Socratic Seminars: Text-originated Discussions, Issues-based Conversations

There are far too few Socratic dialogues in our world today and yet these types of dialogues date back to ancient Greece, with the philosopher Socrates. There are probably a number of reasons that Socratic dialogues are not used more often. First, they are interpersonally demanding. It is much easier to be right than to engage contrary ideas, building a common understanding. Second, they require consistent engagement. Socratic dialogues can’t be done over emails, texts, Tweets, or Facebook messaging; they require too much nuanced involvement. Finally, they can be dangerous. As Socrates himself found out, pushing people’s comfort level even in intellectual endeavors can be hazardous to one’s health.  These reasons seem to be short-sighted, however, especially if we want students to be collaborative (a goal that many business owners are looking for in their employees) and civil (a goal of democratic education but one that is so rarely seen in our legislatures today… especially Congress).

So, why are Socratic Seminars important to our work in schools and our focus on constructivism? Socratic Seminars enable students to expand the number of texts for each discussion by bringing their own personal experiences more fully into dialogues about past, present, and future issues. In this short video, I argue that Socratic Seminars are similar to but different from Text-based Discussion in some important ways. With Socratic Seminars, teachers can push students to think more critically about issues than if they were to simply produce their own understanding. They force students to reconcile not just the meanings of various, often-removed authors but also the meanings of the people sitting right next to them, via students’ own, unique experiences. Thus, Socratic Seminars are most effective when they encourage students to manage controversy in an informed way, a skill that they will need no matter what they go on to do with their lives.

Although Socratic Seminars are often used in English and social studies classes, they can also be effective in math and science classes. In addition, there are different models of how to organize Socratic Seminars. For example, one teacher might have the class as a whole engage in the dialogue while another might only ask representatives to engage. I’ve also seen teachers engage students in a Fishbowl activity, where students in the center “fishbowl” are observed having a Socratic Seminar while the “outside” observers monitor the participants’ logic and reflect of their dialogue.

No matter how you develop your Socratic Seminar, be sure to (1) select an engaging, authentic, relevant, and complex question/topic for consideration, (2) provide students with a similarly engaging text that is rich in detail and nuance, (3) provide ground rules for the discussion, (4) an appropriate organizing structure for dialogue management, and (5) a time/way to assess closure of the dialogue.