Have you been thinking of hosting a Socratic Seminar in your classroom? This post is your ultimate guide to setting you and your students up for success with this discussion model. You can also access my free Socratic Seminar starter pack!
One of my favorite parts of being an ELA teacher is sparking insightful conversations among my students. However, engaging students in effective conversations is also one of my biggest challenges. (Can you relate?)
Enter: The Socratic Seminar discussion model. Socratic Seminars can lead to deep, insightful, and engaging conversations among your students. In addition to being student-led, these discussions promote critical thinking, curiosity, and a deeper understanding of a text or topic. The best part is that students do the heavy lifting. That means less prep for you and more engagement and reward for them. (Score!)
The secret behind an engaging and effective Socratic Seminar is understanding how to set your students up for success. Once you know how to do that, your students will be on their way to meaningful and collaborative discussions in no time.
Don’t worry. This post contains everything you need to host a successful Socratic Seminar, including when to use one, how to prepare, what questions to ask, and ways to get students to participate.
What is a Socratic Seminar?
A Socratic Seminar is a classroom discussion activity in which students work together to unpack and understand a text’s themes, implications, and overarching messages. You can also implement Socratic Seminars to discuss big ideas, complex questions, and societal affairs in general.
This discussion format is inspired by the Greek philosopher Socrates and his belief in the power of learning through questioning and deep discussion. During a Socratic Seminar, students work with one another to unpack complex ideas by facilitating meaningful dialogue and engaging in critical thought. It’s not about proving an argument but about working together to reflect on a text or idea to explore perspective and establish meaning.
Rather than imparting knowledge to students, the teacher facilitates learning. Therefore, while teachers are used to asking questions during classroom discussions, students must take the reins during a Socratic Seminar. While you can certainly offer guidance and support, your students are the ones responsible for forming and posing the questions. It doesn’t get much more student-centered than that!
What are the Benefits of a Socratic Seminar?
Socratic Seminars challenge students to engage with classroom material in new, meaningful ways. These group conversations are a great way to encourage students to dig beyond a surface-level exploration of a text, its themes, and the broader implications.
And the benefits don’t stop there. Socratic Seminars also
- Encourage active learning over passive learning
- Promote student ownership over learning
- Drive curiosity and creative thinking
- Expose students to new perspectives
- Build strong speaking and active listening skills
- Foster a sense of classroom culture and community
- Give real-time feedback on student understanding
- Create engaging lessons without tons of teacher prep.
When to use a Socratic Seminar
Now that you understand the benefits of hosting a Socratic Seminar, you might be wondering when you should use this discussion method with your students.
I know writing is a cornerstone of any secondary ELA classroom. However, Socratic Seminars are an effective alternative for exploring and unpacking complex texts and ideas. They can also be an inspiring precursor to a writing assignment, allowing students to discuss the text with their peers before approaching a summative essay.
With that said, Socratic Seminars are a great activity to implement during a novel study. Since they depend on critical thinking and collaborative conversation, Socratic Seminars are best to accompany a complex text. If you try to host a Socratic Seminar with too simple and straightforward of a text, the conversation is sure to fizzle quickly.
Save the discussion for the end of a novel or after an imperative chapter. However, these discussions can be just as effective following reading a profound short story or thought-provoking video.
How to Host a Successful Socratic Seminar: A Step-by-Step Guide
I know it can be intimidating to let go of the reins and give students more responsibility for their learning. It’s one of the things that holds teachers back most from trying the Socratic Seminar discussion model.
If you’re new to Socratic Seminars, it may take a few tries for you and your students to get in the groove of these student-led discussions. I’ve outlined a step-by-step approach to help you get started. Of course, feel free to adjust the approach to best support your students.
STEP 1: Select Your Text
Select a text that provides plenty of opportunity for interpretation, discussion, and connection. The text should leave plenty of room for reading between the lines and digging for big ideas. The text can be fiction or nonfiction. It can be a poem, a short story, an excerpt, or an article. The more interesting the students find the text, the more eager they will be to participate in the discussion.
Remember, one of the main goals of a Socratic Seminar is to inspire collaboration among students to unpack a text and establish a deeper understanding of the text’s themes, implications, and overarching message. Therefore, it’s best to select a text that students can connect with on a personal, historical or societal level. This will ensure students have plenty to talk about as they establish and unpack the big ideas in the text.
STEP 2: Review Guidelines and Expectations
Reviewing guidelines and expectations is a must, no matter how many times you’ve hosted this form of discussion. If students are new to Socratic Seminars, take a few minutes to explain the goals and format of this type of discussion. I love starting that conversation by asking students to identify the qualities of a strong discussion.
