Class discussions, although rewarding in the exchange of ideas if they go well, can also be difficult to navigate.
There is the problem of discussions being too controlled and structured, the conversation revolving around a set of pre-formulated discussion questions, which could create boredom and trailing off too soon. On the other hand, there is the equally troublesome problem of the discussion turning into a free-for-all, with students shouting out answers, interrupting each other, and so forth. One method to avoid both problems and teach students the elements of courteous and thoughtful exchange is the Socratic Seminar.
What is the Socratic Seminar? Simply put, the Socratic Seminar is the thoughtful exchange of ideas on a topic or question, typically, put forth by the teacher (hence the term “Socratic question”). Students contribute their ideas on the topic and interact with each other as well. The exchange can easily take up an entire session, if things go well, as students engage in an intellectual discussion, extending knowledge, learning different perspectives, utilizing critical thinking skills, and developing academic vocabulary.
The trouble lies in leading the discussion into going well. The Socratic Seminar does not just happen—students have to be trained in the method, the topics have to be chosen with care, and students prepare for the discussion.
However, all of these skills in an intellectual exchange can be taught.
10 Strategies for Teaching the Socratic Seminar
Teach the Language of Courteous Intellectual Exchange
Skills needed for the Socratic Seminar are politely stating one’s own position or ideas on a topic, including others in the exchange, recognizing but politely disagreeing with someone else, actively listening, agreeing to disagree, conceding a point, and so forth. Establish early a set of ground rules and principles of how to engage in polite discussion.
Teach Students the Language of Academic Discourse and of Intellection Exchange
One of the problems students face in a class discussion, beyond not knowing what to say, is how to say it. The must have not only the language of the particular topic but also of academia in general: how to raise an issue, extend it, follow up on another student’s comments, question a student about a point, give examples, circle back to a prior point, draw the discussion to a close, and so forth. Explicitly teach this language through handouts, modeling, and feedback on its use.
Teach Students the Interaction and Language of the Discipline
Sometimes students have a lot to say but don’t know how to say it. Recently two students in my class were discussing the new Batman/Superman film, not in itself remarkable, but what was impressive was that they were using the language of film criticism: “backstory,” “plot climax,” and “character arc,” for example. Just by use of this language, they had elevated what would otherwise be an everyday discussion of a movie into a serious analysis of a film and its genre. Indeed, there is a body of research and scholarship on film in general and on its different genres, including the superhero genre. Teach students the language of the discipline when preparing for discussion in that discipline through explicit instruction and readings.
Prepare for the Discussion ahead of Time
Students should have read the material and should come to class with some points of discussion. Short pop quizzes before the discussion will help to ensure that they come to class prepared.
Choose Topics with Care
Or better yet, let students choose their own topics. Students will then be more interested in and likely to participate in class activities if they feel ownership of the topics of discussion.
Base the Topics on Interesting Readings and Materials
Match the readings with student background and interest. For example, it’s very hard, and takes a lot of work on the part of the teacher, to get students to respond in discussion to George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” The context of early twentieth century British colonial Burma is too foreign for them. However, students often take extreme interest and readily respond to Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” as its topics of growing up in a bilingual family and linguistic diversity in the United States are very familiar to them.
Consider Media Outside of Reading to Base Discussion On
Reading material is not the only valid basis of class discussion. Sometimes news clips, such as Obama’s speech on the capture and execution of Osama bin Laden, or even music videos, like Dixie Midnight Runner’s “Come On, Eileen,” can be raise interesting points of discussion: the subtext and purpose of Obama’s speech; the nonstandard Irish English dialect of the singers, and the themes of love, commitment, and social justice that run through the video.
Write an All-encompassing Topic/Question on the Board
“What do you think of the speech?” or “Discuss nonstandard dialects and their use.” Let students engage in the topic. Let the students go. Don’t intervene or interrupt. Employ wait time; don’t step in and respond yourself unless it is last resort. Once students know the rules of academic discussion and have developed background knowledge on an engaging topic, they are willing and able to engage in intellectual discussion.
Step in as Last Resort
When necessary however, when the discussion appears to be foundering, step in and prompt students to use the language of discussion that they have learned: for example, “Can anyone follow up on that?” “Would anyone disagree?” Then step back; this encourages students to use the language of intellectual exchange to carry on the discussion themselves.
Know When to Close
After a certain time—and often it can take the entire class period—the discussion appears to be trailing off, the same points repeated, students falling silent as they run out of things to say. It is at this point the discussion is ready to come to a close. Again, model and teach students the language of closing by asking for final thoughts, raising issues that didn’t get addressed fully, summing up, and so forth.
The Socratic Seminar is both simple and complex, as many art forms are. The topics raised are deceptively simple, carrying potential for extended discussion and use of intellectual exchange. Students must be trained in the method, but this tradition of academic discussion will serve them throughout their college careers and beyond.