What is a Socratic seminar?
A Socratic seminar is a formal discussion (NOT a debate), based on a text(s), in which students ask open-ended questions and discuss answers to deepen their learning and understanding. Socrates, the Greek philosopher, believed that the answers to human questions and problems reside within us, but as mere mortals, we are unaware of the potential solutions within us. He believe that by through disciplined conversation, this was the best way to attain the answers we seek.
Within the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, think critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. It’s usually set up with an inner circle of students (participators) and outer circle (observers). The teacher steps back while the students lead discussion.
Why do Socratic seminar?
Holding a Socratic seminar gives your students a greater voice in the classroom and helps them discover new ideas within the context of your unit. According to the research in Visible Learning (2012) by John Hattie, the effect size for classroom discussion is 0.82! Compare this to the effect size of 0.59 for direct instruction.* It can make a huge impact on your students and their level of understanding.
*Many people consider effect sizes of +.3 or less to indicate a small impact on outcomes, +.4 to +.6 to represent moderate treatment effects, and +.70 or greater to indicate highly effective treatments.
When should I do a Socratic seminar?
A Socratic seminar can be used throughout a learning unit.
- Beginning of unit: Activate prior knowledge, introduce upcoming themes/concepts
- Middle of unit: Discuss text themes, formative assessment, text analysis, close reading
- End of unit: Summative assessment, come up with a solution to a problem
What is a hybrid Socratic Seminar vs. a traditional one?
A hybrid Socratic seminar has the same setup as traditional Socratic seminar, but students in the outer circle are having their own separate discussion online (instead of simply observing). It’s essentially two discussions happening simultaneously in your classroom, leading to total student engagement! **It’s absolutely important that your students have access to 1-to-1 technology.** It’s not a hybrid Socratic seminar otherwise! Individual student Chromebooks or iPads would work best.
A hybrid Socratic seminar generally takes two class periods of about 50 minutes. On the first day, students will read the text(s) and generate questions for the hybrid Socratic seminar (or students will have already read the text(s) in previous lessons). On the second day, the actual hybrid Socratic seminar is held.
Setup and Preparation
As a teacher you will need the following items. You can find all of the worksheets in the links provided in the next section:
- Copies of the text(s) students will be analyzing
- Several copies of the score sheet
- A copy of the grading rubric
It’s best if you center your hybrid Socratic seminar around a theme. This helps focus the discussion and students can generate more specific questions. For example, for one of the hybrid Socratic seminars we did in my 8th grade ELA classroom, we read “The Odyssey” and a nonfiction article on modern day heroes. It was used at the end of the unit as a summative assessment. The overall theme for our seminar was “What makes a hero?”
I usually divide my class of 28 students into three 8-9 student groups. Traditionally, you would split the class in half (two groups of 14 students or so). I like to have smaller groups, however, because it gives reluctant or shy students less “room to hide,” and forces them into the conversation more. You can decide how to divide your class however it will best serve your students’ needs. Each student group will discuss in “rounds” of 10-15 minutes, and then switch places. This process is repeated as needed.
Students will need the following documents. You can find all of these worksheets in the links provided below:
- Copies of the text students will be analyzing
- Copy of student preparation sheet
- Copy of question stems
- Copy of graphic organizer
- Copy of sentence starters
- Copy of grading rubric
Before Day 1: Technology Setup and Resources with Google Classroom
You will have to decide how to set up the online discussion piece of the hybrid Socratic seminar. I use the Google question “question” feature in Google classroom.
I create three “questions” (for each of my three groups). In order to enter the online discussion, students need to post one of the questions they generated. Once posted, they can post replies to other students’ questions.
Here’s what a sample Google classroom conversation looks like after a hybrid Socratic seminar.
Other Possible Technology Resources
Other technology resources I’ve used in the past include Todaysmeet.com and Chatzy.com. Both of these are free resources! However, they are definitely “real chatrooms.” When students type something in the box, their message appears instantly, and when several students are in the same chatroom, their message can get buried quickly. My students sometimes get frustrated with this.
