5 tips to ensure your students engage and grow using Socratic Seminars

1. Use sentence starters

Often students are unsure how they should start their statements or questions in group discussions and can shy away from participation. Providing them with sentence starters can really help empower these students to contribute more to the seminars. A few examples of sentence starters that could be shared with the students include:

  • I understood it differently…
  • I agree and…
  • Can you provide an example of …
  • Is there a good reason for…
  • How do you think that could have been prevented?
  • Would that still happen if…?
  • If I understand you correctly then…
  •  hadn’t thought about it like that, can you explain how it would work in this situation…?
  • Could you clarify that for me to help me understand?
  • Can you tell me more about…
  • … happened because…
  • What is similar to…?
  • Can you think of a reason why this is different to…?
  • Thanks, you just provided some good reasons why it might work, I have a few reasons why I think it will not work…
  • Would that still happen if…?

2. Use technology

Teachers are often in two camps as to whether to use a fishbowl method or not. This method has an inner circle who participate in the conversation while others on the outside circle observe and take notes. Some people love this idea seeing it as helping students learn how to think and participate in respectful conversation, while others see it more as a filler activity. I have 2 suggestions for how technology can help in this regard.

Firstly, leveraging a technology such as backchannelchat.com or a Google group forum can allow the outer circle to participate in the conversation but do so in written form. These discussions could even be put up on a projector for everyone to see. But I do encourage discretion with the projector idea, as it can lead to the inner circle members getting distracted and not listening to each other.

Another tool is Equity Maps, which allows you to track the equity of contribution during group discussions such as Socratic Seminars. This app could be used by the outer circle to help monitor the discussion and can provide useful data, especially if you are doing the seminar as a form of assessment.

3. Set the culture

Possibly one of the most important things to get right with any group discussion, but especially a Socratic Seminar is to create a culture of respect. Students need understand what is expected of them before, during and after the seminar and be equipped to be able to disagree with others thoughts while not disrespecting the other person or making them feel that their contribution was not worthwhile. This can be done by creating a set of “safe discussion” criteria that becomes part of the feedback on the session and can be used by an outer circle to help protect each other. 

By providing sentence starters we can also help our students to acknowledge and confirm others contributions before disagreeing or probing further to gain a better understanding of their position. Training and demonstrating discussion control is also important. Making sure that the person running the discussion, whether it is you or a student, is strong enough to stand up and say something when the discussion becomes personal, or when contributions are being discarded without consideration will also help to ensure that the discussion works well.

Personally, I find reminding the students regularly before, during and after the seminar, that the goal is not to be right or prove someone wrong, but instead to deepen understandings helps to minimise these issues and keep the conversation focused on everyone deepening their learning.

4. Encourage writing as preparation

Often students, even when they come prepared, are not prepared in relation to how they might phrase what they want to say or more often, how they will respond to objections or different understandings from their own. Providing some reflection time during the seminar can be helpful, especially if we encourage the students during this time to write out a few points that they would like to contribute.

Allowing students to write before they speak will ensure that conversation remains focused on topic and help everyone to stick to the goal of developing their understanding. It will also enable students to communicate more clearly and concisely which will increase their confidence when speaking and ensure a greater depth to their discussion.

5. Keep the goal visible

I mentioned the goal of a Socratic Seminar under point number 3 “To Deepen Understanding”. It is important that this goal is constantly the focus of everything said during the seminar. I begin by stating the goal, and remember to make this specific to the understanding being sought, for example the goal might be “To deepen your understanding of the principles of social justice”. Then reminding students that everything they say should be moving the group towards this goal. Differing opinions are welcome and enhance understandings. The point is not to refute all other perspectives, but to understand them and see any evidence for them. 

I then put the goal up on a screen or on the board and put a scale underneath it. periodically, ask the discussion leader to refer back tot he goal and move the group along the scale as they further develop their understanding.

The goal should once again be the focus of any rubrics or criteria used to evaluate, reflect upon or assess the seminar.

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