Published Online: August 22, 2012

Making the Leap to Socratic Seminars

Over the past few years, I've attended summer workshop after summer workshop that touted the merits of Socratic seminars. The discussions revolved around open-ended questions facilitated by not teachers, as I'd previously understood such seminars—but students. Perhaps it is appropriate that I often left these workshops with more questions than answers.

I just couldn't picture how this would work in my 6th grade English/language arts classroom. How would I guide my students to discuss topics in a civil way and connect their ideas to their academic learning? How would I ensure each student was engaged? How would I assess students? What if no one had anything to say?

But this past year, I pushed aside my own desire for control and gave more agency to my students. It was risky, especially when facing high-stakes testing and a new evaluation system. But my students were more engaged in learning than ever. And I knew that I didn't need to worry about the evaluation rubric if my students could sustain this kind of growth.

Listen, Discuss, Collaborate

Let's face it—most middle school students don't walk into our classrooms in August ready and able to participate in a Socratic seminar … or any type of academic discussion. But here's how I got them ready.

From week one, I began to set expectations about three major skills: active listening, academic discussion, and collaborative teamwork. I also worked to create a climate in which it was safe for students to speak their minds—where it's okay to take risks (and sometimes fail).

The first thing we talked about was active listening. Students need to understand that a discussion involves constant feedback and participation from all involved—and that even a listener's body language can affect the tone and focus of the discussion. I solicited and recorded students' ideas about what active listening is, creating a sort of "how-to" poster as they discussed.

During the first week, I built in lots of discussion activities in pairs, small groups, and whole-class arrangements. Students got to know one another, built a sense of community, and practiced their active-listening skills.

One of our first activities was "What's My Lie?" Students wrote three statements about themselves—two true statements and one that was a lie. I did the same, then modeled the activity: I shared my statements with a student volunteer, who then guessed which statement was a lie and explained why. I confirmed or shared the correct answers.

Next, students mingled and performed the same activity, changing partners when prompted. I reminded students about active listening and encouraged them to thank their partners in the activity.

During the early weeks of the school year, our activities were very structured, gradually becoming less so. Students learned to initiate questions or engage in discourse without my dictating the order of responses.

Early on, I introduced strategies for responding to others in a civil way that sustains the discussion: "I agree, Bobby, but I would also add ... " or "I disagree, Sally, because the text says ... " or "That reminds me of the article/text/novel that ... "

As last year got going, I realized that my new role was to facilitate learning rather than deliver it. As I moved from table to table, I modeled active listening and academic discussion for my students while at the same time getting to know them and assessing their learning.

Next Step: Introducing Socratic Seminars

I now know you should never spring a Socratic seminar on students without introducing the concept. Period. For a seminar to be truly effective, I've found my students need to know what it is, why they're doing it, what's expected of them, and how they'll be graded. They need time to prepare.

Two or three days before our first seminar, I took an entire period to introduce what Socratic seminars are like—and why we would be doing them.

Students need to understand the roles of the seminars in my classroom—and their importance. A seminar can be a discussion of articles or a novel students have read, or they can be the culminating point of an entire unit. Seminars can help students with prewriting or serve as performance-based assessments.

It is also important for students to perceive seminar participation as an exciting privilege—a chance to be responsible for their own learning. I want them to see that I am interested in their insights. The more I stress the value of the activity, the more value students place on their personal performance.

I began the first introductory session by giving students background on who Socrates was and what "Socratic" means. I introduced Socrates as an ancient Greek philosopher and teacher who valued the power of asking questions, engaging in inquiry, and discussing rather than debating.

Then we talked about the seminar's structure. I've found an inner-outer circle most effective with my 6th graders. I arrange student desks in two concentric circles. During the seminar, the inner circle discusses while the outer circle observes and assesses their inner partners. Halfway through the seminar, the groups switch roles.

I explained the seminar responsibilities of students: to be prepared with their handouts and texts, to take part in discussion when in the inner circle, and to evaluate the discussion when in the outer circle.

My favorite part was explaining my role as teacher, which is to open a Diet Coke and relax. They laughed, but by the end of the year, they realized how accurate this description had been.

This year, this introductory lesson will be followed by a class session in which we watch and analyze a video clip of a Socratic seminar in action.

Deciding What Matters: Student-Generated Rubrics

I took another risk this past year as I committed to a student-centered classroom: I decided students should play a role in designing a rubric for seminar participation.

I had initiated this process at the start of the year, when I first asked students to identify the characteristics of an active listener. Continued reflection on the "how" of our classroom activities led students to become much more aware of my expectations—and their own.

The day after I introduced the basic concept of Socratic seminars, I asked students to consider how the seminars should be evaluated.

I distributed a template with categories (participation, quality of discussion, and behavior/attitude) and scoring columns (exemplary, proficient, and emerging). I left the contents of the rubric blank, and asked student groups to generate indicators for each of the possible scores for the categories.

I recorded student contributions and solicited revisions along the way, encouraging as much specificity as possible. And I found that, given the opportunity, my students set high expectations for themselves—in part because they were so excited and honored to be able to take part in the seminars.

The rubric-building activity helps students become even more aware of what's expected on seminar day. Just to make sure we were all on the same page, I posted the rubric to my class wiki, requiring students to review it for homework and "sign" their names on the wiki page.

Many teachers have practiced this kind of student-centered instruction. But it was revolutionary for me, a teacher who once felt more comfortable with a tightly scripted plan for each lesson.

Here's what my principal said after observing a Socratic seminar in my 6th grade ELA classroom: "The only thing that could have made it more impressive was if you had just turned around and left the room."

On that day, in that moment, I became obsolete and loved it. It was then that I knew I truly had a student-centered classroom—my students were motivated and engaged enough to learn from one another without me.

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