Socratic Seminars: Allowing Students to Take the Lead

My first year of teaching, I often used Literature Circles with my freshmen. For the most part, it was successful, but only if I frequently monitored each group and held each group member responsible for the group’s grade. I liked the way this worked, but I found that certain students were dominating the discussions each time, so I only used Literature Circles for one small unit.

13e8b8eb9a3b47494c61a8fbd76a6298I’ve always wanted to try Socratic Seminars, but for some reason I feared them. Perhaps it was the thought of relinquishing my control of the lesson and putting it in the hands of my students, or perhaps it was the fear that my students wouldn’t know what to do, and thus, the entire class period would be wasted. I’m a teacher who always likes to be prepared, and not knowing how a lesson might go only caused fear and anxiety.

I am in my fourth year of teaching now, and for the first time in my teaching career, I am working with seniors. I know that these students will be going to college in a few months, and they will be required to take a least one seminar course; therefore, it is my responsibility to prepare these students for classroom discussions in which they pose questions that generate thought-provoking and interesting comments. So finally, I decided to take a risk and employ Socratic Seminars throughout the course.

At my first attempt, I wanted all students to participate in the discussion, so I thought it would be best to require each student to speak at least twice. The only problem with this strategy was that some students made their two comments within the first few minutes of class, and, consequently, had to remain silent until all members of the class had a chance to speak. I realized that I was silencing students who might have had some excellent insights to share, and as these students sat quietly for the rest of the discussion, they began to lose interest and eventually zoned out.

I wouldn’t say my first attempt was a complete debacle, but it also wasn’t a real success. After this, I decided to have students prepare materials for each Socratic Seminar and I created a specific grading rubric for discussions (this was another struggle: How was I supposed to grade a class discussion?). I explained to the students that they would be graded on their participation in the discussion, the quality of their insights and remarks, and their note-taking skills. As expected, the same students began to dominate the discussion each day, so to avoid this, I started by calling on the quiet students to start the conversation, or halfway through the class period, I would interrupt and give the quiet students a chance to share their thoughts. While we had great discussions, I still found myself interrupting to pose questions to foster more critical thinking. This was certainly the most challenging part for me. How was I, as an educator and classroom teacher, supposed to sit there silently and simply observe the conversation? There was this constant need to speak and be in control, but I realized that I was doing a disservice to my students by engaging in the conversation.

socratic_seminarIn retrospect, I wouldn’t redo those Socratic Seminars and remain completely quiet, because I realized that I was actually modelling the type of discussions that I wanted my students to have without me. I was scaffolding the Socratic Seminar technique, and preparing my students for the types of discussions that I eventually wanted them to have without my guidance. Upon this insight, I decided to change the Socratic Seminar by utilizing the fishbowl technique. I still had the students prepare for the seminar by recording a passage, explaining the significance of it, posing two questions, and then relating it to literature, the media, the real-world or to themselves, but I divided the class in half and informed the members of the first group that they would holding a discussion first and would sit in the center of the big circle. The second group would then sit in the outer circle and take copious notes while listening to group one’s discussion. After 10-15 minutes, the two groups rotate, and as part of the grading for the seminar, each member of the second group must refer to a specific comment made in group one’s discussion while conversing with his/her group members in the center of the fishbowl. Group two will then listen and take notes until the two groups rotate again.

I found this technique to be the best thus far. The smaller discussion groups gives everyone a chance to speak and allows for all students to listen closely to their peers. I can’t say I’ve mastered the Socratic Seminar, but I have definitely found ways to improve it and have had some success along the way. If you’re considering trying it, I strongly encourage you to do so. It might not be a success the first or second time, but that’s okay. Reflect on what went wrong and work towards rectifying the issue, so that the next Socratic Seminar will be even better!

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