Top ten reasons to teach with Socratic seminar

10) Engagement

A well-structured Socratic seminar, and the learning that leads up to it, helps keep students excited and engaged in learning. Classroom discussion has a .82 effect size on John Hattie’s “list of influences on achievement” because dialogue itself is engaging. It gives students opportunities to interact with one another that are sometimes rare in classes.

9) Scaffolding

Most of us scaffold work for students so that they have incremental steps to take in order to achieve a goal (note: you can over-scaffold – think of how annoying really shallow steps are). The steps that culminate in a Socratic seminar support skills in close reading, inquiry and question writing, short written responses, small group discussion, and even text selection.

8) Inquiry

Questioning has an effect size of .48. When students have the opportunity to dive deeper, through posing open-ended questions, they usually become more attached to a subject. The Question Formulation Technique supports the process of asking questions – these questions can become the discussion questions or the seminar or be used and investigated at any point in the learning.

7) Differentiation of tasks

Educators have students with a wide-range of abilities in classes. Differentiating tasks that lead to a Socratic seminar helps ensure that individual needs are met and that student small groups have diverse resources to support preliminary discussion (aka coaching groups). The diversity of experiences makes seminars rich – not agreeing creates more productive discussion.

6) Close reading

Socratic seminar depends on students reading and understanding a text in order to discuss aspects of the text with others. Teaching close reading, a skill that is essential to success in other classes as well, is a vital scaffold. Using annotation to get students to cue into what they think and feel, not to mention what they say, is engaging and helps support other learning.

5) Argument

Reading closely and answering authentic questions through inquiry supports students as they learn to build arguments. Being able to cite text in order to support an opinion (kind of like I did above when I cited Hattie) is a necessary skills to getting ready for college and careers. Supporting an opinion with text evidence makes seminars an academic task that goes beyond a regular old class discussion of a topic.

4) Analysis and Synthesis

Socratic seminars require analysis of at least one text, but bringing together multiple texts, and discussing them together, requires synthesis skills. This means more prep time leading up to the seminar but the combining of texts is extremely dynamic and the takes students have on those ideas will make you proud. Often discussion is a great way to build skills in analyzing and synthesizing because students get to hear from their peers and learn how others approach complex topics, making students engage rather than just comply, with tasks.

3) Change it up!

Your Socratic seminar does not have to look the same every time. You can use the Harkness method (this provides students clear & high expectations, an effect size of 1.44), a fishbowl discussion, open chair, BRAWL, and any number of other techniques. Changing up your approach keeps things fresh for students and helps to differentiate instruction to include more students. Find methods that challenge students and methods that embrace them – they may be the same method!

2) Build relationships

In some classes, but especially large classes, students might go a whole year without knowing one another’s names. Socratic seminar can require that students respond directly to classmates (making nameplates for desks/tables helps) so that, over time, they learn the names of students who sit across the room or are in different cliques. The discussion itself can assist in building connections and empathy for others, not to mention help the teacher know the students in order to better meet their needs over time.

And, the NUMBER ONE reason to use Socratic seminar? It meets ALL the standards

When I look through my “Skinnied” CCSS I can see that seminar, and the tasks that build to seminar or extend it further (like using the questions for research), meets every. single. standard.

These are my Skinny Standards paint sticks – at the end of a PL session we used them to reflect on what seminar could do for student learning

What’s your favorite reason for using Socratic seminar in classroom instruction? Or, what’s stopping you?


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