Critical Thinking

Socratic Seminars

February 2, 2015 Updated January 31, 2015

Socratic Seminar is a teaching strategy that I used in my middle and high school literature and history classes.  Seminar, of course, is not my original idea. Through my teaching years I ‘borrowed’ from great teachers and then tried to make a strategy my own – based on the text(s) we were using, but more importantly, basing it on the intellectual inquisitiveness of the students I was teaching at a particular time. I first encountered Socratic Seminar in workshops that were led by facilitators from the Coalition of Essential Schools. One of the teachers in those workshops was Lana G., a Philadelphia middle school teacher. She used the Seminar in her classes and was gracious enough to allow me to sit in on her classes as her students participated in Socratic Seminars. Today, you can find Socratic Seminars on line, but back then it was often passed on from teacher to teacher in a sharing practice camaraderie that is now difficult to find in the age of the business model of education.

A Socratic Seminar is a strategy that seeks to read deeply into a text by creating a dialogue among the participants resulting in an understanding of the use of language or the development of themes in the text. When I began using this strategy, I used shorter texts or excerpts from a text. Two examples were James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” and excerpts from Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Later we would use whole texts (Morrison, Faulkner, Wright, and Emecheta were some of the authors), and when we got really adventurous we would use multiple texts from the semester and search them for comparison and contrast. This use of multiple texts happened at the end of a semester and became the oral part of the final exam.  The students would prepare by reading the text beforehand and, either individually or in small groups, would look at the writer’s personal history, the historical context of the novel, or use different lenses they had been taught (feminist, political, etc.) in order to generate their own questions that they would then raise in the Seminar.

The students looked forward to Seminar time, often asking to use the strategy even more than I had planned for it! In the spirit of sharing practice, we would invite other students and teachers into the room (Seminars were always held in a circle) as observers, and that seemed to enliven the flow of the conversation and increase the eagerness of students’ desire for participation without any prompting from me. Eventually the students became so adept in Seminars that we could designate students to be the facilitators for each session. There were even some administrators who thought the Seminars had value for other teachers to witness, and my students were asked to ‘reproduce’ a Seminar we held at a teacher professional development day.

I recall the use of Seminars with great fondness and remember being in awe as students would probe and question a text with wonderful insight while at the same time listening respectfully to their peers as they would engage in dialogue that mattered. The goals of Socratic Seminars (suspending judgment, making your reasoning public, and approaching others as colleagues) were ably demonstrated by the students as they engaged in this dialogue.

The use of Seminars continued up to the end of my teaching career, although in my last school I was once criticized for ‘teaching too many skills in one class period’ in one observation. That school was heavily invested in the standardized state tests and preferred lessons that focused on one skill at a time (word recognition, context clues, or main idea), or if they were feeling especially adventurous perhaps two skills in one class period could be permitted. Of course, that made teaching Seminars problematic, and I would refuse entrance to administrators to my classroom if we were going to be using that strategy. I would not advocate going to that length to other teachers, but at the end of my teaching years it was a step that was easy to take. None of that nonsense diminished the joy of Socratic Seminar time for me or for my students, and I am thankful that they were able to have that experience.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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