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.
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.
Record the Socratic Seminar discussion while students are engaging in the discussion.
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.
Have students complete a Socratic Seminar reflection sheet like those in the resources shared below.
Socratic Seminars can be a productive way to engage in a whole-class discussion during distance learning. The structure of the seminar can be incorporated into synchronous distance learning sessions.
Have students read and annotate the text that they will be using to engage in the Socratic Seminar Discussion.
Some sites like Newsela allow students to annotate a text online. The resource linked below, Newsela Support Article: Annotations, provides information on how students can insert annotations as they read text through the Newsela website.
Students can also annotate text excerpts that are uploaded into a Google doc or Google Slides by inserting comments into the document.
Prepare open-ended questions for the discussion. Students can also prepare questions to be discussed during the discussion.
Padlet is a great tool for teachers to post questions that will be used during the Socratic Seminar Discussion. Padlet also allows students to post additional questions that they would want to include in the Socratic Seminar Discussion. The Padlet should be accessible to students during the discussion so that they can visually reference the questions as they engage in the discussion. The tutorial linked in the resources section below shows how to set up a Padlet.
Develop classroom discussion norms and expectations specific to the synchronous distance learning setting. These discussion norms should be taught and shared with students so that they can reference them on their own technology device during a synchronous learning session. Explicit norms and expectations will be a crucial element to having a successful discussion within a synchronous distance learning session. To learn more about creating norms with students, consult BetterLesson's Developing Norms to Support Productive Group work strategy linked below.
Engage in the Socratic Seminar Discussion. If the synchronous group of students is too large, consider using a Fishbowl method of discussion in which half of the students are engaging in the discussion, while the other half of the students observe the discussion. The groups switch roles after a certain amount of time. Refer to the Active Listening strategy within the BetterLesson lab for tips and ideas on how to encourage active listening within a discussion.
Monitor and provide feedback to students about how well they implemented the virtual discussion norms and expectations via small group synchronous sessions or via written feedback through a googledoc.
Another option is to record the virtual socratic seminar and then reflect on the seminar with students in a subsequent synchronous or asynchronous learning session so student can review their comments and reflect on their contributions and the seminar as a whole.
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.
For English Learners, 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.
Socratic seminars can be particularly challenging for EL students with lower levels of proficiency who are nervous about speaking in front of the entire class, who need more time and support to process what their peers are saying, or who may not have the academic vocabulary necessary to engage fully in the discussion.
This strategy could be modified to support EL students by:
Using Newsela leveled texts
providing students with scaffolding during the pre-reading to ensure they understand the text or text set
giving students an opportunity to practice discussion strategies in partners or small groups before engaging with the whole class
modeling for students how to ask and answer discussion questions
providing 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 providing sample question or answer stems to guide their discussion contributions
supporting reluctant student participation either by teaching students how to invite quieter students into the conversation (i.e. "Valerie, what do you think about Hannah's point?") or reserving the last few minutes of the discussion to intervene as a facilitator to ensure all students have a chance to participate.
Socratic seminars support students with disabilities by providing a safe, structured opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, practice speaking and listening, and build confidence in a whole-class setting.
To support students with learning disabilities that impact their verbal communication, teachers can:
To support students with learning disabilities that impact their processing speed or short-term memory, teachers can:
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.
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.
In developing this strategy, the resources linked below from Facing History and Ourselves and The Cult of Pedagogy were consulted.