As with any other learning system, there must be a way to define how successful a Socratic seminar was or will be. Without that form of data, it will be impossible to know whether doing them in the future has a worthwhile pro forma advantage to traditional lecture courses or other forms of teaching.
Yet, evaluating how successful they are can be challenging. You don’t have the option to simply give them an exam on what they discussed. The results can be somewhat illusory.
But there are metrics that can be used. In this paper, we will discuss what to look for if you are considering using a Socratic seminar – both in showing you the wrong path as well as evaluating what was discussed in the seminar.
Is the Class too Homogeneous?
You must look first to ensure that there is some diversity in your group to make the Socratic seminar worth it. In general, for Socratic seminars, you want as diverse a class as possible.
But there may be times when that is not the case; if the class is entirely upper middle class white males, they may all agree immediately on what the text is supposed to be about. And this could be the case for any homogeneous group. A classroom of wealthy Middle Eastern students is going to be just as rigid in their thinking as wealthy Americans. In both of these situations, the success depends on the opening question.
Is the Class Size Too Large for a Socratic Seminar?
Socratic seminars work best for class sizes 15 and fewer. They can be used for classes up to around 35 students.
With too many in the class, the Socratic seminar will probably fail a large number of students. If you have 100 students in the class, at most 20 or so will have a chance to make their arguments. That leaves roughly 80 who are simply hearing a lecture from their fellow students and are left out of the discussion.
A way around this for larger classes is to break them down into groups of 15 to 20 and have each group hold their own Socratic seminar. This will, obviously, require increased supervision, but is a way to make it work.
Is the Subject Appropriate for a Socratic Seminar?
Some subjects are naturally more amenable to Socratic seminars than others. While talking about intertextuality in The Handmaid’s Tale is great for a Socratic seminar, talking about basic math or science may not be as welcoming.
The more room there is for diverging opinions, the more successful the Socratic seminar will be. The less room there is the least effective it will be.
For example, a discussion of whether The Handmaid’s Tale really happened or was propaganda will probably work. A Socratic seminar on whether 2 x 2 = 4 will be less effective!
Those are extreme examples, but they make their point. Yes, Socratic seminars can be used for STEM classes, but only when you are discussing items that can be debated. Some things are more suited to rote learning.
In general, the more open-ended the text, the more appropriate it will be for the basis of a Socratic seminar.
How Did Students React to the Socratic Seminar?
Just as not all subjects are open to Socratic seminars, not all students are ready for them. This is true no matter what age they are.
In general, for Socratic seminars you are looking for people with open minds. Those minds need to be prepared for the idea that their opinions have value. If you are going in with students who have only ever experienced rote learning, you may have problems.
To gauge how serious they are, pay close attention to the students. Are they struggling? Do they seem to be simply repeating things you or others have said before? This may be a sign that more scholarly prep work needs to be done before you launch into another Socratic seminar.
On the other hand, if they are actively engaged in the conversation with different ideas going back and forth and gestating into a new idea, then the Socratic seminar is working.
There will be some middle ground between completely not working and completely working. It is your job as the instructor to figure out if the Socratic seminar worked enough to be repeated, or if additional study is needed before a second seminar is put into place.
Was the Dominant View the Same as the End View?
In an ideal Socratic seminar, you will start out with one view on the text. This view will generally come from the most outspoken students in the class (usually “straight” white males).
Other viewpoints will come to the surface from other groups and cause a change in the initial dominant view. By the end of the class, a new understanding of the work will have been created by the group.
If this does not happen, there is a problem. In some academic environments, people are accustomed to ceding to power. They may raise an objection, but this objection will be talked over and thrown to the side. Then the argument will default to the initial argument made by power, through power, and enforced with power. (This power can be either real or perceived.)
When this happens, the Socratic seminar is broken. If anything, the places of the outsider (queer, gender fluid, people of color, people of alternative economic status) will have their place “enforced” by the dominant group.
Instead of feeling like they have more power, they will realize they have less – and be less likely to contribute in the future.
Therefore, you have to be very careful that their views are brought out into the open and treated with respect. Otherwise the point of the Socratic seminar will be lost.
Was the Socratic Discussion Distracted?
This is one of the risks of running a Socratic seminar. You want the students to go off on tangents – but you want the tangents to be of value and relate back to the text. Knowing whether or not they will reflect text-specific ideas can be a huge challenge.
A student may begin by discussing an incident at a local party. Others may chime in about this incident. Whether or not it is relevant is something you can only tell after the story has been shared.
It might illuminate an otherwise obscure portion of the text. Or it could end up just being them gossiping about people and ignoring the text for a friendly discussion.
This is what is meant by the Socratic discussion becoming “distracted.” Dive in too early to derail ,and you might be missing an important point. Wait it out and you may have wasted a huge amount of class time.
The way to handle this is in the “after” when the discussion is done. If the Socratic seminar really was “distracted,” you need to address the students and be more proactive in the future to ensure it is not.
This is better than jumping in early and perhaps missing out on a vital point being made in the classroom.
Evaluating the Results
Finally, results of the Socratic seminar are what really matter. Was something learned? Or was it just an exercise in talking?
This is best judged by evaluating the students’ response to the seminar. It can be done in one of two different ways.
You can ask the students, either at the end of that class or the start of the next class, what they learned and how they felt about the experience. This will allow you to gain insights into what really happened in class, and if new ideas were actually germinated.
The other way is to assign a paper based on the Socratic seminar. Ask them to write about what they learned. This can be a case for the minority students to re-argue their initial point if it was shot down.
It also gives students a chance to think about what they felt was valuable in the Socratic seminar. They may surprise you with not talking much about the eventual opinion presented in class – but with a new theory come up with after post class reflection.
If that happens, you know your Socratic seminar was a success because it created on-topic thought after class was over.
If, however, the essays all come back to the initial observation made in class and does not extend out beyond that, then there was a problem with your Socratic seminar.
At that point, you have to decide whether to address the problem and try again, or return to your traditional lecture-based classroom teaching.
cc Michael Purser 2017