Once students understand what a Socratic Seminar is, review your expectations for them in terms of preparing for and participating in the discussion. Review the guidelines for appropriate questions and how you expect them to act during the discussion. This includes appropriate ways to respond to one another’s ideas, reminding them that this is not a competition or debate but a collaborative discussion. Once you establish these expectations, hold students accountable to them–and remind them to hold themselves accountable as well.
STEP 3: Give Students Time to Prepare
Before hosting the Socratic Seminar, give students time to prepare. Giving students time to prepare their thoughts, questions, and ideas will help make the discussion smoother rather than putting them on the spot. Therefore, make sure students have read and annotated the appropriate text. Hand out sticky notes so students can mark significant moments in the text and easily refer to them during the discussion. This time will also pave way for deeper, more insightful discussions as students will have had time to consider the text ahead of time.
As for what you need to do to prepare? The good news is it’s not much! If your students need more support, provide them with question stems to help them develop questions appropriate for this discussion style. You may want to give them a few sample questions for inspiration. Check in with students as they work to ensure their questions are thought-provoking, open-ended, and require critical thought.
STEP 4: Set Up the Space
*This step is optional but highly recommended.*
You can set up student desks on the day of the Socratic Seminar in two ways. The first is to move student desks into a big circle, allowing all students to participate actively in the discussion. Alternatively, you can use the fishbowl method to set up two concentric circles. The center circle serves as the “discussion” group while the outer circle observes. After a set amount of time, have a new group of students take the middle seats. This approach is a great way to make this activity manageable for larger groups. Either way, when students face each other, it makes for a more intimate and inviting discussion.
STEP 5: Sit Back and Let Students Discuss
This is probably one of the hardest parts for teachers, and it might feel awkward for you and your students at first. Do your best to sit back and simply observe. Let students take the discussion into their hands. Of course, you can interject as needed to get back on track or reignite a fading discussion. For that sake, I recommend preparing a few thought-provoking questions to keep in your back pocket—just in case.
Instead of participating in the discussion, use the time to listen and assess. You’d be surprised how quickly you can tell who has (and who hasn’t) read the text. You’ll also be able to pick up on students’ levels of comprehension and ability to analyze the content–-and that’s valuable data! I recommend using a Socratic Seminar rubric to assess students throughout the discussion. The rubric should outline clear metrics for success that you review with students before the discussion begins. Assessing so many students at once might sound intimidating but having a rubric in front of you makes it much easier. And it’s way better than trying to make sense of messy notes or relying on your memory post-discussion.
STEP 6: Take Time to Reflect
Just like preparation plays an essential role in a successful Socratic Seminar, so does reflection. After the discussion is over, give students time for independent reflection. After such a collaborative discussion, giving students time to reflect on the experience is beneficial. Prompt them with questions that help them unpack the experience while highlighting some of their big takeaways. Reflective questions will also help prepare them for Socratic Seminars in the future.
Tips for Engaging Students in a Socratic Seminar
Have you ever been eager to facilitate a classroom discussion only for it to be a total flop? Yup. Me too. If that happens, try these tips to engage students in your next Socratic Seminar.
Try a Trendy Topic
If you’re looking for a way to dip students’ toes into the world of Socratic Seminars, try this: introduce the discussion model with a trendy topic. Instead of jumping right into a text, host a mini Socratic Seminar using pop culture, celebrity news, or current events. This approach helps acclimate students to the discussion model without the pressure of analyzing a comp[lex text.
Play Socratic Soccer
If you struggle to get your students to speak up, try playing Socratic Soccer. This approach is a great way to get students involved with a bit of gamification. All you need is a soccer ball and a sharpie. Write a series of Socratic Seminar question stems on the ball. As students toss the ball around, have them complete the question stem before tossing it to another student for an answer. After three to five tosses, have the next student choose a new question stem to complete. And so the game (and conversion) continues.
Host a Socratic—and Silent—Discussion
Sometimes we find ourselves with a group of introverted students. The good news is you can adapt the Socratic Seminar model to fit a silent discussion activity. After you give students time to prepare their questions, have them submit them back to you. Choose a handful of the most substantial questions to post to a collaborative document, such as Google Docs or Cryptpad. Then, allow students time to respond to the questions (and one another), creating a collaborative yet silent discussion. The trick is letting each student choose a unique (but legible) color to highlight the various contributions and perspectives unfolding before them.
Final Thoughts on Hosting a Socratic Seminar
I know Socratic Seminars might sound intimidating at first. However, once you and your students get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been using this strategy from the start.
Again, while I hope you find this guide useful, I encourage you to adjust your approach to Socratic Seminars to best fit your group of students. You can provide as much (or as little) scaffolding and structure as your students need to be successful. After all, student engagement and success are what we’re after, right? (Right.)
If you have any other tips for hosting Socratic Seminars or want to share any other engaging discussion strategies, please share them in the comments below. I always love hearing new ideas!
In the meantime, teach on, my teacher friend!