Socratic Seminar Model

The Socratic Seminar model is a wonderful tool to use with students of all ages. I am including a cool clip below of a collaborative project that my 12th grade students did with 5th grade students at Atkinson Elementary School. Atkinson Principal, Ivonne Dibblee, who had observed this method in my classroom suggested the idea of getting our students together. She connected me with excellent 5th grade teacher, Nicolette Smith. We have now collaborated for two years in a row! Here are some basic directions for holding your own Socratic Seminar Discussion.

The method is based on the original concept of “the dialectic” which is attributed to Socrates. The Socratic dialectical process is exemplified in the conversation that happens between intoxicated, friendly philosophers in Plato’s Republic. Do you remember reading this in high school or college? I do–I remember when I was assigned this book as a Freshman at New York University. It took me a little while to understand the format of the book, but I soon found myself deeply engaged in the discourse between these interesting characters. I began to understand that Plato was using this conversation as an example, actually, of Utopia. The philosophers, each with their own distinct personality and perspective, argued with one another about the nature of reality, and about the ideal society. Their teacher always responded with a deeper question, leading to a deeper question, and a deeper question after that. In the end, Plato (who was a student of Socrates) argues that communication, dialogue, and questioning –the dialectical process– are the Utopia–the privilege to search for truth is as good as it gets.

Although there are many feminist critiques of Socrates, I see the Socratic Method as a tool for establishing equity in the classroom. Why–you ask? It is a great tool for creating a more equitable environment because an authentic Socratic Seminar is about the supremacy of each individual’s right to question without being put down or debated. It is a celebration of free speech. It is a thrilling spectacle of critical thinking. It is a stage on which to practice free thought. It is about the empowerment of every voice.

There are many ways to facilitate a Socratic Seminar discussion, and just as many people trying to sell the method as their own; however, each teacher has the right to interpret the method in their own way, as Socrates himself is no longer among us–or is he?

Susie’s Socratic Method:

All students sit in a circle or square.

Students ask two questions about a major text they read as a group, an essay, a film or film clip, a poem, or a quote (quotes work well with younger children).

The teacher explains the guidelines:

Two before you (two students must speak before anyone else speaks)

Unheard voice rules (the person who has not spoken yet must be called on before a student who has already spoken)

The student who spoke most recently must call on the next student. If there are no hands up, they may call on anyone.

Silence is golden. Silent moments are not to be feared. They are moments for deep meditation before the discussion blossoms again.

No Side Talk – Please write down your thought and share with the group!

Round #1

After these guidelines are established, every student in the circle must propose their question to the whole group. Just go around the whole circle. If working with high school students, all students must take notes on what every student says, and then star a few who they would like to respond to. If working with middle school students, they should simply take notes on what three or four students asked. High School students must turn in their notes at the end of the discussion for assessment.

Round #2

After all students have asked their question, the actual conversation begins. I often revisit the bolded guidelines above one more time. My role, as teacher, is now to ensure that the students stick to the guidelines. If one student is allowed to dominate and a conversation erupts between two students in the circle, this is not an authentic Socratic Seminar.

In round #2, each student must ask a question about the question another student raised in the first round. It is a challenge for students to drop the practice of domination and debate and simply learn to question one another’s ideas. Sometimes, students may just want to make one remark about what another students said…or to take the conversation in a slightly different direction. Tangents must be allowed. Don’t be afraid of going off topic a little bit. A silence will once again emerge at some point. When it does, let students know ahead of time that this is the moment to return to one of the questions that a student raised in the first round. Those questions are the fuel of the discussion.

Assessment:

Since we know that young people perform best with both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, I do offer points for the Socratic Seminar discussion. The points could look something like this:

Listening & Notetaking – 10 points

Round #1 Question – 20 points

Round #2 Participating and Listening – 20 points

Points can be taken for not following the guidelines. Students are made aware of this beforehand. Sometimes it takes a little practice to get it all going. Hold fast to the guidelines so this can be a great, operable strategy for the school year.

I have far more successful discussions when I require notes and post the points system. Students deeply enjoy clarity!

Does the teacher involve herself? I tell students that by the end of the year, I want to see them operate a Socratic Seminar Discussion alone so that I may film it. However, I do enjoy participating in the first half of the year. If it is about poetry, I can barely stop myself from joining in; however, I TOO MUST FOLLOW THE RULES, RAISE MY HAND, AND BE CALLED ON. The students love this sense of equality. I highly suggest trying it out!

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