How to Plan a Socratic Seminar

Head of Content and Curriculum, Julie, shares a step-by-step process for planning a Socratic Seminar. If you have always wanted to try one, but aren’t sure how to get started, this post is for you.

Updated: September 26, 2019

How to Plan a Socratic Seminar by Julie Mason, Head of Content

Picture this: Desks are arranged in a circle. Students are seated, and engaged in a lively discussion of a text. You are observing silently from the back of the room. Students are building on each others’ ideas, asking clarifying questions, and citing examples from the text to support their assertions. 

It’s a beautiful picture, right? 

Socratic Seminars can be more than a teacher’s dream. They can become your reality. 

A Socratic Seminar is…

A formal discussion where students are given open-ended questions to discuss in advance. Students take time to prepare notes and find evidence from the text to use in the discussion. The discussion is led and facilitated by students. During the discussion students listen actively, think critically, articulate their ideas and build on their classmates’ ideas. 

Here are the steps for planning a Socratic Seminar.

Planning Step #1: Choose The Text

A Socratic Seminar is grounded in the discussion of a text. Because the seminar involves preparation, it is important that you select a text that students have either just finished reading or are in the process of reading. I often recommend that the first time you try a Socratic Seminar that you choose a series of passages or chapters, which makes preparation less time-consuming and daunting for students. 

Planning Step #2: Write The Open-Ended Questions

Once your students are more comfortable with Socratic Seminars, you may provide them with the opportunity to write the questions themselves. However, when you are first beginning this process, I recommend that you write the questions students will discuss. These questions need to be open-ended and provocative so that they will result in a lively discussion.

Planning Step # 3: Provide Students With Ample Time To Prepare

Give the questions to your students in advance so that they have time to prepare for the seminar. Provide them with handouts or a process where they can gather notes and evidence from the text to support their responses to the questions. 

Planning Step #4: Break Down And Model The Process 

It is important to make the process transparent for students so they know what to expect. Walk them through how the Socratic Seminar will work, and answer any questions that they have. Some teachers do a practice seminar where they will jump in and guide the students through the process. 

Planning Step #5: Create A Rubric

It is important that students know the criteria you are going to use to assess their preparation, participation, and engagement in the seminar. Create a rubric that you give to them when you hand out the questions so that the expectations are clear. 

Planning Tip #6: Learn The Best Practices

You don’t know what you don’t know. While you will mostly be a silent observer, it is important that you create a structure for the seminar so that students can effectively facilitate it. Some teachers have an inner and outer circle. This is a best practice because it is challenging to hear from everyone or have a meaningful discussion if the group is too large. With this structure, the students in the inner circle are discussing, and the students in the outer circle are observing the discussion. After two questions, the circles swap. Some teachers will ask the outer circle to use the rubric and assess the inner circle to hold them accountable for active listening. 

Planning Tip #7: Be Open To Feedback and Changes

It is likely that everything won’t go as planned the first time you try a Socratic Seminar. Ask students for feedback on their experience. You may get some great ideas about changes that you need to make. Know that it is ok to make changes as needed so the process is more effective and engaging for your students.

Do you use Socratic Seminars in your classroom? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

Julie Mason is the Head of Content and Curriculum for TeacherVision. She brings expertise in blended and personalized learning, instructional coaching, and curriculum design to the role. She was a middle and high school English teacher for eight years and most recently taught at Dana Hall, an all-girls school in Wellesley, MA. She was a blended and personalized learning instructional coach for K-12 teachers at BetterLesson for two years, and she has presented at The National Principals Conference, ISTE, and ASCD where she shared her expertise on how instructional coaching builds teacher capacity in K-12 schools. She has extensive experience designing and facilitating professional development for teachers, and she oversees the TeacherVision advisory board.

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