Socratic Seminar Guidelines: A Practical Guide

Socrates & His Socratic Seminar
Socrates & His Socratic Seminar | Source

Introduction

Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.

—Henry Ford

This famous quotation about teamwork by Henry Ford effectively summarizes the work of Socratic Seminar—to bring a group of people together, teach them how to engage with one another, and thereby open new worlds of understanding that were previously out of reach. Volumes of literature have been written about Socratic Seminar (see the link to the right), but much of this material, being filled with valuable historical material and background research, makes it difficult to get the practical tools and information one needs to directly implement the approach.

This article, based on my own years of using Socratic Seminar in my classes, is designed to present the activity in simple and practical terms. By including notes, reflections, creative options, and links to my own original files for real-time use, it is my hope that this will help you quickly maximize the potential value of Socratic Seminar and customize its broad options to your individual needs.

Hey, look at that!
Hey, look at that! | Source

What is Socratic Seminar?

Socratic Seminar is based on an intellectual tradition generally associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who lived during the fifth century B.C.E. Socrates believed that the best way to achieve understanding came from developing and pursuing insightful questions. Socratic Seminar establishes a framework for holding discussions centered on this ideal while promoting equal participation among all members of the group. With this in mind, the leader of a Socratic Seminar takes on the role of facilitator instead of direct instructor, helping to provide the participants with a rich opportunity to explore independent inductive discovery.

Traditionally, Socratic Seminar is used to contemplate literature and art, but it can easily be adapted to discuss almost anything a group of people might want to consider: music, a sculpture, a news article, a historical primary source, and even a science experiment. Additionally, Socratic Seminar is effective for discussions with people of virtually any age, kindergarten to doctoral studies to adult book clubs.

Benefits of Socratic Seminar:

  • places the participants in charge of their own learning, facilitating self-driven discovery
  • teaches the importance of personal responsibility since the success of the discussion is dependent on well-prepared and actively engaged participants
  • teaches participants to become conversant in relevant terminology
  • provides numerous opportunities to learn and practice respectful group interaction
  • provides opportunities for those who speak too much to learn to listen
  • provides opportunities for those who speak too little to build up the courage to share

Challenges of Socratic Seminar:

  • can be uncomfortable for those who find public speaking difficult
  • can challenge discussion leaders (especially teachers) in their ability to “let go” of direct control over the flow of conversation

Teaching Seminar and Running a Great Socratic Discussion

NOTE: Since Socratic Seminar can be used by a wide variety of people for discussions around a wide variety of topics, I will refer to the story, novel, artwork, composition or whatever else might be under study as the “piece” and those involved in the discussion as “participants."

Basic Outline of Socratic Seminar Structure:

  1. Participants prepare a piece for discussion (always involves analysis, though it may involve other tasks as well)
  2. Participants sit in a circle for thirty minutes to an hour and discuss the piece
  3. The discussion leader and participants reflect on the success of the discussion

Simple Annotation Demonstration Video

Preparing for Socratic Seminar: Preliminary Analysis

Regardless of the form the piece under study takes—short story, artwork, musical composition, etc.—preparation will always involve the participants completing a close analysis of the piece. With text-based pieces, having the participants annotate the text is a good idea. This is also the point in the process where the discussion leader can provide more specific prompts, questions, and relevant analytical vocabulary that will focus the participants’ attention on particular elements of the piece under examination. The methods for doing this vary greatly, but any method that helps the participants develop a strong familiarity with the details and subtleties of the piece will be helpful.

The preparation process will also include the development of discussion questions. Either the discussion leader, the participants, or both can participate in this part of the process. Each approach has distinct strengths and weaknesses:

Question Development Approach
Advantages
Disadvantages
Leader-Developed Questions
Tightly controlled focus
Severely limits participant inquiry
Participant-Developed Questions
Wide open opportunities for independent inquiry
Control requires well-trained participants
Both
Can achieve a good balance of controlled focus and independent inquiry
Still stifles participant's individual inquiry

The very best conversations I have experienced in my classes came from preparation based exclusively on participant-developed questions. I was able to begin the conversation and sit through the entire class without speaking. Invariably, the participants discovered significant ideas that would never have occurred to me had I tried to take more control. Thus, I am always pushing for participant independence.

