“Look mom, no hands!” While we know that’s a bit cliché, there is such a thing as a “no hands” classroom discussion. Imagine a conversational framework that doesn’t require students to raise their hands to talk but still results in high-level communication. This may sound too good to be true—but it’s not. In this post, we’ll cover how that level of communication can be achieved by exploring what Socratic seminars are, how they improve the quality of classroom conversation, and what they look like in a PhD Science® Texas classroom.
What Is a Socratic Seminar?
To put it plainly, a Socratic seminar is an instructional routine that engages students in collaborative discussion. The conversation is guided by open-ended questions that are centered around a shared experience, ranging from a shared text to a science investigation. In a Socratic seminar, students’ ideas take center stage; the teacher’s role is to serve as facilitator to keep the discussion on track and provide the intellectual spark that initiates conversation. As one might imagine, an effective Socratic seminar requires thoughtful structure and preparation. For students to fully engage in robust intellectual dialogue with one another, teachers must provide the structures that will set students up for success while acting as facilitators to initiate and sustain a student-led discussion. This work begins with establishing classroom norms for discussion that include active listening, polite disagreement, monitoring one’s own “airtime,” and a willingness to be challenged by one’s peers. In a PhD Science Texas classroom, students are accustomed to engaging in collaborative conversations guided by these norms, which allow for broad participation and deep discussion.
During the seminar, the teacher’s job is to provide students with open-ended questions related to the shared content as well as follow-up questions to elicit greater understanding, bring out different viewpoints, and draw out specifics on the given topic. These prompts could include asking a student to cite evidence for their thinking or requesting that they rephrase their response for increased clarity. As facilitators, teachers need to remain neutral in their verbal and nonverbal responses to student contributions. Students often look to their teacher for affirmation that they have the “right answer,” but in a Socratic seminar, students must remain in charge of the discussion and reach conclusions by listening to and challenging their peers’ ideas.
Students’ work during the seminar is simple but not necessarily easy: listening carefully to peers, responding to their ideas, posing new questions, making connections, and using evidence to support their claims. These high-level communication skills make for a robust discussion not only in science class but also across disciplines. As students learn to truly listen to and respect one another’s ideas, they grow as both individual thinkers and as members of a community of learners.
Why Use Socratic Seminars?
Each seminar is based on a rigorous question that pushes students’ thinking, allowing them to synthesize and extend their learning through exploration and debate. Students’ conversations go beyond summarizing learning from previous lessons and instead help them flex their cognitive muscles and sharpen their skills of providing evidence for their thinking. This carefully structured, student-led
learning reinforces academic content and community norms for collaborative discussion, which better prepares students to be the drivers of their learning throughout their academic lives. Additionally, when students participate in Socratic seminars, they strengthen their social-emotional skills. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines the five social-emotional competencies as social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Research has shown repeatedly that students who engage in and strengthen their social and emotional skills see greater academic achievement and enjoyment in school. Since the success of a Socratic seminar relies largely on the dynamics of the group, it naturally puts the focus on the community and challenges students to step up to the plate to support their classmates in this shared learning experience.
As this particular instructional routine requires verbal participation, it offers a fantastic opportunity for multilingual learners to practice their oracy, or speaking skills. When multilingual learners are invited to make contributions to the class conversation, they not only engage in language practice but also in the rigorous work of making complex ideas clear and coherent for their peers. In the context of science instruction, Socratic seminars center around shared experiences and knowledge that all students, regardless of language ability, have built collaboratively throughout the module. PhD Science Texas' multimodal approach to science instruction means that inclusion is at its core. By the time students who are learning the language of instruction participate in a Socratic seminar, they have had multiple exposures to the science content in the form of hands-on investigations and classroom activities.
How Does PhD Science Texas Leverage a Socratic Seminar?
At the end of each PhD Science Texas module, students participate in a Socratic seminar before taking the End-of-Module Assessment. To prepare for this seminar, students are prompted to respond to the module’s Essential Question individually before coming together with the whole class for a guided discussion. While Socratic seminars are typically framed around open-ended discussion, the Teacher Edition outlines questions that teachers can pose to students throughout the seminar to spur additional conversation and keep the focus on the core content of the module.
After completing the End-of-Module Assessment, students engage in one more lesson to cap off the module. In this final lesson, students review the End-of-Module Assessment, discuss responses, and then revise their answers, using evidence from the rubric to inform their revisions. While students begin this work independently, they also engage in a class discussion as they review assessment responses together. Although not a formal Socratic seminar, this final class session draws upon the groundwork for civil and productive academic discourse that was established during the Socratic seminar. Through this review and revision process, students practice thinking collaboratively and, as a result, benefit from one another’s newly acquired science skills and knowledge.
Collaborative conversations are happening in your classroom every day, and Socratic seminars provide intentional structure for productive student-to-student discourse. Socratic seminars provide a space in which students are encouraged to bounce around ideas and build on each other’s thinking without having to raise their hands and wait to be acknowledged. One key to a successful seminar is making sure it fosters a truly collaborative environment where your students can speak freely. If you’re looking for additional support with your Socratic seminars, reach out to our team at email@example.com. We’re here to help. And remember to stay chatty!
Angle: building community with Socratic Seminars and how students leverage the 5 SEL skills by engaging in a Socratic seminar
“Discussions are important classroom tools—and those that focus on science in society have the potential to interest and engage students. However, a conversation can quickly veer out of control if expectations are not clearly set by the teacher and if the discussion is not structured appropriately. This article describes the use of Socratic Seminars, which provide a constructive format for discussion and help facilitate a spirit of shared inquiry among students as they discover meaning in a given text.”
Mostly about how to set it up. Includes a participation rubric.
Socratic Seminars for emerging bilingual students—would not recommend linking to this for a host of reasons but we can still get ideas while we find another source
WIDA can-do descriptors