What are Socratic Seminars?
Socratic Seminars are a highly motivating form of intellectual and scholarly discourse conducted in K-12 classrooms. They usually range from 20-45 minutes–longer if time allows–once a week.Socratic Seminars grew out of the early work of Mortimer Adler and the Great Books program. The National Paideia Center continues today to promote socratic discussions in the form of Paideia seminars.
An effective Socratic Seminar creates dialogue as opposed to debate. Dialogue creates “better conversation.” As William Issacs states in Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, dialogue is a conversation in which people (students) think together in relationship. Thinking together implies that you no longer take your own position as final. You relax your grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others—possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred.” The practice of Socratic Seminars teaches students to recognize the differences between dialogue and debate and to strive to increase the qualities of dialogue and reduce the qualities of debate in each Socratic Seminar.
Elements of a Socratic Seminar
- The Text - A seminar text can be drawn from readings in literature, history, science, math, health, and philosophy or from works of art or music. Touchstones Discussion Project are the leaders in the publication of outstanding text selections. Contact Oscar Graybill directly for purchasing options.
- The Question - An opening question has no right answer; instead it reflects a genuine curiosity on the part of the leader. An effective opening question leads participants back to the text as they speculate, evaluate, define, and clarify the issues involved. Responses to the opening question generate new questions from the leader and participants, leading to new responses. In this way, the line of inquiry evolves on the spot rather than being predetermined by the leader.
- The Leader – In a Socratic Seminar, the leader plays a dual role as leader and participant. The seminar leader consciously demonstrates habits of mind that lead to a thoughtful exploration of the ideas in the text. As a seminar participant, the leader actively engages in the group’s exploration of the text.
- The Participants – In a Socratic Seminar, participants share with the leader the responsibility for the quality of the seminar. Effective seminars occur when participants study the text closely in advance, listen actively, share their ideas and questions in response to the ideas and questions of others, and search for evidence in the text to support their ideas.