Achieving this takes a long time, however, and I have found leader-developed questions to be valuable for both modeling how to craft questions and directing the conversation toward essential concepts. Still, I try to do this as rarely as possible and continually phase it out as time goes by.

Socratic Seminar Questions
Socratic Seminar Questions | Source

FREE Practical Resources

I have created a variety of professional resources for making this happen with your students at Newfangled Notions.

The "General Guidelines" Handout

  • Covers the basic behavioral expectations
  • Overviews the 5 essential Socratic question types

The "Question Development Page" Student Worksheet

  • Provides a clear organization for developing questions
  • Creates an easy-to-follow procedure for asking questions

The "Feedback Flip Chart"

  • Helps create a clear path of expectations for students
  • Provides real-time feedback on discussion progress

The "Short Form Data Collector"

  • Helps establish qualitative levels for student comments
  • Provides students with real-time individual feedback

Includes complete Instructions for everything!


Preparing for Socratic Seminar: The Socratic Seminar Questions

Note: The information below is available on a printable handout I have created for distribution to participants.

  1. Close-Ended Questions (questions about the facts): Write a question that comes directly out of the text of the book and has one clear and “correct” answer.
  2. Open-Ended Questions (questions about inference and opinion): Write an insightful question about the text that will require lots of inference to answer. This is a question that has no definite “correct” answer but is more about opinion, evidence, and proof.
    Suggested Stem: What do you think about…?

    Suggested Stem: Why…?
  3. Literary Analysis Questions (looking at structure): Write a question about the author’s style and the way in which the text was written. This is a question about how or why the text was written in the way that it was.
    Suggested Stem: Why did the author…?
  4. Connection Questions: Write a question connecting the text to the world. You can do this in three ways: text-to-world, text-to-self, and text-to-text. Examples of these include asking questions that connect the text to modern society or current world events, asking questions that relate the text to us and our lives today, and asking questions that relate the text to another book, movie, or TV show.
    Suggested Stem: How is [something from the text] like…?
  5. Universal Theme Question (how does this text reflect the human experience?): Write a question dealing with a theme of the text that will encourage a group discussion about the universality of the text. These questions go for the deeper meaning of the text and try to help us understand what the text has to say about how we should live our lives and what's real for us as human beings.
    Suggested Stem: What does this piece have to say about…(love, war, power, etc.)?

Understanding how to craft these questions well requires time, training and experience. The leader must model this process extensively and repetitively with various examples of the kind piece being studied.

With slight alterations, these core question types that are designed around the study of literature can be altered to function for almost anything. Only the literary analysis question would really require alteration. It can simply be re-framed as “creator” analysis. So, instead of “Why did the author…”, it becomes, “Why did the artist…?” or “Why did the designer of the experiment…?” or “Why did the composer…?”

Leading Socratic Seminar Discussions

Step 1: Preparation Check

The discussion leader begins by checking to see who is prepared and noting this on the discussion record. Ideally, this is done orally on the honor system by simply asking the participants, “Are you prepared today?” My students have been surprisingly honest about this. Of course, more direct accountability is sometimes necessary, so visually checking for notes and questions or even collecting them ahead of time are also possibilities.

Step 2: Establishing Guidelines

These are the guidelines I establish for the participants in my Socratic Seminars (you can get the handout I use for summarizing these here):

Participants…

  1. …must refer directly to the text whenever possible.
  2. …can always “pass” when asked to speak.
  3. …are not allowed to speak if unprepared
  4. .…must ask follow-up questions for clarification when they are confused.
  5. …stay focused on the current conversation—make notes if something unrelated comes up so it can be discussed later.
  6. …speak up when they have something to say—do not raise your hands.
  7. …must always look at the speaker and listen carefully.
  8. …must speak so all can hear.
  9. …must talk to each other, not to the leader.
  10. …must recognize that the quality of this discussion depends each of you individually—your participation makes the discussion a success.

Leaders Must Listen Closely

Always watch for responses that wander away from direct ties to the piece. While some wandering is beneficial, the discussion must always be relevant. It is the leader’s responsibility to redirect the conversation back to the piece when it wanders too far off the mark.

Practical Tips for Running a Good Discussion

Modeling:

As much as I hate to do so, I interrupt fairly frequently in the first few discussions of any group. In addition to simple correction and training in the general process, participants need to see clear examples of high quality questions and responses. Sometimes I will provide them myself, but I prefer to recognize when a participant has done something well and articulate specifically why I felt it was well done, encouraging other participants to imitate it. As the participants learn, I speak less and less.

