An AVID strategy for inquiry based dialogue
What are Socratic Seminars and how can they help my students?
Socrates believed that enabling students to think for themselves was more important than filling their heads with “right answers.” In a Socratic Seminar, participants seek deeper understanding of complex ideas through rigorously thoughtful dialogue. A Socratic Seminar fosters active learning as participants explore and evaluate the ideas, issues, and values in a particular text. The skills that students develop through participation in Socratic Seminars are crucial for college success.
This module includes step-by-step guidelines for implementing Socratic Seminars in your classroom including several additional resources to help you prepare yourself and your students to engage in meaningful and productive Socratic Seminars. Successful Socratic Seminars are dependent upon groups of students developing skills together over time. Your first attempts may not be entirely satisfactory to you or your students, and it is important that you leave time at the end of each seminar to debrief and reflect on the process itself and the skills that the group is developing. The group may set goals for the next seminar.
It is imperative that students understand several concepts before you attempt a Socratic Seminar. These include:
• the difference between dialogue and debate
• the four elements of Socratic Seminar
• the role of the seminar leader
• the role and responsibilities of the participants
• the guidelines for seminar behavior
Ok. Break it down for me. I've heard of Socratic Seminars but I don't know where to begin.
These step-by-step guidelines are intended to help you implement your first few Socratic Seminars. Over time, these steps will become second nature and the skills involved will continue to develop and grow. The steps listed here may take two to three class periods to finish.
1. Introduce the concept of Socratic Seminar to students. If they are familiar with Philosophical Chairs, use that as a springboard to discuss what is the same and what is different. Use the section on Dialogue versus Debate (see below) to help them understand the purpose of Socratic Seminar.
2. Now use the section on The Elements of Socratic Seminar (see below) to further define this activity. Read and discuss each element together. Focus on the element of the text.
3. Give students a copy of a short text you have selected for their first seminar. If possible, provide a copy that has wide margins. It is imperative that they have a copy that they can write on. Socratic Seminars cannot be conducted effectively unless the students can mark the text (an acceptable alternative is to have students use post-it
notes within their books).
4. Read the text aloud to the students as they follow along.
5. Have the students read the text again silently to themselves.
6. Now use an elmo (or overhead transparency) to model marking the text. Read the text again one section at a time. Discuss with students which ideas seem important. Model how they might circle words they do not know, underline or highlight sentences or phrases that seem important, summarize ideas in the margins, and write questions in the margins. Be sure that the students follow your example and mark their own papers.
7. Next, review the element of questions in Socratic Seminars. Explain that getting a seminar off to a good start means having a good opening question. Review the concept that a good opening question will lead to discussion and more questions. Share one or two examples of opening questions that you have formulated (be sure
they are higher-level questions). Have the students work in small groups to write two or three possible opening questions. Share and discuss these questions.
8. Now use the information about The Role of the Leader and The Role and Responsibilities of the Participants to deepen the understanding of the students. Be sure students understand how you will function as the leader to facilitate the dialogue and to push their thinking. Emphasize that they will be reminded constantly to refer to
9. Decide which class arrangement you will use (see image below for diagrams.) Depending on the size of your class, you will have to decide whether all students will participate in the seminar or you will use the inner circle/outer circle method. Socratic Seminars can usually remain effective with up to 20 participants. If your class is much larger than this, you may want to use the inner circle/outer circle method.
Be sure to review and explain the differing roles as well as the use of the “hot seat” if you choose to include that component. Students in the outer circle can use one of the observation activity sheets included in the additional resources at the end of this module.
10. Conduct the seminar. For the first few seminars, set a time limit for discussion of about 15–20 minutes. Be sure that as the leader you have developed plenty of questions to keep the dialogue going. You will need them!! Eventually, after some practice, you'll be able to turn the leader role over to your students (this should be one of your long-term goals.)
