How to Run an Effective Socratic Seminar

Socratic Seminars are a discussion format that allows students to develop a shared understanding of a text.  It is not about debating who is right, but rather posing questions that get to the deeper meaning of a text.  If you want to see one in action, here is an example from my previous classroom at Epic Academy.

In these discussions, students are responsible for facilitating the conversation and the teacher provides support when needed.  At the Innovate Conference at Graded this thursday, my students and I are opening our classroom for other teachers around the world to observe our Socratic Seminar on the significance of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.  So, I thought this would be a good time to share the process and materials that I use for Socratic Seminar to make students successful.

Before Discussion

Typically, Socratic Seminars come in the middle or end of a unit and usually lead into a drafting or revising of a writing assignment. However, I have also had Socratic Seminars that are completely separate from our curriculum and sometimes about current events.  Usually, we base our Socratic Seminar on one, maybe two, short texts.  Before the discussion students take time to individually read the text, note important information, ask questions and gather evidence to bring to discussion.  I have found that it is a good idea to pose an overall guiding question for the discussion, but it is not necessary.  I usually give students a double entry journal to help them jot down the evidence and their analysis of it so they have some organized notes to start them off.  However, I teach them through workshops that discussion is not simply about reading off your ideas, but rather its about building off the ideas of others and improvising.

Once students have read a text and taken notes, I give them a discussion guide and ask them to describe their current thinking about the discussion question in about a paragraph.  Finally, we review the norms, protocols, and rubric and students set a discussion goal, which they share with their partner for accountability.

During Discussion

Due to class size, but also because it allows for learning through observation, I split the class in two and have students participate in a fishbowl style discussion.  For the group that is discussing, I ask for a volunteer to start the discussion by posing a clarifying question.   Then, I let students take it from there.  While they are discussing, I or a student not in the discussion keeps track of how many times every participant uses evidence, makes a connection, asks a question, etc using our discussion tracker.

The students on the outside of the fishbowl use a peer critique form to give feedback to their partner.  They also have post-it notes that they can write on and hand to their partner to give them an idea.  However, they are not allowed to talk.  I have also had the outside group participate in a backchannel, yet I find that this only amplifies learning if the backchannel can be attended by experts outside your classroom.

After Discussion

After discussion, students return to their discussion guide and reflect on how they did.  I usually have them self-assess using the rubric and descriptive feedback.  They also receive the feedback from their partners to help them reflect on their strengths and weaknesses.  Next, students look back at their original thinking about the discussion question and reflect on how their thinking has changed.  Finally, students apply this new understanding to their writing piece which they are either drafting or revising.

Helpful Hints

– Using the workshop model, dissect discussion strategies such as questioning, and locating and analyzing evidence with your students.  Debate what makes a question great and create an anchor chart of those questions.

– Create the norms with your students to further ownership.

– Stop mid-discussion and have partners give discussion participants real-time feedback.

– Teach students how to actively listen because this is the first step towards building off what others say.


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