Socratic seminars in science class

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.

a great place for a socratic seminar?

a good place for a socratic seminar?

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.

7 thoughts on “Socratic seminars in science class

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  3. Hey Tyler, I finally did my first one with my two 8th grade classes. It went well and I got some good feedback from the kids as to how to make it better. They do a similar discussion in their PNW classes call fishbowls so they had definite ideas on how I could do it better.

    One thing one of my classes really liked about their fishbowl activity is questions the day before. Instead of just the reading, they wanted questions to help them focus on things to talk about. I thought that was a good idea.

    I did try something that I guess didn’t go over very well. The article I chose was short and since few students don’t do hw and I never give hw I read the article with them in class before we started the circles. They didn’t like being unprepared. So that was my major screw up. I tried it and it didn’t work. Next time I’ll give them the article beforehand and then give them time before breaking into circles to re-read and prepare by going over the questions and maybe even their responses.

    Those who prepare will at least feel ready to talk :o)

  4. Thanks for you advice here! I am hoping to do a Socratic Seminar with my senior environmental science class. Any tips on doing these with large classes (25-30 students)?

  5. I have done socratic seminars with a class as large as 25. For that size, I would recommend one of 3 options:

    1. Fishbowl style – 6-8 students sit in the center of the class in a circle and debate and discuss while the rest of the class surrounds them. These students can be actively engaged in taking notes, liveblogging, having a backchannel discussion about the seminar, tracking and evaluating the speakers, etc.

    2. Rotating fishbowl – for this one, I have 4 – 6 seats in the center and students rotate through those. Only students in the “hot seats” may speak and one chair must always be left open. The first person in must be the first one out. When a new person enters the circle, the student who has been in the fishbowl the longest must leave.

    3. Team fishbowl seminar – this is a great way to introduce your students to socratic seminars. Put students into teams of 3 or 4; when you ask a question, give them a set amount of time (2-3 minutes) to discuss the topic with their team, then ask the speaker for each team to engage in the discussion with the rest of the speakers in the fishbowl.

    4. Get the class in one big circle and “go for it.” This works best if it isn’t their first rodeo. You can track who speaks and how often, maybe inviting the reluctant ones into the conversation once in a while.

    Good luck!

  6. HI,

    Do you have any advice on where I can find articles that would work well for a socratic seminar in the physical sciences at the high school level? Any info would be greatly appreciated!

  7. I would recommend you look for articles that lean toward the bizarre or controversial. You want your students to WANT to form an opinion on it. News articles can also be a good source if there is a solid science connection.

    With my chemistry classes, most of our socratic seminars have been about environmental issues that involve chemistry (soil & water pollution, climate change, etc.). In physics, I’ve taken more of the angle of showing demonstrations or videos and asking students to debate (after doing experiments to test their ideas) whether or not the videos are real.

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