"The unexamined life is not worth living for the human being"


The Socratic Seminar

Socratic seminars are named for their embodiment of Socrates’ belief in the power of asking questions, prize inquiry over information and discussion over debate. Socratic seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.
Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic seminars and implies their rich benefits for students:
The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)
Israel, Elfie. “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.” In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom. James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.
The Strategy in Practice Includes the following essential steps:
  • Choosing a text
  • Preparing the students
  • Preparing the questions
  • Establishing your role
  • Assessing effectiveness

Complex Text:
Socratic seminars work best with authentic texts that invite authentic inquiry—an ambiguous and appealing short story, a pair of contrasting primary documents in social studies, or an article on a controversial approach to an ongoing scientific problem. It is critical that a text with appropriate complexity is selected and that differentiated strategies are applied. Socratic seminar is appropriate for all grade levels and content areas, and prepare students for the complex reading and analysis required to master Common Core State Standards.
As students become more adept at this approach you may consider "mixing" or "layering" text selections. For example you may ask students to read a poem, listen to a song and look at a piece of art work and include all "texts" in their analysis. However, when in the early stages of using this strategy, begin slowly so that students experience some success in their analysis.
**What is a "Complex Text"?**
Uncovering "Complex Text"
How to Choose a Complex Text

Special Education considerations...how can you help students that struggle with grade level texts dig into COMPLEX texts? It isnt an easy prospect, however here are some resources:
Struggling Readers and Complex Texts

There are several resources that give ideas for potential texts ideas, below are just a few. It is also good to note that most of the popular classroom literary texts as well as many common historical texts have been used by someone, somewhere as a complex text for a Socratic Seminar. Do a few good searches online and see what you turn up rather than starting from scratch. You wont likely find the perfect resource, but you might find something that is the perfect spring board, and you can make it your own!

Health Education:
Language Arts:

Social Studies:

Prepare the Students:
First, you must teach students HOW to conduct a seminar. Teach behavior expectations using explicit modeling, teach them language they should use to disagree appropriately and to probe deeper without causing embarrassment or awkwardness. This needs to be a Danielson Domain 2 classroom! This strategy can help you hit a number of Common Core standards but only if you have the appropriate structure to support academic risk taking! It will likely be uncomfortable at first -- but it will lead to direct inquire -- which is exactly what you want.
Second, you must teach students how to read "closely" - this strategy is a must before students can tackle a complex text. It is best when close reading strategies are identified and practices across content areas so that students become accustomed to these practices in all classrooms AND give them opportunities to practice close "listening" when using videos or music and close "looking" when using a graphic or work of art.

Prepare the questions:
Though students may eventually be given responsibility for running the entire session, the teacher usually takes on the role of "discussion leader" while students are learning about seminars and questioning. Generate as many open-ended questions as possible, aiming for questions whose value lies in their exploration, not their answer. Elfie Israel recommends starting and ending with questions that relate more directly to students’ lives so the entire conversation is rooted in the context of their real experiences.
There are several methods of developing questions for Socratic seminars; however, creating an opening question can determine the success of the seminar. According to the Greece Central School District of New York, a good opening question must:
  • Arise from the curiosity of the leader.
  • Have no single “right” answer.
  • Be structured to generate dialogue that leads to a clearer understanding of textual concepts.
  • Require participants to make textual references.
The questions that follow the introduction to the seminar require students to make personal connections with the text and the world outside of school. For example, the questions might ask students to share similar or different experiences as those in the text. The teacher might also pose questions that ask students to clarify their perspectives and draw on textual evidence to support their claims. The questions in a Socratic seminar might also challenge students to make comparisons, give evidence for cause-and-effect relationships, provide suggestions for why this text might be realistic or unrealistic, and compare it to their personal lives. Sample questions may be found on the Socratic Seminars page at the Greece Central School website as well as through the resources below.


Establish your role:
Though you may assume leadership through determining which open-ended questions students will explore (at first), the teacher should not see him or herself as a significant participant in the pursuit of those questions. You may find it useful to limit your intrusions to helpful reminders about procedures (e.g. “Maybe this is a good time to turn our attention back the text?” “Do we feel ready to explore a different aspect of the text?”). Resist the urge to correct or redirect, relying instead on other students to respectfully challenge their peers’ interpretations or offer alternative views.
Teacher is more responsible for guiding students to “a deeper and clarified consideration of the ideas of the text, a respect for varying points of view, and adherence to and respect for the seminar process.” The teacher also notes important details necessary for assessment purposes as well as making sure that the dialog does not digress too far, or does not take a negative turn.
A good video clip illustrating the teachers role in the early stages can be found here:
—Teacher role in socratic - Beginning
as time progresses, you will become less directly involved as illustrated here:
Socratic Seminar

Assessing Effectiveness:
Socratic seminars require assessment that respects the central nature of student-centered inquiry to their success. The most global measure of success is reflection, both on the part of the teacher and students, on the degree to which text-centered student talk dominated the time and work of the session. Reflective writing asking students to describe their participation and set their own goals for future seminars can be effective as well. Understand that, like the seminars themselves, the process of gaining capacity for inquiring into text is more important than “getting it right” at any particular point.
Depending on the structure of the seminar, teachers may assess students, or they may ask students to self-assess or peer assess.



Video Clips:
High School Language Arts Seminar
4th Grade Seminar

Lesson Planning Template: