Charles Ames Fischer

Teacher Author Consultant Mentor

Socratic Seminar

"In teaching it is the method and not the content that is the message...

the drawing out, not the pumping in." ~ Ashley Monatgu

What is a Socratic Seminar?

Socratic Seminar, or shared inquiry, is a structured classroom practice that promotes critical and creative thinking, intellectual curiosity, collaboration, and scholarly habits of mind. The main goal of Socratic Seminar is to build deep conceptual understandings of texts and ideas, where the word "text" is used loosely to refer to a piece of writing, visual art, music, movement, etc. In seminar, the teacher shifts his or her role to that of facilitator or questioner, so that the students can move from passive reception of knowledge to actively constructing meaning and understanding. They will build on others’ ideas, cite the text, ask questions and voice their own opinions. With practice, the students become self-sufficient and together they can tackle even the most challenging texts. 

Participants in Socratic Seminar are meant to engage in dialogue, which is different than both debate or discussion. Debates and discussions are both fine practices and they have their own goals and purposes. Debates are typically characterized by two sides in oppositional or competitive roles, where each team attempts to prove their entrenched view. Dialogue is characterized by a cooperative atmosphere, where all of the participants attempt to work together to form greater shared understandings. Classroom discussions often look similar, but they are typically meant to broaden a topic, whereas Socratic Seminars are meant to deepen. There is a wonderful presentation on dialogue by Professor Neil Mercer here

How do Socratic Seminars address school standards or requirements?

It may seem hard to believe, but Socratic Seminars work well with nearly every local, state or federal educational standard, including the Common Core State Standards. This is very simply because communication, which is at the heart of almost every subject, has four components: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. A quick and simple look at each of these will show that Socratic Seminars can be used to meet just about any standard, no matter the subject or grade level.

Reading

Participants of seminars learn how to read more deeply and effectively for many purposes. They are able to read critically by actively engaging with texts and constructing meaning from numerous perspectives. Comprehension and fluency will soar as students become confident in their abilities to engage with  difficult material.

Writing

Students write with more sophistication, depth and thoughtfulness after engaging in Socratic Seminars. Because they are involved in dialogues with their peers, they are able to draw from numerous ideas as the seminar group constructs a deeper conceptual understanding.

Listening

Students who frequently participate in Socratic Seminars build effective listening skills because dialogue depends on participation from all members. Seminar students actively listen to their peers in order to better understand and appreciate others and to clarify their own thoughts and ideas. By listening effectively, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Speaking

By some accounts (Ball & Brewer Socratic Seminar in the Block), teachers talk up to 97% of the time, leaving just 3% divided amongst the students. In Socratic Seminar, the percentages switch because the teacher transitions to the role of facilitator. Students, therefore, have valuable speaking time to practice diction, eloquence, pronunciation, justifying and clarifying their ideas and more. 

What are the components of a Socratic Seminar?

Although many websites list only four elements for Socratic Seminars, there really are six distinct components that must be considered. The pre-seminar is where students prepare the text, usually by annotating it in advance with questions and thoughts. The text is a generic term for whatever material is being used for the seminar, usually a piece of writing. The facilitator is the leader of the seminar, someone who typically just asks questions. This person is often a teacher, but can be another student. Questions are a vital component to any seminar because they create genuine dialogue that emerges from student interest and curiosity. The students or participants of Socratic Seminar must work together to cooperatively construct meaning. The post-seminar is for reflecting and debriefing the seminar experience so that the next one can be even better. 

How do the participants benefit?

There are many benefits to Socratic Seminar, or shared inquiry, in addition to those listed above under reading, writing, listening, and speaking. I have been collecting student and teacher reflections for years and couldn't possibly list them all, but here are some of the major benefits. Also, make sure to read how Socratic Seminars address the Common Core State Standards.

Students

The students get to engage in challenging philosophical or intellectual conversations, often for the first time in their lives. Accompanying this is a sense of confidence and pride as they get excited by the big ideas of life. Students become more curious as they quickly realize most things do not have simple, textbook answers. They develop wonder and begin to hunger for proof and rigor. They extend themselves, become better at reasoning with language, and practice habits of mind or scholarly dispositions. To put it succinctly, they meet their future selves.

Teachers

Because teachers must transition to the role of facilitator or questioner, they immediately gain precious time to observe their students and reflect on their needs. As the students dialogue, teachers can track data that will help to create grades, write narratives, or otherwise give feedback to the students. This reflective practice will lead to amazing personal growth and professional development as more and more questions arise about how to help each and every student. This then leads to differentiation, authentic assessment and many other ideas that are often considered "best practices" in the field of education. 

What professional development trainings are available?

I currently offer three Socratic Seminar workshops that each can vary in thoroughness depending on how much time we have to work. All three workshops include my training manual that has over a decade's worth of materials that I have coveted and created. Please contact me for details, pricing, recommended reading or with any questions regarding these or other trainings. Also, see the professional development section of the website for more details.

Introduction to Socratic Seminar / Shared Inquiry

This initial 1 or 2 day workshop will go through the six components of Socratic Seminar and how they work together as an organic whole. This introduction will include important elements, such as grading and evaluating seminars, teaching mini-lessons, stages of group process, and more.

Intermediate Socratic Seminar / Shared Inquiry

This is for teachers who have a working understanding of the component parts and have tried several seminars on their own. The intermediate workshop will add important elements, such as additional facilitator roles, various student roles and responsibilities and more. 

Advanced Socratic Seminar / Shared Inquiry

The advanced seminar is for teachers who have led dozens of seminars and wish to move toward deeper and more meaningful dialogue. This advanced workshop will introduce many new ideas involving inquiry and interesting action research possibilities, such as: Do the compass directions affect student participation?

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What is your favorite book of all time?

Mystery Box

The word facetious has all five vowels (in order too) and facetiously even includes the letter 'y'. What other words contain all five vowels?

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    Headmaster, Sparhawk School lstilphen@sparhawkschool.com

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