Socratic seminars have been an effective teaching strategy for years – I’m guessing since the time of Socrates!
The format is simple: the students lead a discussion with questions they have generated themselves. The teacher stays out of the way. They discuss a question until no one else has anything to say. Then another students offers up another question and the process begins again. Most of the time not everyone gets to ask a question. I’ve had Socratics where only three questions were asked because the discussion was so rich.
Socratic seminars are great because they are entirely student led and don’t require much prep. It’s also pretty easy to figure out who understands the topic. One big drawback, though, is that they aren’t the easiest to grade. Most teachers I know require a certain number of responses from each student – either questions or answers. Still, it can be hard if you have students who like to talk and monopolize the conversation. Another problem is when you have a class that’s largely introverted – it can be tough to get a discussion going with reluctant talkers. Still another problem is when you have a class that’s too large to effectively have one discussion.
However, every time I do a Socratic seminar I vow to do them more often. Here are a few things to try next to you do one that might just make them work better for you.
Assign a group grade.
A lot of my students don’t like how they are assessed individually. Sometimes I give them a group grade instead. How well did the group do? Finish up with a discussion about this based on criteria that you’ve created.
Have the students create the rubric.
Students should know what a good discussion looks like. Have them develop the criteria by which they will be judged. Trust me, they’ll come up with what you want: good participation, respect, good questions, etc. I focus almost exclusively on what I should see and hear when a good discussion is happening.
Or don’t grade it at all!
Just use it as a formative assessment. I don’t grade every class discussion we have, so Socratic seminars don’t have to be any different.
Have them generate questions in groups.
When I assign a group grade I’m not necessarily looking for everyone to provide a certain number of questions or answers. I like to make sure everyone participates by having them generate questions in small groups of two or three. That way those who find Socratic seminars intimidating can still participate by helping create good questions. I also get better questions that way.
Preview the questions to make sure you get good ones.
I don’t like to go into a Socratic seminar without knowing what questions kids are going to ask. I tell the small groups to come up with five questions and I help them narrow it down to two or three that I think are good. Between generating the rubric and developing questions I spend a period planning the discussion for the next day.
Dump the fishbowl.
The fishbowl technique is one way to get the groups down to a manageable size – half the classes discuss while the other watches and then they switch. The problem is when the two groups are talking about the same thing the second group will find that the first group already talked about a lot of what they wanted to discuss and it becomes repetitive.
I take my kids to the media center and run two Socratic seminars at the same time. I spend two minutes listening in on one group and then switch to the other group for another two minutes. Trust me: you’ll still get a good sense of what’s going on, and if you aren’t grading it, there’s no reason you can’t do this.
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