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Socratic Seminar 

 What Makes A Socratic Seminar Different...

As its name implies, this teaching strategy dates back to Socrates. Its essential characteristic is discussion that is driven by questions. A seminar usually focuses on a piece of text, although “text” can be defined broadly to include a painting, graph, data set, math problem, as well as essays, poems, song lyrics, and short stories.

The purpose of a Socratic Seminar is to develop a deeper understanding of the focal point of the discussion through sharing of perspectives, questions, and interpretations. By participating in a seminar, students learn to:

  • Listen actively
  • Converse directly other students, without the need for mediation by the teacher
  • Clarify, amplify, and recognizeimplications in the text
  • Build upon what others say
  • Question the text and fellow participants.

The teacher’s principal responsibilities are to select the discussion topic and to facilitate the seminar by posing questions, clarifying ideas, and ensuring equitable student participation. Eventually, students’ seminar skills improve and the teacher may choose to step outside the seminar and assume the role of observer. This step requires that students be well prepared to generate probing questions for analyzing the text.

How A Socratic Seminar Works... Before the Seminar…Select a Focus
  1. Some desirable characteristics for the focus of a Seminar are that the topic be challenging, interesting, complex, somewhat ambiguous, based on a big idea, etc.
  2. All seminar participants will examine a particular text, image, object, song, etc. This is often completed as homework the night before. If the text is brief, it can be studied in class immediately before the seminar.
  3. If students have not learned how to “mark-up” a text, instruction needs to be provided. Marking up the text consists of identifying its key passages.
  4. An effective pre-seminar strategy is to have students write a pre-seminar passage that can be used later to prompt a post-seminar writing assignment.
During the Seminar…Define the Task
  1. Divide the class in half. One half forms the inner circle and participates in the discussion.
  2. Each member of the outer circle maintains silence and is given a specific task to perform.
    • Tasks can focus on either process skills for effective seminars (e.g. building on what others say, asking questions of each other, making direct references to the text, etc.) or the content of the seminar (e.g. identifying main themes, insights, etc.).
    • In the first few seminars, a class typically focuses on group process skills. After students become skilled seminar participants, attention shifts to the actual content of the discussion.
  3. The leader (early seminars should beled by the teacher) begins the seminar with an opening question.
    • It is sometimes worthwhile to begin with a “whip”; a relatively simple question to which every participant responds briefly.
    • A good opening question is: “What do you think is the most important sentence in this piece? Please read it as we go around the circle.” This activates the seminar by giving everyone the opportunity to contribute their ideas.
  4. From this point on, the seminar isdriven by questions from both the leader and the participants.
  5. At the end of the seminar, membersof the outer circle report their findings.
  6. If time permits, participants switch circles and conduct another seminar on the same or similar text.
After the Seminar…Conduct the Formative Assessment
  1. One of the most important goals of a seminar is to expand understanding of the text. An excellent post-seminar task is a writing assignment in which the students describe new knowledge gained during the seminar.
  2. The final Seminar activity is to use feedback from the outer circle to set process goals for the next seminar.
Socratic Seminar Preparation Hints... Guiding Questions

Socratic Seminars tend to employ questions that promote analysis of ideas, synthesis and application of new information, and evaluation of people’s thinking. The leader should:

  • Identify the big question that will be used to kick off the Socratic Seminar.
  • Prepare an additional 6-10 follow-up questions that are apt to be used during the Seminar.
Possible Outer Circle Questions/Tasks
  1. What were the other participants doing while someone was talking? Take notes.
  2. How many times did each person speak? Keep a written tally.
  3. How many times did males and females speak? Keep a written tally.
  4. Did the seminar touch on many different ideas or did it remain focused on one or two? Note the ideas that were discussed.
  5. How many times were direct references made to the text? Note examples.
  6. How many times did a participant ask a question of another participant? Make note of a few of these questions.
  7. How many times did a participant respond to or build on the comment of another seminar participant? Make note of examples.
  8. Was there any evidence that a participant changed his or her opinion or position as a result of what was discussed in the seminar? Make note of instances.
  9. What did the seminar leader do during the seminar? Take notes.
  10. Did anyone ask another participant to clarify or explain something that someone said? Note examples.
  11. Observe the seminar participant across from you. Make note of what he/she is doing during the seminar.
Suggested Socratic Seminar Ground Rules
  • All members of the inner circle are expected to actively participate in the discussion.
  • Anyone who doesn’t wish to answer a question should so indicate by saying, “I’d like to pass.”
  • Try to direct your comments and questions to each other and not to the Seminar leader.
  • Please maintain rules of “civil discourse.” It’s fine to disagree with a person’s ideas, but never to criticize the person offering them.
  • Members of the outer circle must remain silent until the seminar is over.
Socratic Seminar Self-Assessment

Guidelines for Participants in a Socratic Seminar

1. Refer to the text when needed during the discussion. A seminar is not a test of memory. You are not "learning a subject"; your goal is to understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in the text.

