The Socratic method of teaching is based on Socrates' theory that it is more important to enable students to think for themselves than to merely fill their heads with "right" answers. Therefore, he regularly engaged his pupils in dialogues by responding to their questions with questions, instead of answers. This process encourages divergent thinking rather than convergent.
Students are given opportunities to "examine" a common piece of text, whether it is in the form of a novel, poem, art print, or piece of music. After "reading" the common text "like a love letter", open-ended questions are posed.
Open-ended questions allow students to think critically, analyze multiple meanings in text, and express ideas with clarity and confidence. After all, a certain degree of emotional safety is felt by participants when they understand that this format is based on dialogue and not discussion/debate.
Dialogue is exploratory and involves the suspension of biases and prejudices. Discussion/debate is a transfer of information designed to win an argument and bring closure. Americans are great at discussion/debate. We do not dialogue well. However, once teachers and students learn to dialogue, they find that the ability to ask meaningful questions that stimulate thoughtful interchanges of ideas is more important than "the answer."
Participants in a Socratic Seminar respond to one another with respect by carefully listening instead of interrupting. Students are encouraged to "paraphrase" essential elements of another's ideas before responding, either in support of or in disagreement. Members of the dialogue look each other in the "eyes" and use each other names. This simple act of socialization reinforces appropriate behaviors and promotes team building.
Pre-Seminar Question-Writing: Before you come to a Socratic Seminar class, please read the assigned text (novel section, poem, essay, article, etc.) and write at least one question in each of the following categories:
WORLD CONNECTION QUESTION: Write a question connecting the text to the real world.
Example: If you were given only 24 hours to pack your most precious belongings in a back pack and to get ready to leave your home town, what might you pack? (After reading the first 30 pages of NIGHT).
CLOSE-ENDED QUESTION: Write a question about the text that will help everyone in the class come to an agreement about events or characters in the text. This question usually has a "correct" answer.
Example: What happened to Hester Pyrnne's husband that she was left alone in Boston without family? (after the first 4 chapters of THE SCARLET LETTER).
OPEN-ENDED QUESTION: Write an insightful question about the text that will require proof and group discussion and "construction of logic" to discover or explore the answer to the question.
Example: Why did Gene hesitate to reveal the truth about the accident to Finny that first day in the infirmary? (after mid-point of A SEPARATE PEACE).
UNIVERSAL THEME/ CORE QUESTION: Write a question dealing with a theme(s) of the text that will encourage group discussion about the universality of the text.
Example: After reading John Gardner's GRENDEL, can you pick out its existential elements?
LITERARY ANALYSIS QUESTION: Write a question dealing with HOW an author chose to compose a literary piece. How did the author manipulate point of view, characterization, poetic form, archetypal hero patterns, for example?
Example: In MAMA FLORA'S FAMILY, why is it important that the story is told through flashback?
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.
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.
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.
Expectations of Participants in a Socratic Seminar
When I am evaluating your Socratic Seminar participation, I ask the following questions aboutparticipants.Did they….
Speak loudly and clearly? Cite reasons and evidence for their statements? Use the text to find support? Listen to others respectfully? Stick with the subject? Talk to each other, not just to the leader? Paraphrase accurately? Ask for help to clear up confusion? Support each other? Avoid hostile exchanges? Question others in a civil manner? Seem prepared?
Dialogue is collaborative: multiple sides work toward shared understanding. Debate is oppositional: two opposing sides try to prove each other wrong.
In dialogue, one listens to understand, to make meaning, and to find common ground. In debate, one listens to find flaws, to spot differences, and to counter arguments.
Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant's point of view. Debate defends assumptions as truth.
Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude: an openness to being wrong and an openness to change. Debate creates a close-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
In dialogue, one submits one's best thinking, expecting that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than threaten it. In debate, one submits one's best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.
Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one's beliefs. Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one's beliefs.
In dialogue, one searches for strengths in all positions. In debate, one searches for weaknesses in the other position.
Dialogue respects all the other participants and seeks not to alienate or offend. Debate rebuts contrary positions and may belittle or deprecate other participants.
Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of answers and that cooperation can lead to a greater understanding. Debate assumes a single right answer that somebody already has.
Dialogue remains open-ended. Debate demands a conclusion.
Dialogue is characterized by:
examining our own work without defensiveness
exposing our reasoning and looking for limits to it
communicating our underlying assumptions
exploring viewpoints more broadly and deeply
being open to disconfirming data
approaching someone who sees a problem differently not as an adversary, but as a colleague in common pursuit of better solution.