Building discussion skills through Socratic Seminar

Engaged, on-topic…and talking over each other?

Here’s a scenario: student book groups.  Everyone’s read their assigned chapters and prepared for their meeting. The group gathers to begin their discussion.  Except what happens is this: the first question is posed, and instead of listening to one another they all begin talking at once, leaving little spaces for each other. No one appears to be listening to what anyone else says. It’s as if they’re all delivering simultaneous soliloquies.

or

The group meets and begins “discussing”, yet each student’s response is directed right at you – the teacher, as if the other students aren’t there at all. They are merely performing for you.

Sound familiar?

woman is giving a presentation
Marisa Kiefaber shares her Socratic Seminar work at Dynamic Landscapes, 2019.

Scaffolding discussion skills

Many of us have observed this phenomenon:  prepared, enthusiastic, and engaged students who haven’t yet built the conversation skills they’ll need in life.  When I came across this situation in my fifth-grade classroom this year, I remembered a technique I’d been introduced to in my teacher education program: the Socratic Seminar.

Enter: Socratic Seminar

In case you are not familiar with the technique (or you’ve never seen Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), a Socratic Seminar is a formal, student-led, content-focused discussion in which students engage in conversations about their learning with their peers. Socratic Seminars provide students with opportunities to practice and improve transferable skills, such as clear and effective communication and responsible and involved citizenship, and self-direction.

Would it work in fifth-grade?

Yes: your ten-year-old students can engage in a successful Socratic Seminar discussion.  But it takes some carefully laid groundwork.

Community as the foundation

A strong classroom community is the foundation of, well, everything that’s good.  I began the year slowly and with explicit expectations about everything: from how to sharpen a pencil to how to raise your hand.  Being crystal clear about expectations takes the pressure off students. When they know exactly how to do something they worry less about feeling awkward and can instead focus on being engaged.

We also spent a lot of time sharing with each other and making connections through personal interactions.  These two practices helped us gel together as a community. Once things were moving along relatively smoothly, I knew we were ready to try a Socratic Seminar.

Setting the stage

There are so many ways you can do prepare students for this experience. Essentially students need to know what a Socratic Seminar is, why you’re going to do one, and what that will look like and sound like.

In my classroom, we did this in three stages.

Build background knowledge

To introduce the concept of Socratic Seminars, I used a Prezi to introduce the Socratic Seminar. The original version by Tiana Fox was intended for a high school audience so I adapted the language and formatting to fit the needs of my classes.

The overview included key details, such as Highlights of the Prezi include:

  • The definition of a Socratic Seminar
  • Who Socrates was
  • How the classroom will be set up? Classroom Setup
  • How to speak & use evidence

We also watched a video of other students engaging in a Socratic Seminar and analyzed it together.  This helped my students get a sense of what it looked like, and what to expect.

Map out a plan

Once we knew what a Socratic Seminar was and how it worked, we began to map out what it would look like in our class.  We decided to do a fishbowl-style seminar, with students sitting in two concentric circles. The inside circle would be engaging in a Socratic discussion, while the outside circle would serve as peer observers, offering feedback to their classmates. To get this rolling, we carefully laid out the different roles of the inside and outside circles.  Then we practiced each role.

Giving (& getting) feedback

Students taking a turn in the outside circle would be responsible for giving feedback to a partner in the inside circle. Then they would switch roles. To prepare, I created a peer observation sheet and we practiced using it.  This scaffolding prepared each student for success.

Socratic Seminar Observation form

In addition to peer observations, I used a checklist to keep track of each students’ participation. The observation sheet and this checklist help me assess each student’s role in the seminar.

Co-create the expectations

I also engaged my students in creating rules and expectations to follow during the Socratic Seminar. Co-creating rules and expectations together increased student buy-in and helped students feel empowered. We revisit these expectations each time we prepare for a new Socratic Seminar, and at the end we reflect on what went well (a ‘Plus’) and what needs to change (a ‘Delta’) next time.  Returning to this planning and reflecting loop gives students a chance to improve.

Plan the launch

We also agreed together on how to begin each discussion. With a little guidance, my students decided that each book club group should have a chance to share the title and author of their book and a short summary. This gave my students a chance to ease into unfamiliar territory before diving into questions and engaging in free form conversations.

Finally, to scaffold and set each student up for success, we brainstormed a list of sentence starters and posted it as a resource for students to refer to during the discussion.  This chart was extremely helpful in giving students the confidence they needed to fully participate.


Dive in!

At some point, you have to stop preparing and just dive in. So we did! And it was a roaring success.

At first it was a little awkward, as students were still a little unsure how to proceed.  Many were looking to me to get them going. But I stuck to my role of observer, and eventually, one brave student got the ball rolling.

Once kids got in the groove it flourished! So much so that when reflecting on their first Socratic Seminar, a majority of the students asked for an even longer discussion time.

They loved it

These discussions were full of rich conversation, deep thinking, and respectful and responsive interactions. I was extremely impressed with the students’ abilities to create connections between their novels and other texts while tying in takeaways from our Social Studies units.

Students even used the sentence starters to politely draw quieter classmates into the conversation and build on each other’s comments.  This deep, inclusive, respectful communication is one of the most valuable skills we can teach our students.

Reflecting and improving

In addition to peer and teacher feedback, we’ve even videotaped and critiqued ourselves in our pursuit of improvement.  This has been a powerful way to reflect and improve the quality of discussion. We return to our ‘Plus, Delta’ reflection chart to note both what went well and what needs improvement.  

And it’s working!

Some students felt that they did not have an opportunity to participate as much as they wanted. As we dug a little deeper into that reflection, students recognized that when individuals speak too much it can be harmful to a discussion because it does not allow all perspectives to be shared. We continue to be aware of and work on for the remainder of the year both in our next Socratic Seminar and in our classroom.

Transfer-able skills

The Socratic Seminar discussion model has proven to be quite portable.  The fifth graders built the skills to engage in student-led Socratic Seminars in my Humanities class, but with a little work and cross-subject collaboration, they have been able to replicate the model in other classes.  

First, their art teacher brought the model to her class to engage in critique of both famous works and their own pieces. This has led to a collaboration between the art department and sixth grade using the model in an interdisciplinary unit on the American Revolution.  

Building these skills with students is a worthy investment of time and can be shared across classrooms.

How do you use Socratic Seminars in your classroom?

Marisa Kiefaber, Emily Hoyler

Marisa teaches 5th grade humanities at Rutland Town School in the Greater Rutland Central Supervisory Union (GRCSU) of Vermont. One of her many educational interests is connecting students with meaningful and engaging learning opportunities.

What do you think?