Socratic Seminar Guidelines: A Practical Guide
Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.
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.
Note: If you are already familiar with the basics of Socratic Seminar, I suggest you jump to Practical Tips for Running a Good Socratic Seminar.
- What is Socratic Seminar?
- Teaching Seminar & Running A Great Socratic Discussion
- Preparing for Socratic Seminar: Preliminary Analysis
- Preparing for Socratic Seminar: The Socratic Seminar Questions
- Leading Socratic Seminar Discussions
- Practical Tips for Running a Good Socratic Seminar
- Data Tracking in Socratic Seminar Discussion
- Achieving High Quality Questions & Responses
- Reflecting on Socratic Seminar Discussions
- The Socratic Blog: Using Technology to Extend Socratic Discussions
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:
- Participants prepare a piece for discussion (always involves analysis, though it may involve other tasks as well)
- Participants sit in a circle for thirty minutes to an hour and discuss the piece
- 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
Tightly controlled focus
Severely limits participant inquiry
Wide open opportunities for independent inquiry
Control requires well-trained participants
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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…?
- 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…?
- 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…?
- 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):
- …must refer directly to the text whenever possible.
- …can always “pass” when asked to speak.
- …are not allowed to speak if unprepared
- .…must ask follow-up questions for clarification when they are confused.
- …stay focused on the current conversation—make notes if something unrelated comes up so it can be discussed later.
- …speak up when they have something to say—do not raise your hands.
- …must always look at the speaker and listen carefully.
- …must speak so all can hear.
- …must talk to each other, not to the leader.
- …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
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.
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.
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.
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!