Socratic Seminars

using discussion to support critical thinking

What is it?

A unique, deliberate form of discussion, Socratic seminaring is a teaching strategy with the intent to engage students in critical thinking, listening, and communicating through dialogue. The beauty of using Socratic seminaring as a vehicle to infuse character education in the classroom is that content and character education can be addressed simultaneously (Helterbran, 2009).
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Step 1: Read and analyze a text

Students read and analyze at least one text before engaging in a Socratic Seminar. Students should use Marking a Text to identify claims and evidence and Charting a Text to analyze text structure. Employing analytical reading skills will help students gain a deeper understanding of the texts they read.

Possible Texts


Step 2: Prepare for the Socratic Seminar

Students should have some time to brainstorm thick questions. You can discuss these as a class or post a list of some of the questions as reference.

Step 3: Establish group norms

Teacher and students establish (or go over) norms for the Socratic Seminar. You could talk about accountable talk, not raising hands, respectful disagreeing.

Step 4: Review the Socratic Circle

Teacher establishes the purpose for the Socratic Seminar and uses the Socratic Circle Diagram (also found on Socratic Seminar skill page) to review expectations and explicitly teach how students should engage and interact in the circle.

Step 5: Offer language support

Teacher projects Sentence Starters for Socratic Seminar or prepares other language support tools to help students speak confidently and academically during the Socratic Seminar.

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Beginning the Discussion

Step 6: Select a discussion director

Teacher assigns one discussion director who begins the conversation and keeps the group on topic.

Step 7: Begin the discussion

Students engage in an academic discussion for 15-40 minutes (or longer if they can stay focused).

Then switch groups so the outer circle has time to discuss as an inner circle.

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The Teacher’s Job:

To sit on the outside of both circles and 'just' observe the students taking control of the direction of the conversation and asking the questions can be the most difficult and confronting position to take. As a teacher 'looking in', the conversation may not take the path you imagined; the students may not ask the questions you may pose and the end result may not have been the desired conclusion, but it is about the journey the students take and what they discover along the way.

After the discussion

Step 8: Debrief the discussion

Teacher and students debrief the Socratic Seminar. Discuss the groups' strengths and weaknesses.

Step 9: Close the "Socratic Seminar"

Students can do this by discussion or completing an writing task.

Helpful Hints

  • Allow no more than 30 minutes for the first seminar; after students have become familiar with the seminar format, 45-50 minutes may be allotted for discussion, particularly when examining more complex texts
  • Select students for inner and outer circles carefully to prevent off-task behaviors
  • Share rules, expectations, and grading practices with students prior to the seminar.
  • Distribute an equal number of tokens or “talking chips” to all participants; require participants to use all their tokens or chips prior to the end of the discussion
  • Stop discussion to interject commentary, commend participants, or end negative behavior during the first seminar; as students become familiar with the seminar format, the teacher should not need to provide any feedback
  • Eliminate the outer circle when using Socratic Seminars in classes of fifteen students or less