Recipe: How to run a Socratic Seminar
How to run a Socratic Seminar. File under: it’s not just about you and the facts, it’s also about them and the ideas.
As you think about your teaching this summer, think about trying Socratic Seminars next year. If you’re already doing it, great! I would love some feedback myself. But please be warned — a classroom discussion is NOT the same as a Socratic Seminar.
Prep Time: 1-3 class periods
Cook Time: 30-40 minutes
Yield: One worthwhile discussion and deeper, more independent student thinking
Ingredients: A text, preparation, reading, writing, reflection, repetition.
Directions: First, choose a text that is rich and meaningful within the unit you are studying. The ‘text’ can be a passage from a book, a photograph, a film excerpt, painting, quote, monument, etc. It doesn’t matter, just don’t choose one that’s boring. Ask yourself: would you want to discuss it?
2. Next, take the text and do your homework. You should be fluent in the document’s context and relevant information. You don’t need to be able to answer any question they might have, but you should be able to filter their questions toward the larger importance of the document. Know where it fits in the larger point of your unit, and how it tries to answer the larger questions in their lives. Be ready to challenge their understanding of it, but remember you can’t do that unless you’ve challenged your own understanding.
3. Once you’ve chosen the text and done your homework on it, have your students actually read it beforehand. There’s nothing worse than trying to have a seminar with a document the students have never seen before. The point is not for you to be the expert, it’s for them to think deeply about an issue. Let them study it with you, and concede to them up front that you don’t know everything if it will make you feel better. When reading, limit discussion of the document until the seminar.
4. Once they’ve read it, have them do some writing about their personal opinions on it. A simple prompt like “Do you agree or disagree with…” or “What would you say to….if you could?” will get their preconceptions down on paper. There’s nothing better than writing to help them figure out what they really think. Reading these yourself before the seminar helps, but not required.
5. Next, practice the skills that are needed for a good seminar. You wouldn’t build a house without tools, right? So don’t have a seminar without tools — teach them how to think and act during a seminar. In my book they need help with listening, writing while listening, and referencing the text during discussion. Practice these things in the days leading up to the seminar.
6. Now, have the seminar. Socrates believed that it was more important for students to think for themselves than to have the right answer. Therefore he constantly badgered his pupils with questions. That is your role in the seminar: question asker and confuser. Your job is to complicate their thinking and expose them for the overly judgmental assumption makers that they really are…and they will love you for it.
7. After the seminar, they should write again. Ask them to quote two things that were said by someone else during the discussion and respond in writing. Or, ask them to assess their pre-seminar writing in light of the discussion. If you find that one or two of your students writes something like: “I never thought of it that way before, but…” then you’ve done your job. Repeat the process in the next unit, so that you can continue to build on the experience for yourself and your students.
Nutritional Information: Independent thinking, listening, suspension of bias.
Best paired with: Moral questions, rich texts, re-thinking traditional desk set-up.
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