Helping those who talk too much to talk less!
Helping those who talk too much to talk less! | Source
Helping those who talk too little to talk more!
Helping those who talk too little to talk more! | Source

Balancing Participation:

In the first discussion of any group, three to five people will monopolize the conversation right away. This is natural but far from ideal. Ideally, the conversation is equally shared among all of the participants. Those who naturally dominate should be encouraged to listen first and speak later. Those who rarely speak should be encouraged to participate at least once.

Try out some of the following ideas to help support this:

  • Limit those who speak often to a certain number of questions and responses. Once they reach the limit, they can no longer speak.
  • Limit all participants certain number of questions and responses.
  • Purposefully interrupt toward the end of the discussion period and directly ask those who have not spoken if they have a question to share (some will, some won’t). Some will eventually learn to volunteer questions independently.

Note that those who talk a lot will become frustrated when they reach their limit and can no longer speak. Dealing with this is good for them as they will be forced to learn to listen. The uncomfortable silences that will ensue are also good for everyone else because the responsibility for maintaining the conversation will now fall to those are hesitant to speak. Eventually, someone will build up the courage to speak and the discussion will continue.

The leader must resist the temptation to save the participants from the uncomfortable silences! Just smile at them and wait.

As the group becomes more and more comfortable with this kind of discussion, the conversation will begin to even out more naturally while those who are more resistant become more willing to participate and those who speak too much become conscious of the need to hold back their participation and wait for a time when they really have something important to say.

The process takes time and lots of repetition, but the results are powerful.

Data Tracking in Socratic Seminar Discussion

Data Tracking in Socratic Seminar Discussion

Whether your discussion is designed to be graded or simply to deepen conversation, it’s helpful to keep track of questions and responses. This data can then be used to reflect on the evolving habits of individual participants and the success of various discussions overall. I use a spreadsheet that tracks answers, high-quality answers, questions, high-quality questions, follow-up questions, distractions and preparation (see the side note to download this form).

Because I am a teacher, I use this information for both evaluating the success of the discussion and for grading students. Early on, their grades are largely based on basic participation. As time passes, I raise the bar and begin basing grades on the number of high-quality questions and responses a given student contributes. My definitions of what “high-quality” means also changes over time, becoming more and more complex as students learn.

Advanced Data Tracking

I have also developed a comprehensive advanced data management system for Socratic Discussion at Newfangled Notions. Features include:

  • Define a clear path of leveled expectations for student comments
  • Easily track students' leveled comments
  • Provide real-time, individualized performance feedback
  • Automatically calculate grades based on ongoing data input
  • Fully customize the grading system, including differentiation
  • Encourage effective discussion with grade-based incentives
  • Instantly generate graphs based on discussion data
  • Have students create goals using individualized data graphs
  • Use teacher data graphs to plan instruction
  • Analyze students' progress toward Common Core standards

Achieving High Quality Questions & Responses

Without guidance, most participants, regardless of age, will tend to develop questions that lack depth. A lack of depth in questions leads to a lack of depth in overall conversation. Even good questions are no guarantee. Without training, most people respond to questions with one to two sentences, failing to fully explain or provide evidence to support their responses.

Once again, remember that leaders must regularly model the kind of response they are looking for as well as point out very clearly when participants have provided the kind of response that accomplishes the goals of the discussion, pointing out the finer details of why those statements accomplish those goals.

Initially, high-quality questions might simply be questions that are broad enough to open a window for conversation. Eventually, they may become questions that utilize the relevant terminology or present challenging observations and considerations about the given piece under study.

High quality responses begin with providing some kind of explanation for one’s statement. Eventually they may include expectations for the use of relevant terminology and thorough explanation of reasoning and evidence.

Reflecting on Socratic Seminar Discussions

Once the discussion is over, it is important for the leader and the participants to reflect on how things went so adjustments can be made to future Socratic Seminars. Using my discussion tracking form, I make notes about who is speaking too often, who isn’t speaking enough, and my general sense of the quality of the conversation. Based on this data, I make decisions as to where I need to re-teach or re-frame some of the question development and response skills. Noting the participant’s fluency with relevant vocabulary is always a factor to consider here as well. All of this is done with the understanding that discussions only improve if adjustments are made.