11. Debrief and evaluate the process. If students were in an outer circle, have them share their observations first, then discuss as a class which parts of the process were successful and which parts still need improvement. Use the activity sheets included in this module to debrief and evaluate. Set specific goals for the group’s next seminar. For example, a goal might be that every participant speaks without being asked by the leader or that participants speak to each other instead of the leader. Guide your students to set reasonable goals that will improve and develop their skills. You can use the reflection page in the additional resources section at the end of this module or create your own.
Inner Circle/ Outer Circle
The Outer Circle is held accountable to take Cornell Notes during the seminar and to observe their partner in the Inner Circle
Students use post-its to share ideas with their "wing-man"
The Hot SEAT
Consider using a special chair (like the teacher's chair) as the hot seat. Students LOVE to sit in the special chairs and it's an easy way to encourage use of the Hot Seat!
Inner Circle/ Outer Circle
How do I use the Inner Circle/ Outer Circle Method?
When your class is large (more than 25 students), consider using the inner circle/outer circle method of Socratic Seminar. With this method, about 15–20 students will take on the role of seminar participants, and the rest of the students will act as observers. It is important that the observers are given specific tasks and that they must
provide feedback during the debriefing process. The observer role is crucial to the group’s development of their skills and should not be seen as a way to get out of participating, but as serving a different purpose in the process.
Students should be seated as follows: Desks are arranged in two circles, one outside the other. Seminar participants sit in the inner circle. Observers sit in the outer circle, but should be positioned so that they can see and hear the student or students they are assigned to observe. Activity sheets are included in this unit for observers to use
and make notes. You may choose as the leader to include a “hot seat” in the inner circle. This is a chair that remains empty at the beginning of the seminar. If at some time during the seminar an observer in the outer circle feels a strong need
to participate, that student may move to the hot seat, contribute to the dialogue, and then move back to the outer circle. The “hot seat” is not essential to the process, but can be used effectively to stimulate participation.
If your class is small enough, you will probably have all students participate in the seminar. Having a few students function as observers can help immensely in the debriefing process as they are able to notice things that participants may not notice. It can also be helpful to have tutors or other teachers function as observers and give feedback after the seminar.
When using this method, switch up the inner circle and outer circle at the halfway point in class (or on the next day) so that all students have the experience of being a vocal participant and of being an observer.
What is the Wing-Man Formation?
The Wing-Man Formation is a modified version of the inner/outer circle.
Two students from the outer circle will sit directly behind one student in the inner circle. These two students will be the wing-man team for that inner circle participant.
At intervals during the discussion, the teacher will give each student in the inner circle time to talk with his/her wing-man team. The wing-man team should:
• share their ideas with the inner circle participant as quickly as
• give the inner circle participant info or ideas to take back to the inner circle discussion
The inner circle will then use the ideas from his/her wing-man team in the discussion.
Some variations of this include giving the wing-man post-it notes and allowing them to add input on the notes, which then are placed gently (you have to emphasize this!) on the backs of the inner circle participant. It's a fun way to engage the outer circle during a Socratic Seminar.
Dialogue versus Debate
Crucial to successful Socratic Seminars is an understanding of the difference between dialogue and debate. Both the leader and the participants must be able to make this distinction. More importantly, students must understand why we value the dialogue that we seek through Socratic Seminars. The purpose of the seminar is to expand our ideas and deepen our thinking, not to come to a particular conclusion or any conclusion at all.
Use the table below to lead a discussion of the difference between these two concepts.
The Elements of Socratic Seminars
A good seminar consists of four interdependent elements: (1) the text, (2) the questions raised, (3) the seminar leader, and (4) the participants. A closer look at each of these elements helps explain the unique character of a Socratic Seminar.
Socratic Seminar texts are chosen for their richness in ideas, issues, and values, and their ability to stimulate extended, thoughtful dialogue. A seminar text can be drawn from readings in literature, history, science, math, health, and philosophy or from works of art or music. A good text raises important questions in the participants’ minds, questions for which there are no right or wrong answers. At the end of a successful Socratic Seminar participants often leave with more questions than they brought with them.
