them.

In a traditional classroom discussion, too often the discussion is teacher dominated and becomes “guess what the teacher is thinking.”  This is why Socratic Seminars are used.  They are based on the teachings of the ancient Greek Philosopher and thinker, who favored the Socratic Method, which proposed the idea that students, rather than teachers, should be doing the questioning—because the one who questions is the one who learns.

The first thing a teacher and student have to do to have successful Socratic Seminars is set ground rules.  The teacher needs to take the lead in this, because students need to buy into the idea.  A teacher will need to tie the seminar to grades, most likely, and to the behavioral expectations of the class.  Like any good assessment strategy, a Socratic Seminar should have a rubric with clear expectations tied to objectives.  The objectives need to be clear, and the rubric should be simple but with specific descriptors for meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, and not meeting expectations.  The teacher can keep a checklist with students’ names to record behaviors to look for, such as asking thoughtful questions, answering with evidence, giving respectful answers, and adding on to another student’s answer.  The checklist can also include behaviors the teacher that does not want to see that do not meet expectations, such as interrupting, giving vague answers, or going off topic.

Another important strategy to ensure that everyone’s opinions are heard and valued is to make sure no one dominates the discussion.  There are two ways you can do this that are simple and effective that make a big difference.  One is to have some kind of “talking stick” that only the person talking holds.  It can be an actual stick, a ball, a placard, a stuffed animal or something fun, or basically anything.  It’s a visual reminder that whoever has the item is talking and no one else.  Another strategy is to limit turns.  Depending on the number of people in the group, you can give each person two or three turns.  You can keep track of the turns with playing cards, chits, or poker chips.  Once a person speaks, the chip goes back in the pot and once there are no more, that’s it.  That person is done talking and is now only listening.  This keeps a few people from dominating the discussion.

If these strategies do not work, you can try having the group make a contract.  Everyone agrees to abide by the contract before the circle begins.  If they abide by the rules, they all get an A, or 20 points, or whatever.  Each time a rule is broken by someone, that person forfeits a point.  You can say that if the person breaks three rules, the person can no longer participate and has to listen.

An important thing to remember is to teach your students how to ask good questions, and how to answer well.  This is the key to a good seminar.  Questions should be “discussable” questions.  They can’t be simple right and wrong questions, or they will be boring and won’t generate discussion.    They need to generate opinion, but it needs to be text-based opinion or they will only generate argument.  Argument is fun, but a seminar of only argument is not a seminar, but an argument.

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rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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We did a lot of Socratic Seminars this year for my English class and they are great if you try to discuss. Our class was the first class of the day so naturally we were tired and never spoke. The discussion became mostly the teacher and she tried to make us all lean towards one point and sway people's opinions which made me a bit upset.

In a proper Socratic Seminar people need to show respect towards the other students, meaning they should nicely listen to everyone's opinions and keep an open mind. I feel like that's the best way to learn, by listening to how other people think; it may open your eyes to things you have never thought of before.

Another thing is that EVERYONE needs to participate. When the discussion is only led by a few people not everyone's opinion is shared. I don't tend to speak in Socratic Seminars because I am very shy and start to have panic attacks, however I do have a lot of opinions that I don't get to share and I feel a lot of others do as well. Everyone should have the chance to say something, not by force, but because they have something that would be useful to the discussion and evidence to support their idea. 

Basically the key to a good Socratic Seminar is participation, respect, and an open mind to other's ideas.

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robyn-bird96 | Student, College Freshman | (Level 1) Salutatorian

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I love Socratic Seminars.  I took IB Literature my junior and senior year and we had so many of them.  Socratic Seminars are great if they have a basic structure and guidelines that students have to follow.  Otherwise, just go with the flow and allow students to share what they think.  

In my class, we always followed the same format: everyone prepares in-depth questions ahead of time with answers that use evidence from the book, which they turn in to a designated moderator.  This moderator will then grade the questions (to make sure that no one b.s.'s the assignment) and then select the ones that will prompt the most discussions.  Sometimes, the moderator will only get through one; sometimes it's a lot more.  It all depends on the students inside the circle.  

Then, we divide the class in half, with half on the inside, participating in the discussion, and half on the outside, grading the students on the inside based on a rubric that judges participation (how many comments), quality (is evidence from the text used), respect (do they respect their peers, are they dominating the conversation), and other such qualifiers.  All of this is to ensure that the student values the conversation and actively participates.  We hold multiple seminars for a book, dividing each book into sections, then both the inside and outside groups get to discuss the book for a section.  Then we switch up the groups to make sure that different people are interacting.

All of the Socratic Seminars I have done were successful, and we actually discovered many things about the text this way.

For example, one of the books we read was A Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata.  Through the Socratic Seminars, we discovered that one of the characters, Kurimoto Chikako was not actually the antagonist, like we had assumed, but was actually the dying past desperately holding on to her role in a post-modern future.  The whole book was actually presented as a distorted reality.  This was reached through students actively discussing the characters and searching for evidence throughout the novel.  

Personally, I think Socratic Seminars are great.

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