It is also a smart idea to have participants reflect on their own learning at this stage. Through this they can become more self aware of their own strengths and weaknesses in group discussion.

Socratic Seminar Blog
Socratic Seminar Blog | Source

The Socratic Blog: Using Technology to Extend Discussion

Once students become familiar with the Socratic Seminar process, it can be transferred into an online blog discussion with great ease using the same general rules and questioning approach. While I would not use this exclusively as the social skills learned in face to face discussion are very important, it does provide an opportunity for those who find public speaking difficult to fully participate in the conversation.

Here are some other advantages to this approach:

  • It allows for more thoughtfully composed comments.
  • It permanently captures comments in detail for later analysis and review.
  • It is not limited by time in the same way as a live discussion.
  • It provides an opportunity for participants to practice articulating ideas in written form, which, though similar, is a fundamentally different skill.

Socratic Seminar
Socratic Seminar | Source

Conclusion

This process is a perpetual work in progress and its dynamics are quite different from group to group and piece to piece. With the repetition of effectively led discussions over time, however, the participants’ conversation will continue to become more balanced, more insightful, and more independent. There is nothing quite like the experience of watching a discussion group run itself and discover ideas that you never would have imagined without setting them loose to explore it on their own!

More by this Author


Comments 27 comments

buckleupdorothy profile image

buckleupdorothy 4 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

LOVE this! Voted up, shared, and will be passed around to my other teaching friends and colleagues.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Buckleupdorothy,

Thanks so very much! I've found the so very invaluable for my classes. I hope it can deepen the work for lots of students everywhere. I do sincerely appreciate the shares as well.

Good writing to you,

wayseeker


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

This is perfect! I've been looking for a brief yet thorough way to explain this to students who will be asked to participate in this type of discussion. Thanks! I will be sharing this with my classes!


StephanieBCrosby profile image

StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey

I love the Socratic method. unfortunately, every time I try it, it blows up in my face. The main reason...your section on "Close Study." After no real responses to the opening questions, I am left with the major question, "So, how many people actually read the selection?" And only a few hands go up. I dare not ask, "How many did a close reading and annotated?" out of the few who did read. Even if we spend a few days on a work, my students just want information they can parrot back sometimes. But I will keep on trying!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

Wayseeker, your Hubs are the best! What a magnificent guide to one of my favorite discussion / class formats. Thank you so much for creating the resource!


sandrabusby profile image

sandrabusby 4 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

This is such aa profoundly important tool that I'm bookmarking it for future reference. As a teacher, I especially appreciate this technique and would like to see it used more. Thank you so much for such a fine descriptiong.


Robin profile image

Robin 4 years ago from San Francisco

You are an amazing teacher and we are so lucky that you are sharing your wisdom with us! I would definitely use this in the classroom and plan to incorporate it into our discussions at home. Any teacher would be thrilled with this guide! Thank you!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Marcy,

So glad that this will work! It turned out to be a touch longer that I might prefer, but there was just to much information to cover. Even so, it's far less cumbersome than any other place where I've seen this approach discussed.

Thanks so much for sharing this with your classes, and I wish you many great discussions!

wayseeker


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Stephanie,

Believe me, I understand your pain. Students are definitely trained these days to seek for the right answer and then stop. Socratic Seminar simply will not work when that's the approach. However, it is also a great tool for teaching them a new way of thinking.

If your kids won't read and prepare at home, I would suggest trying it with something very short and high-interest that can be read together in class with enough time left over to prepare questions before the class ends. This way you can both ensure that everyone has in fact done the work and you can have your hands in the mix while they are preparing questions.

Clearly this is not ideal, but it will back fill the preliminary work for them and allow them to experience the discussion properly. Once they discover that they have truly been left alone in terms of directing the conversation, my students have always begun to develop a sense of empowerment about it that they seem to enjoy, and it also moves them a little towards more higher-level thinking.

Once the thing gets moving a little, its usually a few insightful kids who really elevate the discussion, but the rest follow them once they have a chance. Lastly, once they get to liking it, I think the preliminary work may come with more success--though never as well as any of us would like!

