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Socratic Seminar: Championing Critical Thinking
Nancy Nash, 5/6 English Teacher

“Can we do a Socratic about this article?” my sixth-grade student asked as she finished reading the last words of a Newsela opinion assignment. I could imagine her reasons for asking this question: Is the author saying what I think she’s saying? Do I agree? Is it okay to disagree? How does everyone else feel? As you can guess, her ponderings are exactly what I had hoped would be swirling in every student’s head (along with the tiniest bit of discomfort). Yes, Libby, you read my mind: a Socratic Seminar was definitely on the horizon. 

"Can we do a Socratic on this article?"

The Philosophy of Socrates: B.C.

I happen to think Socrates was a world-class educator. “His style of teaching—immortalized as the Socratic method—involved not conveying knowledge, but rather asking question[s] after clarifying question[s] until his students arrived at their own understanding,” as History.com notes. The founding father of Western philosophy knew his opinion as an educator was insignificant; it was the job of his students to dissect and analyze the beliefs of other philosophers and form their own significant opinions. This was done through respectful dialogue and discussion spawned from open-ended questions. In more contemporary terms, the person doing the talking is the person doing the learning. Thank you, Socrates, for my teaching mantra.

Students having discussion during a Socratic Seminar

Embrace the Awkwardness of Awkward  

Although there are many Socratic variations, the classic discussion format is two concentric circles. The inner circle is the discussion group, and the outer circle is where a “coach” sits behind each discussion participant. The role of the coach is to observe their assigned speaker, write notes, and advise them during “coaching breaks.” The role of the discussion participant is to dig into literature and make real-world connections by following a rich trail of insights and questions. Remarks and retorts should mimic the following:

  • I think what I hear you say is ..., but I have another way of looking at that …
  • Yes, I agree, and I also think that ... because on page 124 the author states …
  • Your point is interesting; I didn’t look at it that way. So, I have a question about that …

Does this flow and meld like warm fudge sauce over ice cream? Not by a long shot. Awkward pauses are guaranteed, and that is okay. Let awkward sit there, and be comfortable (or uncomfortable) with it. Students are taught that silent pauses may be a good time to invite a reluctant participant to speak, and someone eventually steps up to the plate. With having (at least) three formal Socratics per year, the confidence spike in what once was a “reluctant participant” is undeniable and oh so satisfying. 

Students having a discussion during Socratic Seminar

Not Optional: Teacher’s Mouth is Zipped

I tease my students that I love Socratic Seminar because I can put my feet up, eat bonbons, sip tea and just listen. Kind of. Between possible sips of tea, I am charting the shared ideas, checking the number of times students participate, how many times they use evidence, and their use of polite conversation. Basically, I am writing the rough draft of their rubric. As much as I want to appear poker-faced and objective, I can’t; my smiles emerge as I listen to the birth of ideas that even I hadn’t considered.

According to Edutopia, “This type of student-led discussion—based on Socrates’ method of student inquiry rather than teacher lecture—elicits student ownership, deep thinking, critical questioning, academic vocabulary usage, and a rooted sense of community.”

Please notice the biggest benefit: a rooted sense of community. They couldn’t do this without each other, and they truly know that.

Student taking notes during a Socratic Seminar

What Are The Must-Haves? 

A text. That’s it. Because Socratic discussion can be done at any grade level, the complexity of the required preparation for students is at the teacher’s discretion. For middle school and up, I use a central text (such as a novel) and several other types of related media: nonfiction articles, poems, short stories, and videos. The most important material is assigned open-ended questions that connect the text and supporting resources. It is the students’ responsibility to answer questions about the central idea and possible theme by gathering evidence from the common text and various resources. The next step is for them is to create questions to deepen the discussion. I call this prep work their “ticket” to Socratic; there is a “no admission” policy if their prep work is incomplete. (But, of course, this never ... hardly ever ... happens.) Prep work helps them feel confident and initiates engagement, so it is essential.

This can’t happen without spending a great deal of time reviewing expectations, guidelines and having many conversations about the etiquette of conversation. Students often remark Oh, this feels like etiquette class. The manner in which they respond to each other carries the same weight as citing evidence to prove a point. Socratic is not a debate where opinions are oppositional; it is a discussion of meaningful dialogue to blend and reinvent ideas.

Group Discussion during a Socratic Seminar

“Should We Get Dressed Up?”

Of all the questions students have asked me about Socratic, that one was the sweetest. They were feeling serious, they were feeling accountable, and they were feeling a bit, well ... grown-up. It’s a big deal for them to be in charge of looking at literature in a different way. Each student is “the teacher” that day, and if I’m being honest, they should experience that, even for just a moment, every day in class. They have come prepared to present a game-changer, and that is powerful. Dress up for that!

Student taking notes during a Socratic Seminar

My New BFF

There was a pivotal moment in my teaching career when I felt Socrates become my new best friend. The inner-circle had arrived at a possible common theme for several pieces of literature. As the discussion thickened and took on a new life, a quiet voice arose and uttered, “Guys, wait ... do we even have the right theme? I just noticed …” A collective gasp, then silence, followed by more discussion. Chills rose up my arms as I listened to my warriors of literature carve a new path—between sips of tea, of course.  

Student taking notes during a Socratic Seminar

About the Author

Nancy Nash

Nancy Nash

English Teacher, Grades 5 & 6

nnash@stanleyclark.org

 

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