Socratic Seminar and You…Perfect Together

Seminar and you
If you asked your students a simple question, such as, “Who wrote Maniac Magee?” you would probably be met with a simple response. In other words, the student who answers the question correctly would say, “Jerry Spinelli.” And while that question is helpful in knowing how well a student can recall information, it isn’t going to elicit debate or deep thinking, is it?

I use this simple example to illustrate the point that the questions we ask are crucial in our instruction; and it is critical that we ask questions that elicit responses that not only engage students but also ask them to employ higher-level thinking skills.

Most teachers already know the importance of higher-order thinking skills, but wouldn’t it be helpful to find new, interesting ways to question students that encourage total class involvement, deep thinking, and thoughtful responses that are based on textual evidence?

Enter Socratic Seminar.

Named after the Greek philosopher, Socratic Seminar is based on Socrates’ dialectic method of asking deep, probing questions to get to the root of an issue – to discover “truth”, so to speak. By using Socratic Seminars in our classrooms, we can get students involved in lively conversations – and we can get them to revisit texts and use the reading to support their claims. Best of all, most students enjoy Socratic Seminars and look forward to them. It’s a win-win for everyone!

How the Seminar Works

• First, seat students in an arrangement that promotes discussion. For instance, turn desks in a circle, sit on the floor facing each other, etc.

• The discussion should be based on a text that students have already read. (Hint: By choosing a text that is controversial or may be interpreted in multiple ways, you will increase your chances of promoting a spirited discussion.)

• Give students prior notice that they will take part in the seminar, and provide them with tools and suggestions for marking text (Post-its, highlighting, taking notes, etc.) so that they are better prepared when the discussion begins.

• Students are encouraged to respond to a question or raise their own questions and engage in a thoughtful discussion about the topic(s).

• The teacher facilitates by asking questions to begin the conversation and to further it; however, the ultimate goal is for the students to take ownership of the seminar. At the beginning of the year, more teacher involvement is typical (until students become comfortable with the format).

• Students are expected to listen attentively and contribute to the discussion by sharing their own insights, respectfully agreeing or disagreeing with a previous speaker, asking for clarification, and by citing evidence to support the students’ ideas and claims.

(Sources: “Socratic Circles”, from the Oregon Department of Education and “Socratic Seminars”)

Citing Textual Evidence

The Common Core emphasizes students’ ability to use text-based evidence to support their claims, as seen in the following two standards for Reading Literature and Reading Informational text:

“RL.6.1 and RI.6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (from corestandards.org).

By generating questions for the seminar that ask students to return to the text and use the information in the reading, they will address these critical standards while utilizing higher-order levels of thinking.

Samples

What kids of questions will promote this deep thinking? The following questions can be used to get started (and feel free to create your own ideas to add to this list):

• How do you know the character changed from the beginning to the end of the story?

• How does (insert an important line or quote) contribute to the meaning of the paragraph?

• How does this character compare with … (character from different text)?

• In what ways might this story have been different if it had taken place in the past?

• How well did the author support his/her position on this issue? Explain.

• What do you think the author’s purpose was in writing this article?

• What do you think … symbolizes? Why?

These question “stems” can be used when the conversation stalls – or if students aren’t revisiting the text:

• Can you give an example of…?

• Where do you find evidence for…?

• Can you clarify what you meant when you said…?

(from www.wordpress.com/socraticseminar)

Note that the majority of these questions encourage students to use the text in order to fully answer the question. Plus, the more you ask these questions, the more students will internalize them; who knows, within a few sessions, the students might start asking similar questions during the seminar!

If you’re interested in learning more about Socratic Seminars – or if you use them yourself, please comment below. There are many variations on how to manage a Socratic Seminar, and we’d love to hear how they work in your classroom.

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Julie Lyons