Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using Socratic Seminars to Build Social and Emotional Learning Competencies

Good SEL skills are essential for students to be able to converse thoughtfully about a text.

May 12, 2023
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In 2016, I wrote about how Socratic seminars are effective at building a strong culture of academic discussion in the classroom. Seven years, two schools, and one country later, I still agree with this. However, this year, I have also come to appreciate their capacity for building social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. 

The beauty—and the challenge—of the Socratic seminar is that it relies on the dynamics of the group, which inherently offers insights about the importance of the community over the individual.

Yes, there may always be a star in a discussion, but more often than not, the better the group does, the better each individual does. Because of this, Socratic seminars offer a ripe opportunity for direct teaching and assessing all five areas of the framework for SEL by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

Social Awareness 

Socratic seminars are the perfect arena to learn social awareness. I instruct and expect students to figure out among themselves a way to determine a signal for who wants to speak. This takes communication and collaboration. 

All too often, dominant voices run over the more subdued students. But explicitly naming, teaching, and expecting that students look before speaking slows them down and tunes them in to the community. They have to look around the group, opening their attention to those who are signaling. In this way, students learn to be mindful of the needs around them.

Self-Awareness and Self-Management

Students learn authentic self-awareness and self-management in Socratic seminars. Part of social awareness is situating oneself in a group, but that cannot happen without being in touch with oneself. I teach and expect students to recognize the dominant voices, the absent voices, and the interaction patterns within the group—along with their own styles of interaction. 

Students who speak a lot learn to reflect on trust… that in this context, they must allow their peers to shine to earn their best grade. Students who speak a little learn to reflect on courage… that learning is social, and speaking up is a big part of that. Students who interrupt learn to reflect on patience… that adding an extra beat of breath steadies the self and the group. Students who are leaders learn to reflect on inclusion… that they can—and should—use their voice not just for self-promotion, but also to warmly invite others into the discussion. 

Relationship Skills

One of my favorite skills that the Socratic seminar offers students the chance to master is active and meaningful listening—I would argue the most pivotal skill in building healthy relationships.

In the beginning of the process with my students, Socratic seminars feel like a verbal social media feed: students just “posting” their points, trying to earn points, without any consideration for the ideas of others. It’s all output. This leads to a stunted and awkward conversation that doesn’t help anyone grow… just like a lack of two-way interaction in relationships. 

I teach and expect students to listen to learn, not just to respond. This means that sometimes they have to drop the point they were going to make because the conversation has shifted. I teach students that the listening is just as important as the speaking, which means they learn that their voice is not the only one that matters and that the people around them have value.

Responsible Decision-Making

Throughout the process of one Socratic seminar, as well as when repeating them over the sequence of the year, I insert myself into the conversation during teachable moments. This allows me to name the SEL skills that students are lacking in, or thriving in, so that they can make adjustments accordingly. This real-time feedback loop creates perpetual opportunities for responsible decision-making

Some of my prompts sound like these: 

  • “OK, look at your tracker; how many times have you spoken?” 
  • “Let’s take a minute to reflect on the conversation; whose voices are missing, and how can we kindly encourage them?”
  • “I’ve noticed a lot of disconnected points; how can we build on one another instead of holding so tightly to what we had planned to say?” 
  • “It feels like we are very attached to speaking; how can we think about bettering the group rather than ourselves?”

Assessing SEL Skills

These SEL skills can be assessed as well. Here is a rubric that is typical of what I use (though it can be easily tailored to a variety of assessment policies). There are the academic standards and goals that are clearly stated. But students who want to score top marks, above proficient, are required to demonstrate leadership. All of these SEL skills are examples of that. So as students are aiming for academic goals, the SEL framework simultaneously—and complementarily—enables their achievement. 

In many ways, the SEL skills have always been present in Socratic seminars as invisible scaffolding, but I have learned the value of making this visible. I think there is opportunity to explicitly label SEL standards on the rubric as well, and I look forward to this as a next step.

Throughout this process, I am constantly trying to connect the SEL skills that students are developing in the Socratic seminar to real life. And truly, it’s not difficult!

Don’t we all want friends who listen deeply? Don’t we all want to work for bosses who can read a group and respond appropriately? Don’t we all hope that our significant others are aware of their own strengths, weaknesses, and impacts? Don’t we all want team members who value building community? Don’t we all want workplaces where every voice matters?

I do. For me and for my students.

And so I must design instructional experiences—like the Socratic seminar—to teach them how to become the very kind of humans they want to have in their lives.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Communication Skills
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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