Good luck, and thanks so very much for reading!

wayseeker


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Simone,

You loved Socratic Seminar? Shocking! As always, I sincerely appreciate your support and your willingness to take the time to read. I hope this is a resource that will be valuable to lots of folks as time goes by--it's certainly a wonderful way to explore literature and art!

wayseeker


summerberrie 4 years ago

Wayseeker, this is such a wonderful hub. I wish I had this resource when I was still teaching. Your artwork just blew me away-just loved it!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Sandra,

Sincere thanks for taking the time to read. Much of the work of my classroom revolves around this approach, and I've found it to be something that the students really enjoy. I'd love to see it used more broadly as well.

Thanks again,

wayseeker


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Robin,

There are definitely days when I wonder if there is all that much wisdom there to share! Still, I do hope that this proves a useful tool, and I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read.

wayseeker


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Summerberrie,

Thanks for your thoughts. You encouragement relative to the artwork is particularly meaningful for me as I wonder sometimes if the drawings I put together are a bit too "kooky." Your thoughts bring me confidence--thanks!

wayseeker


Nare Anthony profile image

Nare Anthony 4 years ago

This is so excellent wayseeker! I especially love the photos that you did, so artistic and engaging. The style also matches the topic very well! Good job mate :)


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Nare,

Thanks so much for your consistent support--it means a great deal. This was fun to make, and I enjoy coming up with artwork that compliments the writing. I especially like it when it works out, as it seems that this one did.

My best to you, and happy writing!

wayseeker


TFScientist profile image

TFScientist 4 years ago from Peterborough, UK

I am making this required reading for my a level students. I occasionally set them sections of the syllabus to deliver as the teacher of the class and they would benefit from the advice contained in this hub. It has also given me a few ideas to refresh my own teaching.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful resource. I echo Robin's comments. Voted up interesting and useful. I've also shared with my teacher friends!


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Wow! This is deeply encouraging, TFScientist. It means a great deal that there are some folks out there who would find this valuable enough to use and distribute in this way. I have found this approach so wonderful for slowly moving students beyond "surface-level" discussions into more profound insights.

The encouragement I have received here has me cooking up a number of other related ideas for hubs on education. Thanks so very much for the support, and I do hope that it proves valuable to you, your colleagues, and your students!

wayseeker


alliemacb profile image

alliemacb 4 years ago from Scotland

An interesting approach and one which I will share with my colleagues and students. I think my undergraduate students would benefit from reading this as they run their own discussion groups to supplement teaching seminars and lectures. As you mention above this is ideal for discussing literature. Voted up and awesome.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Allie,

Thanks so very much for taking the time to read and sharing this around. I hope that it serves to deepen the conversation of your students--it has certainly helped mine. I have also seen this work very well in smaller groups. Understanding the approach of the questions is what seems to make the biggest difference.

wayseeker


ElizaDoole profile image

ElizaDoole 4 years ago from London

Excellent hub wayseeker. I love the layout and the thorough explanations and materials to go to.


kittyjj profile image

kittyjj 4 years ago from San Jose, California

A very interesting topic and a very informative hub. I especially love your drawings.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Eliza & KittyJJ,

Thanks so very much for dropping in and taking the time to read!

Good writing to you!

wayseeker


travel_man1971 profile image

travel_man1971 4 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

Thank you for having the best teacher on HubPages. You should be commended to a higher level on this writing site.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Travel_man1971,

Sincere thanks for the high praise. I am using this approach more this year than ever before, and will soon have an update to this Hub that brings another layer of subtlety to its use. Many thanks for your interest in my work.

wayseeker


LisaKeating 2 years ago

I just retired from teaching. I taught AP Language and Composition in high school. We used Socratic Seminars much in the way you describe here. It is awesome if you are doing this with middle schoolers. They will be so much more prepared for in-depth analysis when they get to high school. I assume that with your art background that you drew the pics? Nice job. Great hub.


wayseeker profile image

wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado Author

Lisa,

My sincere thanks for this encouragement. I relied on this heavily this year, and felt better about what the students gained from the literature we read this year than in any of my previous years of teaching. I am always surprised at how well the students cover what I might have wanted them to talk about when I guide them through exploring it on their own. It's a bit scary at times—letting them have so much control—but I'm convinced it is the path to the truest learning for them.

My background is actually much more musical than it is art, but I did draw the pictures. I'm actually planning on expanding this material over the summer to include more detailed information (probably other related hubs) along with a link to a place where folks can get some practical tools for making it work within their classrooms.

Thanks again, and enjoy retirement!

Bert

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