When done right, Socratic Seminars can be the best low prep, high impact activity you will ever do. They can cut down on your grading without sacrificing rigor. They can build classroom community without being cheesy. They can create an engaging lesson without students (or admin) knowing you put it together a few minutes before class.
However, without a few tips and tricks, Socratic Seminars can also easily go awry or fall flat. It is my hope that this post helps you plan a successful Socratic Seminar, learn how to form Socratic Seminar questions, and get students talking with a variety of Socratic Seminar strategies!
What is a Socratic Seminar?
I personally did not hear the term “Socratic Seminar” until after college and a couple years of teaching. I had participated in several Socratic Seminars without knowing the term, so don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar either!
Essentially, a Socratic Seminar is a classroom activity where students sit in a circle, pose questions, and discuss topics to better understand and analyze them through different perspectives and insights. During the class discussion, the teacher is meant to be the facilitator of learning, not the gatekeeper of knowledge.
However, this is somewhat of a fantasy because we all know Socrates only allowed a select few elite philosophers in his circle to examine life’s essential questions. We are over here trying to facilitate deep discussions with the masses, so naturally it takes a little more effort to get students talking and learning.
How to plan a socratic seminar
The best time to host a Socratic Seminar
You can use the Socratic teaching method with any engaging text at any time. You can host a Socratic Seminar after full texts, or you can discuss after certain chapters. I’ve found that Socratic Seminars are fantastic no-prep activities to do during novel studies. The key is to make sure you host a Socratic Seminar after something juicy, controversial, exciting, or sad has happened in the book. If you are lucky enough to be in an adult book club, this would be the moment you want to text your friends to discuss what just happened because you simply can’t wait until your meeting date. The more students WANT to discuss what they just read, the easier hosting a successful Socratic Seminar will be! Remember, in order to have great seminars, you must have great books. 🙂
Prepping for seminar style class:
The amazing thing about Socratic Seminars is that they should require very little prep on the teacher’s part. As my mentor Harry Wong says, “Whoever is working is the only one learning.” Students should be the ones preparing for the Socratic Seminar, not you. All you need to do is provide a few tools to help them prepare, set your expectations, and then go for it! For example, here’s a simple 3,2,1 READiness guide that students fill out after reading a text, and you can find other Socratic Seminar worksheets in this pack.
But before you pass out that guide, I want to emphasize the MOST IMPORTANT element on the page – the questions. Now, you will see some conflicting information online about who should be writing the questions for a Socratic discussion. I was trained that the students should write the questions, not the teacher. This makes the most sense to me from a rigor standpoint as well as an engagement standpoint, and it is the Socratic method that has served me best over the years.
Forming socratic seminar questions
Forming good questions is the key to it all, yet this is the thing students struggle with the most when preparing for a Socratic Seminar.
Let me fill you in on a little secret– when you tell students to write an “open ended” question, they have ZERO CLUE what you are saying. None. They will act like they know but then will ask something like “What color is the front of the book?”
Even when you give them explicit examples, they will find a way to write a question so off the wall that you wonder how a human brain could produce such an inquiry. “The new space shuttle going to Mars is blue and the book cover is blue, what do you think that means?”
Therefore, it is essential that you provide a mini lesson on questioning before each seminar activity. You can find my full mini lesson on forming Socratic discussion questions in this pack, but for a quick tip, here are some leveled-up Socratic question examples :
- Bad question: Which symbols appear in chapter 1?
- Better question: Which symbol did you find most intriguing and how do you predict it will evolve?
- Bad question: What happened to _in chapter 2?
- Better question: What do you think the author’s purpose is for adding _ to the plot?
Setting up your space for a socratic seminar
How you set up your room for a Socratic Seminar really does matter. If possible, have students move their chairs to form a circle. If you have no room to make this happen, consider having students stand in a circle instead or move to a more open area and sit in a circle. During Covid, I could not have classes form circles and just trust me that the dynamic is OFF when students are in rows. Compare it to going to a diner with friends. Sitting at a table together has a much different feel than sitting at a linear bar. It just does. Here’s a little bit of psychology about this round table dynamic.
Setting Socratic Seminar expectations:
Setting expectations is also essential when it comes to successful Socratic Seminars. I have detailed expectations for before and during Socratic discussions in this Talking Toolkit, but I will provide examples here as well:
- Expectation 1: You will read the assigned text and fill out the READiness Guide to prepare for our discussion.
- Expectation 2: You will write unique questions worded to generate discussion. You will find two quotes that ___. You will write one thoughtful insight that you formed during reading.
- Rule 1: If your question falls flat (meaning no one has anything to say about it), then you will not get participation credit for that question.
- Rule 2: It is in your best interest not to collaborate or copy classmates for this assignment because no repeated questions are allowed. If someone asks one of your questions before you get a chance to, then you must ask a different one of the three you have written down.
- Rule 3: If all three of your questions get asked before you can pose one, then you must think of a unique question that hasn’t been asked yet. Therefore, it is best to use your own uniqueness (not the internet nor a friend) when forming your questions. The same applies to the quotes and insight. No repeats are allowed.
As you can see, my expectations and rules are designed to ensure students read the text for themselves. Sure, they could still cheat or still reference Sparknotes (my old nemesis but did find a use for it here), but at least it adds a little barrier. From my experience, students are able to cheat less during this Socratic method than other response methods. English teacher win!
Of course you will also need to set respectful expectations for during class discussions. I have editable expectations in this Talking Toolkit.
Pitfalls to avoid during class discussions
One of the main challenges with hosting Socratic Seminars is what to do about students who are absent or have IEPs that exclude them from participating. The solution is to set up an online discussion. You can use the Colorful Convo in this pack or set up a discussion in your LMS. As long as students fill out the READiness guide and participate in a discussion in some way, they will hit the standards on the Socratic Seminar rubric.
Other pitfalls to Socratic discussions include students who either don’t participate at all or do the opposite and overpower the conversation. I have lots of solutions for these scenarios in this post: How to Liven Up Your Socratic Seminar and Get Students Talking
Oftentimes Socratic Seminar strategies are like Goldilocks, you have to keep trying until you find the Socratic method that works best for you!
Grading Socratic seminars
To me, one of the major benefits to hosting Socratic Seminars is cutting down my grading without sacrificing the ultimate goal of students reading and engaging with the text. Therefore, I personally choose to grade during the discussion, not after. I simply have a class list of student names and put check marks beside their names as they complete each goal. For example, as students are forming a circle, walk around and do a quick check of their READiness guide. During the discussion, put a check if they asked an adequate question (or prompt them to level up an inadequate question for credit). Lastly, put a final check mark for full credit if they share further insight at some point during the discussion. With this grading strategy, the READiness guide is worth 50 points, question 25 points, and insight 25 points.
Socratic Seminar rubric
If you do not feel comfortable with this grading method, then you can opt to use Socratic Seminar rubric for more thorough feedback. I have a simple standard’s based grading rubric in this Talking Toolkit.
Even more strategies for class discussions
Once you have the basics and learn the benefits of Socratic Seminars, you can keep your class discussions fresh by changing it up. This post is full of ideas for spicing up your Socratic discussions, and this pack is full of all the tools you need to keep students engaged throughout the year.
And, if you are ready to have a ~BALL~ with class discussions, you can grab your free question stems for Socratic Seminar below:
If you have never attempted a Socratic Seminar with your students before, I hope this post gives you confidence to try. For you veterans, I hope you found some new techniques and strategies to make your seminars even better!