Overview: High schoolers learn that socratic seminars are formal discussions in which they ask open-ended questions on a topic, listen closely to the comments of others, think critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts in their responses to the question that has been asked.
Subject: English Language Arts: Speaking & Listening
Grades: 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
Duration: One or two 45-minute class periods
Interdisciplinary Opportunities: Topics related to science, math, social studies, etc.
Students will be able to:
- Respond verbally to open-ended questions during the socratic seminar based on prior preparation and discussion norms.
- Reflect on the socratic seminar with a written debrief, which includes evidence cited from the discussion.
Essential Questions: What is a socratic seminar? How can I use evidence from a discussion in an argument paper?
Vocabulary: Socratic seminar, analysis, discussion, open-ended question
Common Core Standards Addressed:
- ELA: Speaking & Listening
- SL.9-10.1, 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, 6
- SL.11-12.1, 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, 6
Set up chairs or desks in concentric circles.
Decide what topic students may discuss in their seminar. Sample items might include: mathematical proofs, logic arguments, primary or secondary source documents, historical speeches, songs, poems, laws, treaties, historical literature, short stories, essays/articles, editorials, photographs and art pieces.
Ask the students to imagine being a doctor in the emergency room of a hospital. Although the doctor is trained and prepared, they are not sure of what patients they will have that day, or what emergency will arise. Students should be prepared for the socratic seminar discussion and be able to discuss the item while connecting the piece to the focus question.
Explain to the students that a socratic seminar is a timed discussion with a group of students. The groups sit in concentric circles, holding their copy of the item and any notes they have on the item, while facing the center of the room. The inner circle has ten minutes to discuss the item while the outer circle watches. When the ten minutes are up, the outer circle reports their observations to the inner circle, and then the two circles switch. The purpose of the discussion is to reach a deeper understanding of the item.
Give students the item to read/study and prepare for the seminar. Socratic seminars always include a topic as mentioned at the beginning of this lesson. When students prepare the item, encourage them to do the following:
- Read the material closely
- Make notes (margin notes, sticky notes, dialectical journal, Cornell notes, etc.)
- Form open-ended questions. (questions which require more thought and more than a simple one-word answer)
To start the seminar, the students take their places in the circles. Pose an opening question relating to the item to start the dialogue. One option when beginning this process is to have each student read one of their questions around the circle with the teacher choosing one question to open the dialogue. This gives each student a chance to speak.
Students begin by responding to the question. They examine the item and use it to help support and cite their answers to the question. Students should clarify or restate their viewpoints and defend statements made, using examples from the item. Students should also paraphrase other students for clarification, ask additional questions, and show that they are listening while others are explaining their answer.
Note: During the seminar, the teacher acts as a facilitator for the group, when needed, the teacher should remind students of activity guidelines and to direct them back to the item or question. The teacher is NOT the leader; but an occasional moderator/facilitator. The goal is to support students in producing their own dialogue.
Once the inner circle has completed their dialogue and the outer circle has observed, they can share their observations as part of the debriefing.
The students can change places and redo the process with another open-ended question.
After the conversation becomes exhausted, move on to an ending activity. This can be quick paragraph about new understandings, thoughts, or ideas the students reached about the item. Base the prompt on the form found on page 11 or page 12 of a reflection activity.
Once everyone has completed their debriefing activity, lead a class discussion about the activity. Discuss what the students liked or did not like about the activity. Determine what might help the activity next time.
- Observe students during the whole seminar process with an observation form to monitor student discussion.
- The final reflection can be graded on reflection and critical thinking skills.
Pair students with lower learning levels with an advanced learner to pre-explore the item.
Advanced students could be the one to choose the question to be used for the seminar. They could also moderate the seminar.
Discussions before, during and after are helpful to English Language Learners as they receive a chance to practice their English skills, and better comprehend the item.