In addition, there may be character limits in these chatrooms. For Todaysmeet.com, there is a 140 character limit, which can be frustrating when you are typing up a full explanation.
For both of these resources, students may need to create an appropriate username. You can decide whether they should use their real names or pseudonyms.
Definitely try out all of these recommended tech resources before you settle on the one that best suits the needs of your classroom. Personally, I still prefer to use Google classroom because you don’t deal with the issues of comments being buried or character limits. Of course, there are always new resources popping up online! These two sites are definitely not the only ones available!
*Make sure that these sites are unblocked on your school’s student network should you choose to use it!*
Day 1 Procedures:
- Explain how it works. Explain how hybrid Socratic seminar works to your students. Explain how to participate in the live inner discussion and the online discussion. Refer to the student preparation sheet and have students highlight important pieces. Emphasize to students that a hybrid Socratic seminar is a discussion of ideas, NOT a debate!
- Students generate questions. Students should generate questions based on the text they’ve read in the graphic organizer and the question stems sheet.
- Students practice online discussion, especially if it’s their first time with hybrid Socratic seminar. Put up a sample question on Google classroom, or create a practice chatroom on Todaysmeet.com or Chatzy.com. Students should remember to use professional language and avoid “text-speak,” slang, etc. Emphasize to students that you will have a running script of their discussion so they need to be mindful of what they’re typing!
- Optional: Select student facilitators. Student facilitators can be assigned to each group to moderate discussion The student facilitator’s job is to make sure everyone in the group has had an equal chance to speak, i.e. shut down students who are “hogging” discussion or bring in students who haven’t spoken yet. They also have to monitor the time left in the round and remind students of how much time is left. I have interested students fill out a piece of paper detailing to me why they would be a good fit for student facilitator, and I choose student facilitators based on what they wrote.
After Day 1:
It helps to create your student groups ahead of time. Separate students who are dominant speakers into different groups. Pick student facilitators for each group (mine are in yellow). Post it somewhere in your classroom on project it on the board.
Day 2 Procedures:
- Arrange desks. Before class starts, desks should be arranged in your classroom to create the inner circle.
- Gather materials: Students can bring their filled-out graphic organizer and sentence starters with them to the live discussion.
- Group 1 begins live while Group 2 begins online. Set the timer for 10-15 minutes, whatever you’ve decided initially.
- Score students in the live discussion. Focus your attention on the students in the “live” discussion. Record every time a student speaks and how they speak using the score sheet. See example below.
- Switch groups as many times needed. After the timer goes off, switch groups so that Group 2 is on the inner circle. Repeat steps 3-4.
- Written Reflection. After the hybrid Socratic seminar, you may choose to assign the written reflection for homework, or ask the students the questions in the reflection verbally.
After Day 2:
- Grade students using the rubric, the script of their online discussion, and your score sheets.
- Optional: Post your score sheets in the classroom so the students can see how they performed! It can be very revealing to students and will let them know how to improve.
- Record video of the students if they’re doing Socratic seminar for the first time and watch it the next lesson so the students can self-evaluate how they performed. Yes, it’s awkward for the students, but it can be incredibly revealing! I’ve also noticed that when I record the students, they’re usually on the top of their games!
- Assign “dominant speaker” students as your student facilitators (you know, the ones that always raise their hand in class!) Make them the ones to regulate the discussion. If they’re focused on other students, you’ll put their natural want to lead to work!
CDE Example Video Link
It might help to watch all of this visually before attempting to teach hybrid Socratic seminar in your class. I originally got the idea for hybrid Socratic seminar from a CDE (California Department of Education) video I watched while in an SBAC hand-scoring seminar. I took some of the tips explained by the teacher in the video, Mr. Matthew Cowan, and created these resources for my classroom as a result.
Hope this helps you lead your first hybrid Socratic seminar!