The Socratic Seminar is an instructional/assessment technique that educators can use to encourage discussion and critical thinking in the classroom. It is not a technique that can be just dropped on students out of the blue--there must be a previous connection to a text or earlier readings before this technique can be effective.

The system works thusly:

  1. The teacher asks the students to move their desks into two circles, one enclosing the other--probably a fourth to a third of the students should be in the inner circle.
  2. The teacher next explains how the Socratic Seminar works:

    1. The teacher will ask the inner circle to take out their readings.
    2. The teacher will then ask an open ended question about the reading that the students are to discusss with one another. They should always back up any claims about the reading by actual quotes--forcing them to reexamine the text.
    3. The students in the outer circle are to take two types of notes:

      • Content - Notes about the content of the discussion, about the answers and questions brought up, the evidence sighted, etc. The students should also write their own ideas about the discussion--things they might say if they had the chance.
      • Process - Notes about how the discussion is going, about how people are controlling the conversation--what oral techniques they are using, what kind of thinking that must be occuring, etc.

    4. Students in the outer circle are encouraged after watching for a time to "tag-in" when they hear something they disagree with or think has been misrepresented in some way--or even if they just feel strongly about something and need to say something about it. They leave their seat, touch someone in the inner circle on the shoulder (should not be the person they disagree with), and switch seats with them. They then begin to make their point.

  3. The teacher is to not interfere except possibly to ask another very open ended question if things have gone violently off topic--but this is strongly cautioned against. If at alll possible the teacher is to keep quiet and stay out of the discussion--allowing it to continue until everything has been said.
  4. After the Socratic Seminar the students should have some kind of writing activity--this is a form of accountability for everyone, but especially those who did not speak. The writing should be partially about the Content of the discussion and partially about the Process of the discussion.

The Socratic Seminar is a powerful tool for allowing students to learn for themselves and with themselves. It drops the idea of the teacher as the end-all-be-all purveyor of knowledge and puts the student firmly in the driver's seat. The Socratic Seminar cannot run without a few rules though--otherwise it can easily just degenerate into a "I'm right, you're wrong" event or a back and forth of name calling. Here are some basic guidelines:

  1. Refer to the text when needed during the discussion. A seminar is not a test of memory. You are not "learning a subject"; your goal is to understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in the text.
  2. It's OK to "pass" when asked to contribute.
  3. Do not participate if you are not prepared. A seminar should not be a bull session.
  4. Do not stay confused; ask for clarification.
  5. Stick to the point currently under discussion; make notes about ideas you want to come back to.
  6. Don't raise hands; take turns speaking.
  7. Listen carefully.
  8. Speak up so that all can hear you.
  9. Talk to each other, not just to the leader or teacher.
  10. Discuss ideas rather than each other's opinions.
  11. You are responsible for the seminar, even if you don't know it or admit it.