Volume II, Issue IV
Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.
The Wisdom of Socrates
Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.
Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.
I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.
Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.
Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue – to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak.
Making Meaningful Dialogue
The Common Core State Standards for speaking and listening state that in order for students to be ready for college and career, they must have “ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations,” and “listen attentively to others so that they are able to build on others’ meritorious ideas while expressing their own clearly and persuasively.” Socratic Seminars embody these expectations of the Common Core and are a meaningful way to engage students from upper elementary grades through twelfth grade.
Named after the philosopher Socrates, the Socratic Seminar is a structured dialogue between students about important ideas or moral and ethical issues found in a text or across multiple texts. Not only do they ignite critical thinking, but Socratic Seminars facilitate the construction of new knowledge through connections to prior knowledge, the asking and answering of questions, the need for evidence to substantiate claims, and the ability to look at an issue from multiple perspectives. What distinguishes a Socratic Seminar from other class discussions is that once students are well prepared to generate and ask probing questions, the teacher completely steps aside and assumes the role of an observer. The goal of a Socratic Seminar is not to debate, but rather to have a dialogue that enables the participants to construct meaning of the concepts presented in the text.
Prior to their engagement in the Socratic Seminar, students prepare for the discussion by reading and annotating a text the teacher has selected. To begin the seminar, eight to twelve students seated in chairs form an inner circle in the room. In large classes, the other students form an outer circle with each student sitting behind one of their classmates who is in the inner circle. The conversation begins with the leader posing an opening question. Other students in the inner circle reflect on the question then formulate a response.
While the students seated in the inner circle are having a dialogue about the text or other source material by asking and answering questions and responding to the thinking of others, the students seated in the outer circle are silent and observing, taking notes and reflecting on the dialogue. Once the dialogue has ended, students sitting in the outer circle provide feedback to those students in the inside circle. Then, for the second half of the seminar, or on the next day, the two circles switch roles. At the end of each seminar, students reflect in writing about the new knowledge they gained during the seminar, as well as their own performance.
An essential step in preparing students to take part in effective Socratic Seminars is the establishment of ground rules. Without them, student conversations fall flat. Suggested ground rules for a Socratic Seminar include:
- Students come to the seminar prepared.
- Students in the inner circle are active participants during the discussion.
- Students make eye contact when commenting or questioning, and direct their remarks to each other, rather than the leader or the teacher.
- Students in the inner circle frequently revisit the text, citing page numbers, specific quotes, or relevant excerpts.
- Students do not raise their hands to speak, but rather listen for a time when they can step into the conversation.
- Students do not interrupt one another.
- Students respectfully disagree with ideas, not the person who shared those ideas.
- Students in the outer circle remain silent until the seminar has ended.
The Key Elements of a Socratic Seminar
One of a teacher’s greatest responsibilities is to choose the text or texts that will anchor the students’ conversation. The selected text should inspire thought provoking conversation, while also being at the appropriate intellectual and social developmental level for students. Teachers will know when a quality text has been chosen, because the students will leave the
seminars with more questions than they had at the beginning. Important to note is that in addition to printed texts such as essays, articles, short stories, and poems, teachers may also choose non-print texts. Some examples of non-print texts are artifacts, primary source documents, and photographs, maps, works of art, or examples of student work in mathematics.
Classrooms such as these are recognizable within minutes of entering. Instead of the teacher “on stage” in the front of the room, the students and adults in the classroom are engaged in rich discussions, problem solving, and debate. In order to provide the right conditions for creativity, ample time must be built in for this type of thinking. Creative insights don’t happen in a hurry. This time is necessary for students to mull over problems and generate solutions.
When choosing texts, consideration should be given to the complexity of the text. Well-selected texts require the students to read closely and to re-read in their efforts to recognize the theme and identify significant ideas and issues. During and after reading, these texts leave the students with unanswered questions. These texts are rigorous and promote critical thinking, but not so challenging that they are inaccessible to the students.
Socratic Seminar questions are open-ended, with no one correct answer, and are designed to elicit a variety of perspectives and responses. Seminars begin with an open-ended question that promotes students’thinking. Students do not need to be chosen to speak, but rather naturally enter the conversation when they have an insight, idea, response, or unanswered question to contribute.
The majority of questions in the Socratic Seminar are created and posed by students. In addition to learning how to construct thoughtful questions, students learn how to respond to the questions asked. When responding, students are expected to frequently revisit the text for evidence to support the ideas they are sharing.
