No matter the circumstances, the most powerful learning experiences for high school students often involve student-led discussions that foster connections with each other, as well as with critical texts and ideas. A highly structured, well-planned Socratic seminar can be an effective way to do both, whether your school is in person, virtual, or hybrid.
The Greek philosopher Socrates maintained that the surest way to attain reliable knowledge was through the practice of disciplined conversation. He called this method dialectic—the art or practice of examining opinions or ideas logically, often by the method of question and answer, so as to determine their validity.
Socratic questioning recognizes that questions, not answers, are the driving force in thinking. Done well, Socratic seminars explore ideas, values, and issues drawn from readings or artworks chosen for their richness, and when they are rooted in news articles or nonfiction texts, they can also help make sense of current issues. It’s all about strengthening learning by actively engaging students in rigorous critical thought and conversation.
How to Prepare Students
Whether students are in my classroom or on my computer monitor, thorough preparation is essential for a successful seminar.
Provide a meaningful overview: At the start of the school year, I share a detailed overview of what’s to come, together with the class syllabus. The overview explains what a Socratic seminar is, including the philosophy behind the activity and what the rules of engagement are. I make sure my students know that the seminar is not a test but more a means of understanding, that grading will be rooted in engagement in the activity, and that they can participate only if they have read and annotated the text. I also explain the core values of my Socratic seminars: poise, clarity, engagement, and respect.
If our classroom is virtual or hybrid, I share additional elements and expectations, such as the importance of staying focused on the core question (it’s always in the chat) and using the chat to ask questions about the questions, but not changing the question until prompted. I also encourage students to give judicious kudos in the chat, if they think that one of their classmates made a powerful point or echoes their thinking on the point being discussed.
Assign the texts: Because I’m an ELA teacher, I use works of both fiction and nonfiction. In a recent seminar, my 12th graders explored Kate Chopin’s The Awakening through the lens of critical feminist theory. After reading and discussing Chopin’s novel, we explored several articles on gender and feminist literary theory. Similarly, history teachers can use both primary and secondary source documents to help students engage more deeply in critical historical events. In all seminars, students should read and annotate so they can understand all ideas and language in the readings, and be able to explain and expand on those ideas.
When students have completed the reading, I devote an entire class period to creating a meaningful central question for the seminar. In a virtual class, I ask students to suggest questions via the chat; we’ve also used the Google survey feature to vote on the one we will use. The best central questions tend to be broad but meaningful. For example, in our recent seminar, our central question was: “How does Chopin’s novel both advance—and complicate— the goals of a feminist agenda?” If a central question is too narrow—e.g., “Why did Chopin write The Awakening?”—the conversations tend to be flat and finite.
Utilize a formal seminar prep worksheet: Once students have completed their reading and annotations and have agreed on a central question, they work independently to create thoughtful open-ended questions that they will pose during the seminar. I assign this prep work through Google Classroom. These questions are written on three levels, which then become the framework for our seminar:
- Level 1 questions are text-based and must reference one text directly. These questions help students to hone their close reading skills, interrogate how texts shape meaning, and root their discussion in the texts.
- Level 2 questions broaden student understanding of an issue or a text by speculating about the social and cultural considerations surrounding it.
- Level 3 questions ask students to make personal connections to the text and ideas we are discussing. For example, “How do these ideas/issues affect you or your community?”
Assign student facilitators: I usually assign three students to be facilitators, one for each level of question. These students kick off the conversation, at each level, by posing the question and moderating that portion of the seminar. I also designate one student as timekeeper. This student moves the discussion to the next level after a requisite length of time.
During virtual and hybrid learning, seminars last for two days, which means that eight students have leadership roles in a single seminar. This approach helps engage reluctant speakers in the activity.
Effective Coaching During the Seminar
In in-person seminars, I arrange desks in a circle in the classroom and urge students to engage in active listening behaviors, like looking at their peers when they’re speaking and nodding affirmatively to signal understanding or agreement. I emphasize the decentered nature of the classroom, meaning that the teacher is not the focal point, and remind them that in this democratic forum, all voices are equal. I advise them to address the room with a sense of responsibility and authority.
The virtual classroom is naturally decentered; Google Meet or Zoom tiles are inherently equal, including my own. This helps my students lead these conversations with confidence. Sometimes I remain on mute for the entire seminar, which reinforces the idea that the activity is truly student-centered.
There are also a few advantages to online Socratic seminars. Student leaders can type their questions into the class chat, which makes it easier for students to clearly understand the ideas posed and keep track of the conversation. Students can also present to the whole class, if they wish to share a longer quote or an image. Finally, students can encourage and applaud each other, via the chat, without interrupting the flow of the conversation.
Reflection After the Seminar
In postseminar reflections, I provide students with a worksheet that asks them to consider their own performance, as well as the success of the entire seminar. What strengths did they exhibit? What do they wish they would have done differently or better? Which part of the discussion did they think was most meaningful? Was there a topic that we could have explored more thoroughly? What do they wish they would have said but didn’t get a chance to? How can we, as a class, do this better next time?
For over 20 years, I’ve been moving desks into a circle in my high school classroom to set the stage for highly structured Socratic seminars. Year after year, these seminars have been a favorite activity among my students, and the spirited conversations and camaraderie they create have always been a source of enthusiasm about my class. This year, the Socratic seminars have been more important than ever as students want and need meaningful connections while isolated. Socratic seminars can provide an effective way to create space for critical conversations and, just as important, to build community in our classrooms, even when we’re not actually in them.