The Socratic Seminar Part: Research in Practice {PART 1 OF 3)

The Socratic Seminar

I have received tons of requests to do a blog post or a video about the Socratic Seminar. I keep spacing the whole video thing, but I hope that I can do that this when I am teaching middle school. I will have 5 different classes to choose from! There are also some videos on youtube: Just search Socratic Seminar classroom discussion and you will find some! 

What is the Socratic Seminar?

The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others (

How did you learn to do the Socratic Seminar?

During my second year of teaching fifth grade, I was blessed with the most amazing teaching partner, who had spent 5 or so years teaching in inner city schools in the Tacoma, WA area. Cute little charter school me, was still working her way through how to teach. 

Technically, my charter school didn't have a reading or writing curriculum. I had implemented daily 5, a lot of interactive notebooking, and a writing workshop *kind of. But in terms of thinking about how to teach my students to think, problem solve, and be critical readers... I was kind of just trying to keep my head above water. 

Shelly came to me with The Socratic Seminar, and my life was changed. Kind of*. At first, I just didn't get it. She had been formally trained in something called "Literacy Studio" and had working knowledge of how to create guiding and interpretive questions. 

After she made her first "Socratic Seminar" reading unit with Swiss Family Robinson, she emailed it to me (I think to look it over... possibly because I had kept telling her about doing the seller side of TPT ha!). 

I read through the unit, the questions, the idea, and was like, "OH MY GOSH. THIS IS AMAZING!" I was changed. I loved the idea of using my favorite novels to teach the kids. 

Often times, people will ask me how I come up with my questions and units The honest answer is that I read Shelly's units and then have since created units based on that. I asked Shelly when I had questions. I have no other training, but I have seen it's effectiveness, and have improved and adapted from there. 


Shelly and I did not EVER set out to teach novels. We set out to teach our students, by using novels. We DO NOT create novel studies, nor do we really believe in them. 

As a middle school ELA teacher, who is now required to teach some novels, I still believe the same thing. I could care less if they "learn" the novel (this happens naturally, if you aren't forcing it on them. Promise). I care that they learn how to think, discuss, analyze, and question. The novel is basically a resource.

How do you use the Socratic Seminar in the classroom?

If you were asking me this question personally, I would say, "For basically anything and everything!" The best way to think of use in the classroom is like the biggest, best discussion ever. The questions are open-ended, without a wrong or right answer. 

You are the facilitator of the discussion, in that you ask the questions, teach them how to be respectful and how to discuss, and then chart their thinking. The students then use information from their discussion, and your charting, to write thoughtful responses. 

You can use the concept for literally any subject. 

Here are some examples:

Reading: What character traits do you think you need to survive at Camp Green Lake? (In the book, Holes.

Writing: We are going to write an argumentative piece on whether or not pit bulls should be banned from certain neighborhoods. What do you think of this issue?

Math: How do we use fractions in our everyday lives?

Science: What would happen if animals and plants didn't adapt? Why?

Social Studies: Do you think it was right for settlers to take the lands from the Native Americans? Why or why not?

Socratic Seminar Research Base

The following information can all be found at

Socratic seminars are named for their embodiment of Socrates’ belief in the power of asking questions, prize inquiry over information and discussion over debate.

Socratic seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere. Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic seminars and implies their rich benefits for students: They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89) 

Israel, Elfie. “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.” In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom. James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.

Steps for a Successful Socratic Seminar in the Classroom

Now, while I do think you can use the Socratic seminar for just about anything, I use them most consistently with my reading units and writing is continually integrated into all of my reading units.  

These are all the things that we make sure are in place, before we try to jump in with Socratic Seminars. I will go into more specific examples in Part II of this series, but this is a general overview. 

Choosing a text:  Socratic seminars work best with authentic texts that invite authentic inquiry. 

Preparing the students: While students should read carefully and prepare well for every class session, it is usually best to tell students ahead of time when they will be expected to participate in a Socratic seminar. Because seminars ask students to keep focusing back on the text, you may distribute sticky notes for students to use to annotate the text as they read.

Preparing the questions:  Though students may eventually be given responsibility for running the entire session, the teacher usually fills the role of discussion leader as students learn about seminars and questioning.  Generate as many open-ended questions as possible, aiming for questions whose value lies in their exploration, not their answer.  Elfie Israel recommends starting and ending with questions that relate more directly to students’ lives so the entire conversation is rooted in the context of their real experiences.

Establishing student expectations:  Because student inquiry and thinking are central to the philosophy of Socratic seminars, it is an authentic move to include students integrally in the establishment of norms for the seminar.  Begin by asking students to differentiate between behaviors that characterize debate (persuasion, prepared rebuttals, clear sides) and those that characterize discussion (inquiry, responses that grow from the thoughts of others, communal spirit).  Ask students to hold themselves accountable for the norms they agree upon.

Establishing your role:  Though you may assume leadership through determining which open-ended questions students will explore (at first), the teacher should not see him or herself as a significant participant in the pursuit of those questions.  You may find it useful to limit your intrusions to helpful reminders about procedures (e.g. “Maybe this is a good time to turn our attention back the text?”  “Do we feel ready to explore a different aspect of the text?”).  Resist the urge to correct or redirect, relying instead on other students to respectfully challenge their peers’ interpretations or offer alternative views.

Assessing effectiveness (I will discuss assessment in a later post): Socratic seminars require assessment that respects the central nature of student-centered inquiry to their success.  The most global measure of success is reflection, both on the part of the teacher and students, on the degree to which text-centered student talk dominated the time and work of the session.  Reflective writing asking students to describe their participation and set their own goals for future seminars can be effective as well.  Understand that, like the seminars themselves, the process of gaining capacity for inquiring into text is more important than “getting it right” at any particular point.

I think I have given you the basis of The Socratic Seminar, explained how to set it up, and some steps to make is successful

Next time I will show you specific examples from my reading units, examples of my charting from students discussions, and basically almost exactly how I do it in my classroom! I will have scripted lessons as well! 

I hope to have it up this week! 


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