Socratic Seminars: The Big Leagues of Student Questioning

By Scott Sterling

One of the tenets of the Common Core and its related next generation standards is the idea that students should be able to question just as skillfully as they can answer. Nothing should be out of bounds. They should be able to rigorously question everyone in the classroom—including the teacher.

Socratic seminars have been around for more than a decade. In fact, it can be argued that they’ve been around for millennia. Charter schools have been developed around the whole concept. But they’ve received some renewed attention in light of these new standards. Even elementary teachers are giving the strategy a try.

What is a Socratic Seminar?

It can be argued that Socrates invented the first “flipped classroom.” Instead of the teacher asking all the questions, students question each other, with the teacher acting only as a moderator.

It’s not a debate, interview, or quiz game. The goal is for all participants to be engaged in a discussion that broadens the group’s understanding of the topic (usually a central text that everyone has read, but there are other options). They exchange ideas without belittling others’. They do everything the Common Core wants a student to be able to do.

How does it work?

Before class, students read a text, watch a video, or investigate some other artifact on which the discussion will focus. They need to be able to actively read the text and refer to it during the conversation, so some paragraph numbering or other organizational strategies might help. You want to make sure to choose a text that is rich enough to provoke discussion. Cut-and-dried won’t work here.

Students organize themselves in a way where they can all face each other, like a circle or a large table. If you have too many students for an effective circle, some teachers have the students make two circles, the outer one being for students who will be taking notes and not speaking until the roles are reversed at some arbitrary point in time (usually after ten minutes).

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Before the seminar starts, review the rules. They might include no side conversations in the circle, to be respectful of everyone, to talk to each other (not the teacher), and to keep an open mind, among others. You might want to write them up on the board or on a poster.

The teacher’s role is to guide the discussion. Students pose leading, open-ended questions and then prod the discussion along as needed using questions like:

  • Who has a different opinion?
  • Can someone clarify what (student) just said?
  • Can someone find evidence for that idea in the text?
  • Who has changed his or her mind about the piece?

 

Make sure to save time at the end to debrief. Let the students sum up their revised ideas. Give your overall impressions of the ideas they shared and the overall success of the seminar.

Evaluation and assessment

You can assess students in the normal ways that you would a classroom discussion, such as through participation. But that doesn’t seem to adequately reflect what happens during a seminar, especially since everyone is supposed to participate.

Some teachers use the outer circle of the seminar as evaluators for their inner circle counterparts. Make sure there are no politics being played if you opt for that route. For either you or the students, here is the rubric the KIPP network of charter schools uses for their seminars.

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