Socratic Seminar Discussion

Socratic Seminars support students to discuss complex texts or topics, and are forums for them to build both speaking and listening skills
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Socratic Seminar
5:28

About This Strategy

A Socratic Seminar is a discussion in which students help one another understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in a text or about a topic using a specific discussion format. The format of a Socratic Seminar can vary but at its essence, students prepare by reading a text or several texts ahead of time and write discussion questions about those texts or topics. On the day of the seminar, students sit in a circle and the teacher or a student discussion leader asks an open-ended question of the group. From there students use evidence and reasoning to support their claims. There is no particular order to how or when students speak, but students are encouraged to respectfully share the floor with their classmates. Other similar specific group discussion strategies include but are not limited to a fishbowl discussion or a philosophical chairs discussion. Through these types of discussion, students practice how to listen to one another, make meaning, and find common ground while participating in a conversation.

Implementation Steps

20 minutes
  1. Select appropriate texts for students to read in advance of the discussion and have students annotate the texts in order to prepare for the discussion.
  2. Prepare open-ended questions to ask students during the discussion or ask students to prepare these questions before the seminar.
    • See the "Prepping for Socratic Seminar" video in the resource section below. 
  3. If students struggle to come up with questions on their own, provide a list of common questions or question stems for students to use to develop their own questions. These questions could include but are not limited to:
    • Who was the author of this text? What do we know about him/her? How does that shape our understanding of these words?
    • Who was the audience for this text? How does that shape our interpretation of these words?
    • What else could that mean?
    • What do you think the author is trying to say?
    • Is this what you mean to say...?
    • Can you say that in another way?
    • What does this word or phrase mean?
    • Where does that idea come from in the text?
  4. Develop classroom discussion norms such as the guidelines in the resources below or by consulting the Socratic Seminar Expectations chart below.
  5. Engage in the seminar. At least 15 minutes should be allotted to the activity, and it can often last 30 minutes or more. As students become more familiar with the Socratic Seminar format, they will be able to discuss a text for longer periods of time without teacher intervention.
  6. Sometimes teachers organize a Socratic Seminar activity like a Fishbowl activity (to learn more about the Fishbowl strategy consult the "Fishbowl" strategy in the BetterLesson Lab), with some students participating in the discussion and the rest of the class having specific jobs as observers. At least 15 minutes should be allotted to the activity, and it can often last 30 minutes or more. As students become more familiar with the Socratic Seminar format, they will be able to discuss a text for longer periods of time without teacher intervention.
  7. Reflect on and evaluate the seminar. After the socratic seminar engage students in a discussion about their own performance in the seminar and the performance of the class as a whole in order to improve their ability to participate in future discussions using reflection questions such as the reflection questions in the resources below.
    • To learn more about supporting students to discuss complex texts and topics, explore the Having Hard Conversations with Students strategy in the BetterLesson Lab.

Supporting Reflection of Individual and Group Contributions to Seminar

Students can view the video of their class engaging in a socratic seminar or reflect on the seminar after it takes place on the effectiveness of the discussion. Students can also view a socratic seminar to reflect on their performance, participation, and quality of comments they made or textual citations they gave. Students can use this reflection time to give and receive feedback on their participation in the seminar.

Implementation Steps:

  1. Record the Socratic Seminar discussion while students are engaging in the discussion.

  2. After the discussion have students view the discussion as a whole group or individually to evaluate their performance and the performance of the class as a whole.

  3. Have students complete a Socratic Seminar reflection sheet like those in the resources shared below.

Socratic Seminar to Support Argumentative Writing

Students can view the video of their class engaging in a socratic seminar or take notes during a socratic seminar to support them to develop ideas and gather evidence for their own writing.

Implementation Steps:

  1. Before and after the socratic seminar provide time for students to gather evidence-based thoughts on the seminar topic. They can use a Claim and Evidence T Chart to gather their thoughts.
  2. Following the seminar, students can use their notes to develop an argumentative response to a prompt.

EL Modification

For EL students, this strategy provides an excellent opportunity for students to practice their English speaking skills. To acquire language fluency, students need opportunities to produce real, purposeful language and to direct the course of conversations and arguments. This strategy could be further modified for EL students by modeling for students how to ask and answer discussion questions, providing the students with the ability to prepare responses to questions with a partner or receive feedback on their responses to a question from a partner before engaging in the seminar, or providing sample question or answer stems to guide their discussion contributions.

Special Education Modification

To support students with learning disabilities that impact their verbal communication, teachers can give students the questions ahead of time and allow them to write their thoughts before convening the seminar. Providing sentence stems for their responses is another way to support students who struggle with verbal communication.

Tech Tools

Screencastify

  • Screencastify makes it easy to record your own video lesson leveraging resources you have organized in your web browser (slide deck, websites, Google Docs, etc…). Pointing, highlighting and even writing over content is possible while displaying your video and audio as well.

  • Screencastify can support this strategy by providing you with an easy way to record the discussion with your laptop by using the webcam function. The video can be used later on as a tool to engage students in post seminar reflections. Teachers can also use the video to help them assess the quality of the discussion, from a group or individual standpoint.

Related Lessons

Explore the "Socratic Seminar Prep" videos and resources from high school ELA Blended Learning BetterLesson Master Teacher, Johanna Paraiso.

Explore the "Socratic Seminar" video and resources from high school ELA Blended Learning BetterLesson Master teacher, Johanna Paraiso.

Explore the "Conducting Our First Socratic Seminar" lesson by 8th grade ELA BetterLesson Master Teacher Julianne Beebe to see how her students engage in a Socratic Seminar.

Explore the "Socratic Seminar: Using conversation to show how to closely read a text" lesson by 10th grade ELA BetterLesson Master Teacher Lindsay Thompson to see how her students engage in a Socratic Seminar.

Explore the "Rosa Parks Socratic Seminar" lesson by 5th grade ELA BetterLesson Master Teacher Dana Patton to see how she develops expectations for the Socratic Seminar with students and to also see how she evaluates a Socratic Seminar discussion.

 

Research Base

In developing this strategy, the resources linked below from Facing History and Ourselves and The Cult of Pedagogy were consulted.