Benefits of a Socratic Seminar
There are many benefits to empowering students to lead the rich discussions that take
Three types of questions, opening, guiding, and closing, are used during different stages of a Socratic Seminar. Opening questions are crafted to generate discussion. These questions, relevant to the text, are prepared ahead of time. They can best be answered by referring to the text, and can be revisited throughout the unit. Not only does an opening question rely on the text, but it also draws upon students’ content knowledge and prior experiences. Guiding questions, asked by the leader and as necessary by the teacher, occur throughout the seminar and help students to deepen and elaborate on their responses. These questions develop in the moment and in response to students’ contributions to the discussion. In order to answer guiding questions, participants need to go deeper into the text and, in some cases, remain open to revising their thinking. Closing questions at the end of the seminar help participants summarize their new learning and make important connections to their lives.
Possible Opening Questions
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
What are the benefits and consequences of questioning or challenging social order?
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
How did Shakespeare use poetic conventions to engage his reader?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
How do Fitzgerald’s descriptions of the setting influence your understanding of the character motivations and conflicts?
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
What is the author’s idea of a hero?
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
What creates prejudice in our world?
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
What decision would you make if you were a witness to a crime?
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Is it ever justified to break a law?
Using news articles:
Should there be limits on scientific experiments?
Should big oil companies be allowed to drill?
Possible Guiding Questions
Possible Closing Questions
A student is named as leader and has explicitly communicated responsibilities. The leader fulfills two roles: as the leader and as a participant. In these roles, the leader is required to know the text being discussed extremely well. The seminar begins with the leader posing an opening question that gives all participants an opportunity to share their thinking and ideas. It is the leader’s responsibility to keep the discussion on topic and to ask guiding questions to help students get deeper into the text and revisit their own thinking. At the end of the seminar, the leader poses a closing question. Ultimately, the leader’s questions are designed to help participants deepen their understanding.
The students participating in the seminar in small classes sit in one circle. In classes over twenty, students sit in either an inner circle or outer circle. Students in the inner circle share ideas and questions in response to comments from their peers. They connect their ideas to what was previously mentioned and listen actively at all times. Students in the outer circle remain silent during the discussion and focus on their role as an observer. They gather data to share with their peers on either the content of the seminar, or on the process skills necessary for effective seminars. When observing the content of the seminar, students in the outer circle may comment on important insights, ideas, themes or questions posed during the seminar. The process skills observed might include referencing the text, respectfully disagreeing with an idea, asking questions of peers, or taking turns.
There is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance.
Students in the outer circle are to note:
- What the participants were doing as others were speaking
- How many times each person in the inner circle spoke
- The ideas shared during the seminar. Were there several different ideas or was the dialogue focused on one or two ideas?
- Any participant who changed his opinion as a result of evidence presented in the seminar
- How many times a participant responded to or added on to the remarks of another participant?
At the end of each seminar, participants take time to write about the new knowledge they gained during the seminar, as well as their performance in the seminar. Post-seminar reflective questions might include:
- What did you do well during the seminar?
- What could you work on in order to be a stronger participant?
- How did your thinking grow or change as a result of your participation in the seminar?
- Did you go into the seminar with any unanswered questions or confusion? How was your thinking clarified?
- Describe the actions taken by the person you feel was the strongest participant in the discussion. How did they keep the conversation moving while engaging others’ thinking?
In summary, the format of the Socratic Seminar leads students to exactly the kind of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking that is required of them in the Common Core. The benefits are far reaching, and go a long way towards building critical thinking abilities and communication skills.
Resources and References
During a Socratic Seminar, a 9th grade class discusses the meaning and purpose of poetic
This PDF from AVID Region VI provides information and templates on topics such as Socratic
This document addresses Socratic Seminars in conjunction with the Common Core State
This link provides a guide for developing opening, guiding, and closing questions for Socratic
This strategy guide explains Socratic Seminars and offers practical methods for applying the
The author, Angela Bunyi, discusses effective planning and guidelines for participation in the
This website provides support for students who are preparing questions to use in a Socratic
This document prepared by the National Padiea Center provides clear and extensive information
Tredway, Lynda. Socratic Seminars: Engaging Students in Intellectual Discourse, Educational
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Please include the following citation on all copies:
Clayton, Heather. “Socratic Seminars: Making Meaningful Dialogue.” Making the Common Core Come Alive! Volume II, Issue IV, 2013. Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). ©2013 by Just ASK. All rights reserved.