Socratic Seminars


By Lynda Tredway

Here are selected articles and websites with guidance on the Socratic Seminar process.

Socratic Seminars: Engaging Students in Intellectual Discourse

An article in Educational Leadership (ASCD) that describes the full seminar process.

Read Write Think

The website offers a strong set of processes—from choosing the text to preparing self and students to facilitating to post-seminar debrief. All these key parts are important. However, this site emphasizes too quickly the background role of teacher and the possible role of students as facilitators. The teacher as facilitator’s role is key. This is a sophisticated form of pedagogy that requires an experienced teacher who has practiced and models the seminar approach. Students can certainly be coached to offer questions to each other, to act as keen observers of the process and provide feedback, and to co-develop and practice equitable contributions in seminar. However, the teacher should as Dewey (p. 38, 1938) says: see in what direction an experience is heading and guide that experience carefully by tethering ideas to each other and then offering paraphrasing and redirecting.

Facing History

The purpose of a seminar is clearly outlined in this website, and the process, including selecting an appropriate text that “stands the test of time” (meaning historical or current text that is rich with ideas), is emphasized. Student preparation for seminar can occur ahead of the actual seminar—in the case of a typical school schedule the day prior. In some cases, with short texts, poetry, or visual texts, the pre-reading required for unpacking the text can occur at the same time as seminar. However, in this website, the directions for developing the opening question are vague, and needs to be more specific. The opening question requires the facilitator—usually the teacher—to carefully read the text and make decisions about a question particular to that text. It is fine to start with a general question to “get the juices going”: What is section of the text (phrase or sentence) that most interested you in the text? The OQ (or as is named in the next website the core question), however, needs to be at synthesis/evaluation level in Bloom’s taxonomy and probably requires that the seminar participants have time to make a choice and find evidence in the text to support their choices.

National Paideia Center

The National Paideia Center is a leader in re-establishing Socratic seminars and the form of dialogue it offers. The three pillars of the full Paideia process are key in preparing for the third pillar of the seminar. This process names the opening question as a way “into” the seminar. Others use the term opening question as the core question (as named in this website) to get more deeply into the text. There is no magic way to start. The key is to question using the Socratic process – using participant ideas to build meaning – and not resort to many questions because the facilitator is nervous about think time, which often occurs for 10-12 seconds, but seems much longer. One way to deal with extended think time is to restate whatever the “idea or question on the floor is” based on current discussion and ask participants to talk in pairs. It is particularly useful at this time for the teacher facilitator to listen in on students who have been reticent in participating, help them “rehearse” their ideas and ask permission to start with their ideas for the seminar restart.

Socratic Seminars: Making Meaningful Dialogue

Written by a principal, this website is useful because it offers a connection to the importance of seminars and student dialogue to fully implementing the Common Core. The types of questions in the seminar are useful: opening, guiding, and closing. The guiding questions are sometimes the hardest for teacher-facilitators as they cannot be pre-planned; they must generate from the seminar ideas and dialogue. Closing questions are not necessary. What is more important is to allow time to debrief about the seminar process, based on student observation. The website also over-emphasizes moving to student-facilitated seminars too quickly. This is a complex process over which the teacher-facilitator should have full command and offer supportive modeling before opening the full seminar process to students. Certainly they should be coached to offer guiding questions during the seminar, but opening questions and re-direct questions are often complex enough for teacher-facilitators.