2. It's OK to "pass" when asked to contribute.

3. Do not participate if you are not prepared. A seminar should not be a bull session.

4. Do not stay confused; ask for clarification.

5. Stick to the point currently under discussion; make notes about ideas you want to come back to.

6. Don't raise hands; take turns speaking.

7. Listen carefully.

8. Speak up so that all can hear you.

9. Talk to each other, not just to the leader or teacher.

10. Discuss ideas rather than each other's opinions.

11. You are responsible for the seminar, even if you don't know it or admit it.

Expectations of Participants in a Socratic Seminar

When I am evaluating your Socratic Seminar participation, I ask the following questions about participants. Did they….

Speak loudly and clearly?
Cite reasons and evidence for their statements?
Use the text to find support?
Listen to others respectfully?
Stick with the subject?
Talk to each other, not just to the leader?
Paraphrase accurately?
Ask for help to clear up confusion?
Support each other?
Avoid hostile exchanges?
Question others in a civil manner?
Seem prepared?

What is the difference between dialogue and debate?

  • Dialogue is collaborative: multiple sides work toward shared understanding.
    Debate is oppositional: two opposing sides try to prove each other wrong.
  • In dialogue, one listens to understand, to make meaning, and to find common ground.
    In debate, one listens to find flaws, to spot differences, and to counter arguments.
  • Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant's point of view.
    Debate defends assumptions as truth.
  • Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude: an openness to being wrong and an openness to change.
    Debate creates a close-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
  • In dialogue, one submits one's best thinking, expecting that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than threaten it.
    In debate, one submits one's best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.
  • Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one's beliefs.
    Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one's beliefs.
  • In dialogue, one searches for strengths in all positions.
    In debate, one searches for weaknesses in the other position.
  • Dialogue respects all the other participants and seeks not to alienate or offend.
    Debate rebuts contrary positions and may belittle or deprecate other participants.
  • Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of answers and that cooperation can lead to a greater understanding.
    Debate assumes a single right answer that somebody already has.
  • Dialogue remains open-ended.
    Debate demands a conclusion.

Dialogue is characterized by: Dialogue

  • suspending judgment
  • examining our own work without defensiveness
  • exposing our reasoning and looking for limits to it
  • communicating our underlying assumptions
  • exploring viewpoints more broadly and deeply
  • being open to disconfirming data
  • approaching someone who sees a problem differently not as an adversary, but as a colleague in common pursuit of better solution.

Socratic Seminar: Participant Rubric

A Level Participant


Participant offers enough solid analysis, without prompting, to move the conversation forward

Participant, through her comments, demonstrates a deep knowledge of the text and the question

Participant has come to the seminar prepared, with notes and
a marked/annotated text

Participant, through her comments, shows that she is actively
listening to other participants

Participant offers clarification and/or follow-up that extends
the conversation

Participant’s remarks often refer back to specific parts of the text.

B Level Participant


Participant offers solid analysis without prompting

Through comments, participant demonstrates a good knowledge of the text and the question

Participant has come to the seminar prepared, with notes and
a marked/annotated text

Participant shows that he/she is actively listening to others
and offers clarification and/or follow-up

C Level Participant

Participant offers some analysis, but needs prompting from the
seminar leader

Through comments, participant demonstrates a general
knowledge of the text and question

Participant is less prepared, with few notes and no
marked/annotated text

Participant is actively listening to others, but does not offer
clarification and/or follow-up to others’ comments

Participant relies more upon his or her opinion, and less on the text to drive her comments

D or F Level Participant

Participant offers little commentary

Participant comes to the seminar ill-prepared with little
understanding of the text and question

Participant does not listen to others, offers no commentary to
further the discussion

Participant distracts the group by interrupting other speakers or
by offering off topic questions and comments.

Participant ignores the discussion and its participants

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