How to Conduct a Socratic Seminar in the Classroom

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In a Socratic seminar, the teacher provides questions rather than answers.

Greek philosopher Socrates had a method of teaching that involved asking many questions -- and often answering them with more questions -- to lead students through their own examination of a particular text or topic. Using this method, a Socratic seminar can be a useful way to engage students with their learning material and to encourage critical thinking rather than memorization by repetition.

Instructions

1 Prepare for the seminar by thoroughly reading the text to be discussed. Prepare several questions about the text to stimulate conversation among students during the seminar.

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Inform students of what they need to read to be prepared for the seminar and describe the type of discussion you expect. Socratic seminars do not work if the students have no information to discuss. Give students an appropriate amount of warning so that they will have adequate time to do their reading and research prior to the seminar.
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Arrange seating in the classroom to encourage conversation on the day of the seminar. Students need to be able to hear each other, and conversation may flow more easily if they can see each other as well. Sitting in a circle, or in an inner and outer circle, is a common seating arrangement during Socratic seminars.


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Begin the seminar by asking an open-ended question that requires a lengthy response -- perhaps eight or 10 seconds -- and has no right or wrong answer. A longer student response will provide a wider base for discussion and further questions. Open-ended questions may begin with the words "why" or "how" and examine the implications and consequences of the facts.
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Guide the discussion to keep it on topic, but allow the students to speak more than you, the leader. Ask one of your prepared questions to stimulate conversation, if necessary.
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Allow conflicting viewpoints. The role of the leader of a Socratic seminar is not to provide correct answers -- except to correct factual errors that will reduce the quality of the discussion. Allow students a chance to identify and reconcile any discrepancies.
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Limit the discussion to 30 to 50 minutes. Summarize, periodically, what has and has not been discussed to keep the discussion within the allotted time.
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Tips & Warnings

  • Once discussion is moving comfortably, close-ended questions -- such as those with yes or no answers -- can become appropriate, especially when the answer is accompanied by an explanation.
  • Allow time for students to collect their thoughts after a difficult question has been asked. While discussion needs to move forward to have a successful Socratic seminar, periodic short silences are acceptable.
  • Do not allow the conversation to turn into a debate, especially one that deteriorates into an argument. Conflicting viewpoints must be discussed respectfully with the goal being a collaborative resolution