Socratic seminars have a strong place in the classroom. They allow students to be more expressive in their opinions; they generate discussion; they allow new ideas to spread; they are diversity-friendly.
On the other hand, they have to be built correctly. You can’t just throw off a random question and expect your students to have the maturity and sense to handle it. For most of their lives, they have attended regular lecture classes. They probably don’t have the experience needed to simply jump right into the fray.
This is where creating a process, and the preparation involved in setting up that process, becomes so important. You need to be their guide, so they can learn from each other and come to their own conclusions.
Teaching them this will not only help them in your class, but in the rest of their lives. They will gain an understanding that learning is a process of communicating. It is not simply about reading something and having it explained.
As you become a more experienced teacher, you’ll sense when your students are ready for Socratic seminars. And you’ll know when you have to spend the time explaining to them how it is going to work, and what is going to be expected of them.
This can be a discovery process for you as a teacher as well. Learning to let go of the reins so your students can be empowered is a teaching moment in and of itself.
It will require that your trust your students. At the same time, they must be able to put their trust in you that their views will be respected and listened to.
Mutual respect is the core component of a Socratic seminar – so you have to put those controls into place at the start, or you will end up with a mess of a classroom.
In this article, we’ll talk about how to create a generalized process for executing great Socratic seminars. It should be noted, however, that this is just a guideline. How you actually express this is up to your judgment regarding what your students can and cannot handle.
Preparing for a Socratic Seminar
Getting ready is a key element of preparing a Socratic seminar. If you don’t know whether your class has experienced Socratic seminars before, or if they are a younger class, you should probably pick a small text that can be read in class.
This can be anything from a poem to a fairly short story to a critical essay. It should be able to be consumed in roughly 15 minutes or less, so there is plenty of class time for the Socratic seminar itself.
In general, it is a good idea to pick a text for your first seminar that presents multiple arguments and/or interpretations. This makes it easier for the people in your class to stake out their positions.
That said, for a first-time Socratic seminar the text shouldn’t be too controversial. You can save that for later exercises. Something in the middle at an age-appropriate place for your students is ideal.
You probably want to make copies of it so students have the chance to take notes on the text itself for their arguments.
For an older class, or a class experienced with Socratic seminars, you can pick a longer text. This is good because you can assign it as homework – and then let the students take notes on it and prepare themselves before they come to class.
In this example you can choose a more complicated or controversial text – because of the amount of time the students will have to get ready to discuss it.
These texts can include a short story like Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, a novel like Less Than Zero, longer essays, or more complicated pieces of work.
Again, the key is to come up with something challenging that is also age- and experience-appropriate. It should elevate, not exasperate them.
Once you have the text selected, you can move on to the next step of the process.
Getting Your Class Ready for a Socratic Seminar
Before your have your first Socratic seminar with your class, you have to get them ready for it. Even if they are experienced at Socratic seminars, giving them a heads up is worth it to avoid potential conflict down the line.
The class before your first Socratic seminar is the time to do this. This allows your students to prepare for a non-lecture classroom experience.
Take the time to explain in terms they can understand what will be expected of them. Let them know you will only intervene if the conversation veers off course. Tell them if you will expect an essay about the seminar after, or if it will be fine simply to sum up what happened at the end of class.
Then, let the students ask questions. You may be surprised at what they have to say and what their concerns are. Listen to them, and reply to the best of your ability.
This is a crucial point in the process. If anyone has not asked questions yet – particularly if they are a member of a traditionally ignored group (gender fluid, black, female) – ask them if they have any questions.
Let them know that their voices will be expected to be heard in class. Also let them know that their views will be respected and validated. This is extremely important, so you don’t end up with simply white males doing most of the talking.
Remember, one of the key points of a Socratic seminar is introducing other voices into the discussion. So you have to be proactive in ensuring that those voices know their opinions will carry weight in the class room.
Laying the Groundwork for a Socratic Seminar
Now is the time to assign the text that will be used. As noted earlier, this can be the class before for a longer work, or the beginning of class for the work itself.
If you are providing them with the text the class before, it is to good idea to tell them in general what they should look for in the text. Not the exact question you will be asking them (or they will simply Google it), but the general direction the discussion will take.
For example, if your question would be, “Could Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty be the same man?” you could tell them to pay attention to the way Holmes and Moriarty interact and how they are introduced.
This gives them a baseline of what to look out for that will help them build some arguments in advance of the seminar itself.
If you are giving them a shorter text at the start of class, you can simply tell them what general concepts to look out for. This prepares their brains to search for evidence to support theories they will present in class, and keeps their heads in the game.
The Day of a Socratic Seminar
On the day of the Socratic seminar, you will have to be on point and very aware of what you are doing. While the idea of the Socratic seminar is to make it seem like you are uninvolved, in reality you have to be very involved.
The first thing to do is to remind people that it will be a Socratic seminar, and tell them that they will all be expected to participate, and that all participation is welcome.
Then, after they have processed the text, ask your question. Make it as wide open as possible, but with a specific goal in mind.
Now, watch how the discussion proceeds. In general ,the more confident and outspoken students will start giving their views. These will probably be very traditional, and not particularly productive. That’s fine for the start of the Socratic seminar – you need to have conventional views out there before they can be deconstructed.
See what happens. If there is a reaction from other members of the class in opposition to the original point, you can let the Socratic seminar continue. If not, then you have to take action.
Pick one of the students from the non-straight-white-male group and ask them what they think of what just has been said. This should lead to a challenge to the original vanilla argument.
If it doesn’t, try another student until you get a counter argument. Then let the discussion continue.
Should this lead to a group discussion, you don’t need to intervene. Should certain students still not be participating, you will have to step in and ask them for their opinion.
While at times it may seem like the discussion is veering off course, let it run a little bit. It may track back to the original discussion in a roundabout way. If it does not, that is your chance to step in and bring it back to point.
About five minutes before class ends, you should stop the Socratic seminar. At this point you can ask the class for a summation of what they have learned, and if they had any questions about the process itself.
That is also when, if desired, you can assign a paper for the next class on the discussion.
cc Michael Purser 2017