A Socratic Seminar opens with a question either posed by the leader or solicited from participants as they acquire more experience in seminars. An opening question has no right answer; instead, it reflects a genuine curiosity on the part of the questioner. A good opening question leads participants back to the text as they speculate, evaluate, define, and clarify the issues involved. Responses to the opening question generate new questions from the leader and participants, leading to new responses. In this way, the line of inquiry in a Socratic Seminar evolves on the spot rather than being pre-determined by the leader.
In a Socratic Seminar, the leader plays a dual role as leader and participant. The seminar leader consciously demonstrates habits of mind that lead to a thoughtful exploration of the ideas in the text by keeping the discussion focused on the text, asking follow-up questions, helping participants clarify their positions when arguments become confused, and involving reluctant participants while restraining their more vocal peers. As a seminar participant, the leader actively engages in the group’s exploration of the text. To do this effectively, the leader must know the text well enough to anticipate varied interpretations and recognize important possibilities in each. The leader must also be patient enough to allow participants’ understandings to evolve and be willing to help participants explore non-traditional insights and unexpected interpretations. Assuming this dual role of leader and participant is easier if the opening question is one which truly interests the leader as well as the participants.
In Socratic Seminar, participants share with the leader the responsibility for the quality of the seminar. Good seminars occur when participants study the text closely in advance, listen actively, share their ideas and questions in response to the ideas and questions of others, and search for evidence in the text to support their ideas. Participants acquire good seminar behaviors through participating in seminars and reflecting on them afterward. After each seminar, the leader and participants discuss the experience and identify ways of improving the next seminar. Before each new seminar, the leader also offers coaching and practice in specific habits of mind that improve reading, thinking, and discussing. Eventually, when participants realize that the leader is not looking for the “right” answers but instead is encouraging them to think out loud and to openly exchange ideas, they discover the excitement of exploring important issues through shared inquiry. This excitement creates willing participants, eager to examine ideas in a rigorous, thoughtful manner.
The Role and Responsibilities of the Seminar Participants
Before the Seminar
• Read the text carefully and for understanding.
• Use highlighters to mark crucial text and make notes in margins.
• Look for places where the author is stating his views, arguing for them, or raising questions.
• Make connections between parts of the text by using your marginal notes.
• Think about what you have read and how you understand it.
• Make connections between the ideas in the text and what you know in your life and the lives of the others.
During the Seminar
• Be prepared to participate; the quality of the seminar diminishes when participants speak without preparation.
• Refer to the text often and when needed; a seminar is not a test of memory.
• Ask good questions and ask for clarification when confused.
• Take turns speaking instead of raising hands.
• Listen carefully and actively to your fellow participants.
• Speak so that all can hear you.
• Address your fellow participants, not just the leader.
• Discuss the ideas of the text, not each other’s opinions.
• Show respect for differing ideas, thoughts, and values.
• Give evidence and examples to support your responses.
• Help fellow participants clarify questions and responses.
• Keep your mind open to new ideas and possibilities.
After the Seminar
• Be reflective about the process of the seminar.
• Discuss with your group parts of the seminar you think went well and which skills you and your fellow participants still need to improve.
• Use writing to think about both the process and the content of the seminar.
• Reflect on both yourself as an individual and the group as a whole.
• Be prepared to help set goals for improvement in the next seminar.
What are some tips to get me started? I want to try this out but it seems overwhelming.
• Select a text that is short, no more than one to two pages.
• Read aloud the text in class; then have students read it again silently.
• Use an elmo to model how one marks or “prepares” the text for Socratic Seminar; allow time in class for students to develop this skill and collaborate with you and other students; this may include identifying words they do not know, underlining or highlighting phrases they believe are important, summarizing
important ideas or arguments in the margins, and writing questions in the margins.
• After completing the reading and “preparing the text,” have students practice together writing opening questions for the Socratic Seminar. Provide modeling and share questions in class. Be sure that the questions are
• If possible, have students observe a Socratic Seminar being conducted with older and/or experienced students.