Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What is a Socratic Seminar?

A Socratic Seminar is a method of engaging a group of people in a quest for deeper learning and deeper understanding through the use of civil discourse and dialogue.

Some of the characteristics of a Socratic Seminar are that the participants sit in a circle, so that they can see each other and talk to each other. The instructor is less an instructor and more of a facilitator. I will say more about this later. Another characteristic is that the participants do not raise their hands to speak but wait their turn to speak and allow each other a space in which to speak. One last characteristic, although there are more, is that the dialogue centers around a text. A seminar is not a wide open forum or bull session, a place for the free expression of any opinion that pops into anyone's head. The dialogue has to be focused on the text. Comments made are grounded in the text.

The teacher/facilitator does not participate in the dialogue. He keeps his thoughts to himself. Instead he uses questions to stimulate thinking--inviting others into the dialogue by asking them if they agree or disagree, asking questions challenging participants to clarify what they have already said, and directing participants to support their statements with references to the text. The participants may or may not have an objective for engaging in the seminar, but either way, it is the facilitator's duty to help them get where they are going.

A teacher in a workshop once said to me, "But you can't do a seminar every day." I couldn't agree more. In fact, if a teacher has one method that he uses every day, then that teacher is definitely not doing a good job teaching. Period. No, you can't use seminars every day and you should not. But knowing how to do a Socratic Seminar is one excellent tool that every teacher can use once a week or once every two weeks--at any opportunity to get students to engage in deeper learning and higher order thinking.

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