What Is A Socratic Discussion?
Socratic discussions are the base component of Socratic seminars. Students are given a question by their teacher, and discuss it themselves. They may do so with a fellow student acting as a team leader, or in a free-form manner.
The focus is on a specific text. It can be one assigned to be read before class (if it is a longer work), or one assigned for them to read in class (for shorter works).
The general concept is to get students seeking their own answers to what the text is trying to communicate, what it is actually communicating, and how that communication has changed over time.
There is no right or wrong interpretation of the text. The entire class brings their unique world of experience to it. What the class seeks to discover is what, through metatextual influences, the text means to them.
For a Socratic discussion to succeed, there has to be an underlying assumption that there can be no absolute truth regarding the meaning of the text. Truth lies in an endless variety of possible meanings, varies from person to person, and is contextual.
What the students are learning is a way to expand their overall learning, appreciate different viewpoints, and learn how to defend their primal interpretation, while allowing it to meld with the interpretation of others.
This works best in a mixed classroom where there are men, women, gender-fluid persons, and a multiplicity of racial and economic backgrounds. In this world, everyone brings a different metatexual interpretation to the assignment – often sharing their experiences.
For example, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, some might argue that Tom Ripley is taking advantage of the system. Others might argue that the system is built to be taken advantage of, and he is playing the game correctly. Others might say that he is in fact a singular part of an overall capitalist oppressive system that both created and deserves him.
Each of these interpretations (and the uncountable others that certainly exist) is valid, but the class, working together, can find a unified truth that represents all of their different and shared experiences.
The teacher, meanwhile, acts as a guide. He may simply start out with a single question about the text, and let the students take it from there. He may interject himself at points (not in a negative way) to keep the discussion on track.
He or she is not there to disparage any idea that comes across. Instead, the teacher acts as a monitor in order to keep discussion flowing. He or she should not attempt to interject his or her interpretation onto the class, and should not reject interpretations that go against his or her own biased metatexual interpretations.
Students, on the other hand, should be expected to defend their reactions to the text. There should be no “blanket statements.” Rather, they should look into themselves and decide whether or not their biases are unfairly influencing their thinking, or if there is a fairness in their approach.
At the end of the exercise, students either go home and write a paper describing their new interpretation, or explain their final hypothesis to the teacher in class.
Forming A Socratic Discussion
Forming a Socratic discussion does not alleviate a teacher of his or her responsibilities. In fact, it makes the class more challenging, and more rewarding than a simple lecture on the text. The teacher will learn more about the background of his students, and may also see a new way to look at the intertext and subtext.
The first step is choosing an appropriate text. In general, the idea is to exclude any text that is not ambiguous. (Though all text is by definition ambiguous, some seem to offer a simple meaning, while other texts are more blatant in being open to interpretation.)
Another option is to choose two texts that seem to offer opposing views. (It may, in fact, be decided that they express the same view.) This is a good way to introduce the idea of a Socratic discussion, because it is easier to “take a side” in an oppositional text than it is to ground one’s opinions to a single textuality.
It is a good idea – if you are giving them the text in the classroom – to provide them with sticky notes so they can go back and find the material they are referencing in their arguments. If you are providing the text to them in advance, they can simply create their own systems for note management.
The next step is to decide how many questions to ask the students to respond to. In general, for a 45-minute high school class, one question should be enough. For a three-hour college seminar, you can ask up to three or more questions.
In the latter scenario, the first question could be for an overall reaction to the text, the second addressing a controversy in the text, and the third for a new overall interpretation that is distinct from their original view. (In this case, the second question acts as fulcrum to elevate them from their first reaction to their third and final reaction.)
Then you must choose the question or questions themselves. These should be as open-ended as possible. Asking the students, “What does the text mean?” is pointless. Asking them how the text makes them think about their opinions and lives will produce considerably better results.
The more personal you can make the questions, the better the reactions will be. Returning to The Talented Mr. Ripley, you could first ask them, “Can you see yourself in Ripley?” Then for a second question, “Can you see yourself in Dickie Greenleaf?” And then for the final question, “Would you or would you not act as Ripley did given the suppositions you have explored?”
The next step – if this is going to be the students’ first Socratic discussion – is to address what you expect from your students. Simply handing out a text and asking a question is likely to make them simply parrot back what they think you want to hear (which defeats the point of the seminar).
The professor needs to be clear that students can say whatever they want, without judgment, but that they will have to expect and respect opinions different from their own. They will be asked to defend whatever argument they make. That defense can be experience from their own lives, from other texts they have read, or from concepts learned in previous classes.
They should feel able to express themselves honestly, but on point. They should not be engaged in a debate, but rather a discussion. (For this purpose, a debate involves standing your ground and disagreeing with others. A discussion amounts to stating your case, and then listening to others – not as the opinion, but as members of your team working together to unlock truths.)
There should be a clear understanding that there are no right or wrong answers. Simply informed and non-informed responses. (The teacher may want to spend a fair amount of class time before the first Socratic discussion discussing the difference between “wrong” and “uniformed.”)
Then you need to establish with the students what your role in the discussion will be. At first, they will expect you to lead off with your views. You must make it clear that is not your role (and would inhibit honest dialogue).
Rather, you will work as a lightly guiding force. If the students deviate from the text and start talking about a party they were at the week before, you can reasonably say, “Hey, let’s get back to the text now.” On the other hand, if they are discussing the party in relation to the text, your job is to back off and let them explore that avenue of discourse.
Finally, you need some way, once the discussion is done, to determine how effective it was. How you will do this depends on your understanding of your students, your students’ respect for you, and uncontrollable time constraints.
For example, in a 45-minute high school class, you could have the discussion last 30 minutes, and leave aside the last 15 minutes for the students to talk about what they’ve learned. At the college and university level, it is probably more useful to spend the entire class time for Socratic discussion, and have them write papers for the following class explaining what, exactly, they gained from the experience.
Taken as a whole, you should see quite a bit of learning happening during and after Socratic discussions. Students will not only learn more about the text you provided them, but also have a greater ability to think about other texts they encounter. They should also gain a stronger understanding of the lives of the other students in their class.
It should be taken as a given that traditional capitalistic class boundaries will fall by the wayside if a Socratic discussion in on form.
Once this has happened, you can create new and more complex Socratic discussions for later classes.
cc Michael Purser 2017