Secrets to a Successful Socratic Seminar

Socratic seminars are an instructional tool that many teachers see value in, yet implement infrequently. What’s the hang up?

  1. Prep time — Teachers might feel that students need a lot more prior knowledge and pre-teaching before they can successfully dive in. Some might worry that it takes time away from covering the TEKS.
  2. Student control vs teacher control — We worry, as teachers, that students won’t get the “right” information, or worse, inaccurate information if we aren’t there to steer the ship for them and to jump in immediately to correct misconceptions.
  3. Appropriate challenge — Is it too difficult to implement with middle school students? What about students with special needs, or other students that struggle?

I spoke with a few teachers who’ve used Socratic Seminars in their classes. They shared the following tips and reflections on their experiences with the strategy.

Aimee Parkerson, U.S. History teacher at Deerpark Middle School, shared that she likes the strategy because it’s entirely student led.

“I like the fact that I’m a facilitator rather than the sage on the stage. [Students are] dependent on one another,” says Aimee Parkerson. It results in higher-level thinking because students are answering higher-level questions, and it helps prepare students for more advanced work.

Sheryl Rank and Todd Stovall, U.S. History teachers at Grisham Middle School, like that it provides built in differentiation. Students can build up towards greater expertise and participation. It helps shy kids engage as they watch others, and they can build up to participating. Sheryl and Todd set up their seminars as fishbowls, so that some students are participating in the inner circle and other students are seated around the outer circle observing. They are mindful about how they put the groups together.

Todd Stovall and Sheryl Rank state that “we put talkers in the same group and quiet kids in the same group. By breaking into multiple rounds, shy students can watch and they see how the conversation progresses” before diving into the conversation.

“I use a ‘Smackdown’ style,” Jennie Tidwell, ELA teacher at Grisham, shared. “The kids are asking to do another. The students are into competition and points. It increases their teamwork. They really got into helping each other prepare — [asking themselves] what are the best quotes and text evidence we can bring into this.”

“There’s no other assignment that involves reading and writing that gets them so excited,” says Jennie Tidwell, ELA teacher at Grisham.

Given the benefits of this activity, and the challenges, how can you set up Socratic Seminars for maximum success? Here are a few pointers that Aimee, Todd, Sheryl and Jenny offered.

  1. Introduce students to the purpose of the Socratic Seminar. Share with them a (short) history of Socrates and the questioning strategies he used. You might even show them a little video of students participating in a seminar, so they know what it looks like and what’s expected of their participation.
  2. Give students time to work towards success. Give enough in-class time to prepare the materials and the questions. Provide students with feedback while they are preparing so they know whether their prep work is on track. Require that they turn in the pre-work before the seminar.
  3. To begin with, start with just one reading. Too much information can be overwhelming. As they get more proficient with the strategy, they could do additional research to prepare.
  4. Ensure that you have created engaging, high-level questions. Avoid yes/no questions, and make them debatable with many right answers or opinion-based answers.
  5. Have students work in groups of 2–3. When the students in the inner circle are actively participating, their partners are acting as “wingmen”, supporting them by passing notes to them with additional questions or information they can use in their conversation. This also helps keep students engaged when they are not speaking because they have an important job to do.
  6. All students should have a chance to participate at the inner circle. If you have smaller groups, rotate them in and out. Try to organize groupings of students who are equally talkative, or equally quiet, to avoid one person from becoming too dominant. You can also give students extra points for encouraging other students to participate.
  7. Start off with shorter rounds — 6 to 8 minutes — to allow students to get used to the format and minimize awkward silences (although silence is golden too — it forces students to contribute something to fill the silence).
  8. Find an online guide to help you. Jennie Tidwell uses the Socratic Smackdown style, which is a little more competitive, with shorter rounds. AVID also encourages its teachers to use the Socratic Seminar.

Hopefully these tips give you the confidence to try it out for yourself. Please reach out to one of these teachers or an instructional coach if you’d like more information or resources.