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Introduction to Socratic Seminar

Introduction to Socratic Seminar Foundations I                          P. Lee-Muratori

The Texts:

     Socratic Seminar texts are chosen for their richness in ideas, issues, values and their ability to stimulate extended, thoughtful dialogue.  A seminar text can be drawn from readings in literature, history, science, math, health, and philosophy or from works of art or music.  A good text raises important questions in the participants' minds, questions for which there are no right or wrong answers.  At the end of a successful Socratic Seminar, participants often leave with more questions than they brought with them.

The Question:

     A Socratic Seminar opens with a question either posed by the leader or solicited from participants as they acquire more experience.  An opening question has no right answer; instead, it reflects a genuine curiosity on the part of the questioner.  A good opening question leads participants back to the test as they speculate, evaluate, define, and clarify the issues involved.  In this way, the line of inquiry in a Socratic Seminar evolves on the spot rather than being predetermined by the leader or teacher.

The Leader:

     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 by keeping the discussion focused on the text, asking follow-up questions, helping participants clarify their positions when arguments become confused, off-topic, or vaguely subjective, and involving reluctant participants while restraining their more vocal peers.  As a seminar participant, the leader actively engages in the group's exploration of the text.  To do this effectively, the leader must know the text well enough to anticipate varied interpretations and recognize important possibilities in each.  The leader must also be patient enough to allow participants' understandings to evolve and be willing to help participants explore non-traditional insights and unexpected interpretations.  

The Participants:

     The participants carry the burden of responsibility for the quality of the seminar.  Good seminars occur when participants study the texts 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 interpretations and ideas.  Participants acquire good seminar behaviors through practice and reflection.  After each seminar, the leader and participants will discuss their experiences and identify ways of improving the next seminar.  Before each seminar, the teacher will offer coaching and practice in specific habits of mind that will improve reading, thinking, listening, and discussing.  Eventually, when participants realize that the leader is not simply looking for the "right" answer, but is encouraging them to think aloud and to exchange ideas openly, they will discover the excitement of exploring important issues through shared inquiry.

The Steps: 

Pre Seminar

Teacher Steps:

A) Select a piece of text or literature that encourages critical thinking skills or relates to a topic you are studying.

B) Generate a few open-ended questions that will help the students to think about some aspect of the topic in new or creative ways.

C) Model close reading , annotating a text, and developing open-ended questions before students read their own seminar text.

Student Steps:

A) Read the selected material carefully.

B) Make notes and highlight important parts. (Be sure to note specific examples or parts that are of interest to you.)

C) State your view points and form a few open-ended questions relating to the text.

D) Familiarize yourself with the Guidelines for Participants in a Socratic Seminar.

E.)  Bring your notes and books to the class for the seminar.


1. Have the students sit in a circle within a circle. Only the students in the inside circle participate in the dialogue.  The outside circle observes.

2. The leader poses an open-ended question related to the text to initiate dialogue.

3. Students begin to respond to the question supporting their answers with examples from the text.

4. Students should also paraphrase other students for clarification and ask additional questions to continue deeper exploration.  Students are NOT assessed based on how many times they talk.  Instead, points will be given for:  Elaborating (giving specific textual support), Scaffolding (bringing the discussion to a higher, less personal opinion level), Challenging ( in a nonthreatening way), Rephrasing (restating when a peer is confused), Refocusing (requestioning when a peer/discussion is off-topic), Summarizing, Consolidating, and Helping a struggling peer to enter the discussion.  Students can also:

  • Ask the last speaker to clarify or explain an idea

  • Ask other students to respond or build upon the idea

  • Deepen the discussion by asking students to consider:

  •      cause and effect

  •       compare and contrast

  •       benefits and burdens

  •       take a different view

  •      react to counter example

  •      apply to different situation

  •      relate to personal experience

  •      Invite new ideas

  •      Solicit questions for the group to consider or to be considered later

Important Points to Consider:

•    The leader acts as a facilitator to remind students of the dialogue guidelines, to direct them back to the text, or to offer a personal viewpoint about the text.

•    The seminars should only be 20-30 minutes.

•    Allow students to pass if they wish.

