I love socratic seminars. I have done several in the past few years and, every time I do one, I say, “I need to do more of these!” The students learn so much from these rich discussions, both about the topic and about civil discourse. Socratic seminars help to set up a positive culture in the classroom, as well as fostering Habits of Mind (Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, Listening With Understanding and Empathy).
What is a socratic seminar?
A socratic seminar is an informal group discussion where the teacher acts as a facilitator (ideally by only asking questions – and the less, the better) while the students have a discussion. The discussion can center around a piece of reading, a current news issue, an idea or ideal, or just an engaging question. The key, though, really is the engagement. The topic has to be one that students want to talk about – preferably argue about.
How do you do a socratic seminar?
From the teacher side of things, I like to plan a few key questions to ask about the topic of discussion (I may or may not ask all of them). The students will have some background knowledge prior to the seminar – could be from a text that they read, a video that they watched, a lab, whatever. I like to have the students bring their chairs into a large circle (you might have to clear space for this – or do it outside; outdoor socratic seminars rock!). You then set the ground rules for the discussion (no interrupting, be respectful, no side conversations, etc.) and ask the BIG QUESTION – the main topic of the discussion.
What is it like?
When it’s working, the students are arguing respectfully, agreeing and disagreeing, building on each others’ points, and referring to prior knowledge or creating new knowledge collectively. Once in a while, I remind students of protocols or norms if they get too fired up. Occasionally, I throw out another question to keep the conversation going or steer it back on task. I do my best to resist the urge to state my knowledge or opinions on a matter – even if they are begging for it. It’s not about me!
Okay, I get it. But, in SCIENCE class???
What better way to help students to understand the process of science than to get them arguing? The key is to teach them to challenge each others’ claims respectfully (How do you know that? What is your evidence? Where did your evidence come from? Is it dependable evidence?)
How do I start?
You start by doing three of them. With the same class. Relatively close together. Not one or two.
Yes, three. One for you to screw up and for them to be confused. A second one for you to facilitate better and for them to still be confused. A third to get a decent feel for how this should really go.