Journey to Excellence

Socratic Seminars

Socratic Seminars are the result of the work of Mortimer Adler, Director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago. Adler published The Paideia Proposal (1982) and Paideia Problems and Possibilities (1983) in which he argued that education should be rooted in three goals: the acquisition of knowledge, the development of intellectual skills, and the enlarged understanding of ideas and values. The first goal can be accomplished through textbooks and didactic teaching in the content areas. The second goal can be developed through coaching, exercises, and supervised practice. The third goal can be achieved through Socratic Questioning and Active Participation using books (not textbooks), other works of art, or involvement in artistic activities (Paideia Proposal 23). The seminar begins with a teacher's question but is entirely different from the Socratic questioning style which many teachers already employ.

Teaching by discussion imposes still other requirements. For older children, it calls for more than a fifty-minute class period. It calls for a room in which the participants in the discussion sit around a table instead of in rows. The teacher is one of the participants, not the principal performer standing up in front of the group.

The teacher's role in discussion is to keep it going along fruitful lines – by moderating, guiding, correcting, leading, and arguing like one more student! The teacher is first among equals. All must have the sense that they are participating as equals, as is the case in a genuine conversation. (Paideia Proposal 54)

The seminar is more than a common classroom discussion in that it is focused on a text—book, painting, poem, film clip, scientific hypothesis, etc. The Socratic Seminar is also a performance assessment, and as such, it begins with outcomes. Numerous critical thinking skills are addressed through the seminar method including analysis of text, synthesis of ideas, evaluation of concepts, and inferential reasoning. Of course, speaking and listening skills are developed as well. Socratic Seminars also include a written dimension. Students can write about the ideas presented or evaluate the quality of the seminar itself (participation, quality of comments, insights, new ideas). These activities can be used by all disciplines as teachers engage in discussing and evaluating concepts and texts in all content areas be they musical scores, paintings, mathematical theorems, or scientific experiments.

Three Kinds of Teaching and Learning

These three columns do not correspond to separate courses or disciplines, and one kind of teaching or learning is not confined to any one class.




Acquisition of Organized Knowledge

by means of:

Didactic Instruction, Discovery Learning, Textbooks, and other aids in these content areas:
  • Language and Literature
  • Mathematics
  • Natural Science
  • History, Geography, Social Studies

Development of Intellectual Skills (Skills of Learning)

by means of:

Coaching and Supervised Practice

in the operations of:

reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem-solving, observing, measuring, estimating, exercising critical judgment, performing in the fine arts

Enlarged Understanding of Ideas, Values, and Issues

by means of:

Socratic Questioning

in seminar discussions of:

imaginative and expository literature, works of visual and musical art, mathematical theorems, scientific inquiry

What To Do

  1. Choose a text. Good texts are ones that interest the students. Paragraphs and lines (or portions of a score or painting) need to be easily identified and referenced.
  2. Design possible opening questions. Good opening questions:
    • arise from genuine interest or curiosity on the part of the teacher,
    • are open to interpretation (no right or wrong answer),
    • foster analysis and a greater understanding of the text,
    • are supportable by the text (answered by reference to the text),
    • are framed in such a way that they generate dialogue from the students.
  3. Teach any background information necessary for a good understanding of the text. This prevents the need for the teacher to interrupt the discussion to clarify or provide additional information.
  4. Have the students put their desks in circle so that they can see each other. Provide an empty desk for the "hot seat."
  5. Choose an outer circle to critique, trouble-shoot, record main and dropped ideas, journal on what they heard, etc. Students who didn't do the necessary reading or randomly chosen students make up the outer circle. These students may sit in the "hot seat" if they want to participate.
  6. Start by explaining the Socratic Seminar to the students.
    • Explain that the conversation is theirs, and that your question is a starting point which they can move away from as they pose ideas and questions that are more interesting to them as long as the new ideas and questions can be discussed in terms of the text
    • Tell the students to direct their comments to other students and explain to them that you will not comment on what they say, since this will cause them to talk to you rather than to each other. It may help if you look down or avoid eye contact until the discussion takes off on its own.
    • Encourage the students to think before they talk, try to comment, or add on to what others have said. Listen to others.
  7. Toss out the question.
    1. Students have learned to be passive, and this activity can be risky for some students, so it may take time for some groups to catch on. The conversation is likely to have stops and starts, but it is crucial that the teacher not step in and try to rescue the conversation. If the conversation goes dead, wait. Students will find the silence unbearable before the teacher does. Your silence also indicates your level of commitment to the activity.
    2. If students ask you a question, throw it out to the group or ask the questioner what his/her opinion is. Answer factual questions only if there is no way around it.
    3. Teacher Behavior
      • Keep students from having side conversations.
      • Ask students to cite support from the text of the conversation begins to wander.
      • Invite students to participate.
      • Keep conversations from becoming debate or debasement of others.
      • Ask students to question their assumptions.
      • Manipulate the amount of participation. For example, if only a few students are speaking, the teacher might say, "Everyone who has spoken so far, look at the clock, and don't jump in for five minutes." Or if one gender is dominating the conversation, ask for the other to speak for the next five minutes.
      • Use the outer circle to your advantage if the conversation is truly dying out prematurely. Ask the students sitting there to summarize or comment on what they have heard. Ask them to re-introduce the points they thought were especially good or prematurely dropped. This strategy can often reignite the conversation.
    4. End the seminar when it feels done. With an experienced group, you might ask the students, or a student might suggest it. If things go really well, a student may suggest another poem, text, or section to discuss which correlates well with the original text.
    5. The Critique Go around the circle and ask each student about the experience. What was good about it? What was not so good? What could be improved for the next time? Let the outer circle discuss the group dynamics, but be careful that they focus their comments on group rather than individual behaviors.

    Extension Activities

    Socratic Seminars are good preparation for individual explication or a comparison/contrast essay. Students can journal about the texts discussed.

    Dialogue and Debate
    Listening and Speaking in a Seminar
    Seminar Planning Form
    Sample Socratic Seminar Examing a Painting
    Seminar Rating Chart
    Socratic Seminar Observation Form
    Student's Evaluation Sheet
    Facilitator's Evaluation Sheet
    Seminar Rubric
    Assessment Criteria for Socratic Seminars

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