•    Moments of silence are good indicators of student thinking.

•    Teach and help students to disagree in a way that continues the dialogue, not in a way that seems combative or the work of a "devils advocate."

                Guidelines for Participants in a Socratic Seminar

1.      Refer to the text when needed during the discussion. A seminar is not a test of memory. You are not "learning a subject"; your goal is to understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in the text.

2.      It's OK to "pass" when asked to contribute; however, you can't pass every time.

3.      Do not participate if you are not prepared. A seminar should not be a bull session.

4.      Do not stay confused; ask for clarification.

5.      Stick to the point currently under discussion; make notes about ideas you want to come back to.

6.      Don't raise hands; take turns speaking.  You need to observe others closely to do this well.

7.      Listen carefully.

8.    Speak up so that all can hear you.

9.    Talk to each other, not just to the leader or teacher.

10.    Discuss ideas rather than each other's opinions.

11.   You are responsible for the seminar, even if you don't know it or admit it.

Follow Up Discussions

•    Allow the students to discuss their feelings regarding the process.

•    Brainstorm other themes relevant to the text.

Follow Up Activities

Follow up activities could be a quick write about new thoughts, ideas, or understandings they've reached about the text.

•    Ask the students to share what they learned and/or observed in a reflection.

•    Invite other students or parents in to the classroom to observe and comment on the process.

  Grading Rubric: 


Excellent (A range)

Good (B Range)

Fair (C Range)

Unsatisfactory (D-F Range)


Demonstrates respect for the learning process; has patience with different opinions and complexity; shows initiative by asking others for clarification: brings others into the conversation, moves the conversation forward; speaks to all of the participants; avoids talking too much.

Generally shows composure but may display impatience with contradictory or confusing ideas; comments, but does not necessarily encourage others to participate; may tend to address only the teacher or get into debates.

Participates and expresses a belief that his/her ideas are important in understanding the text; may make insightful comments but is either too forceful or too shy and does not contribute to the progress of the conversation; tends to debate, not dialogue.

Displays little respect for the learning process; argumentative; takes advantage of minor distractions; uses inappropriate language; speaks to individuals rather than ideas; arrives unprepared without notes, pencil/pen or perhaps even without the text.







Understands question before answering; cites evidence from text; expresses thoughts in complete sentences; move conversation forward; makes connections between ideas; resolves apparent contradictory ideas; considers others’ viewpoints, not only his/her own; avoids bad logic.

Responds to questions voluntarily; comments show an appreciation for the text but not an appreciation for the subtler points within it; comments are logical but not connected to other speakers; ideas interesting enough that others respond to them.

Responds to questions but may have to be called upon by others; has read the text but not put much effort into preparing questions and ideas for the seminar; comments take details into account but may not flow logically in conversation.

Extremely reluctant to participate even when called upon; comments illogical and meaningless; may mumble or express incomplete ideas; little or no account taken of previous comments or important ideas in the text.


Pays attention to details; writes down questions; responses take into account all participants; demonstrates that he/she has kept up; points out faulty logic respectfully; overcomes distractions.

Generally pays attention and responds thoughtfully to ideas and questions of other participants and the leader; absorption in own ideas may distract the participant from the ideas of others.

Appears to find some ideas unimportant while responding to others; may have to have questions or confusions repeated due to inattention; takes few notes during the seminar in response to ideas and comments.

Appears uninvolved in the seminar; comments display complete misinterpretation of questions or comments of other participants.


Thoroughly familiar with the text; has notations and questions in the margins; key words, phrases, and ideas are highlighted;  possible contradictions identified; pronounces words correctly.

Has read the text and comes with some ideas from it but these may not be written out in advance;  good understanding of the vocabulary but may mispronounce some new or foreign words.

Appears to have read or skimmed the text but has not marked the text or made meaningful notes or questions; shows difficulty with vocabulary; mispronounces important words; key concepts misunderstood; little evidence of serious reflection prior to the seminar.

Student is unprepared for the seminar; important words, phrases, ideas in the text are unfamiliar; no notes or questions marked in the text; no attempt made to get help with difficult material.

 (Adapted from model by Paul Raider and GREECE website)

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