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Public Speaking » Socratic Seminar

Socratic Seminar


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:

        Write a question connecting the text to the real world. 

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).

        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.

What happened to Hester Pyrnne's husband that she was
left alone in Boston without family?  (after the first 4 chapters of THE

         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.

Why did Gene hesitate to reveal the truth about the
accident to Finny that first day in the infirmary? (after mid-point of  A

          Write a question dealing with a theme(s) of the text that will
encourage group discussion about the universality of the text.

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?

In MAMA FLORA'S FAMILY, why is it important that the
story is told through flashback?

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.

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.

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.

Expectations of Participants in a Socratic Seminar

When I am evaluating your Socratic Seminar participation, I ask the following questions about  participants.  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?

What is the difference between dialogue and debate?

  • 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: Dialogue

  • suspending judgment
  • 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.


Socratic Seminar:  Participant Rubric



A Level Participant


Participant offers enough solid analysis, without prompting, to move the conversation forward

Participant, through her comments, demonstrates a deep knowledge of the text and the question

     Participant has come to the seminar prepared, with notes and
     a marked/annotated text  

Participant, through her comments, shows that she is actively
 listening to other participants

    Participant offers clarification and/or follow-up that extends
    the conversation

   Participant’s remarks often refer back to specific parts of the text.



B Level Participant


Participant offers solid analysis without prompting

Through comments, participant demonstrates a good knowledge of the text and the question

      Participant has come to the seminar prepared, with notes and
      a marked/annotated text

     Participant shows that he/she is actively listening to others
     and  offers clarification and/or follow-up



C Level Participant

Participant offers some analysis, but needs prompting from the
     seminar leader

Through comments, participant demonstrates a general
 knowledge of the text and question

     Participant is less prepared, with few notes and no
      marked/annotated text

       Participant is actively listening to others, but does not offer
       clarification and/or follow-up to others’ comments

 Participant relies more upon his or her opinion, and less on the text to drive her comments



D or F Level Participant

    Participant offers little commentary

   Participant comes to the seminar ill-prepared with little
    understanding of the text and question

   Participant does not listen to others, offers no commentary to
   further the discussion       

   Participant distracts the group by interrupting other speakers or
   by offering off topic questions and comments.

    Participant ignores the discussion and its participants


Related Files

    pdf Socratic Self-Evaluation (pdf file - 20 KB)

    pdf Socratic Seminar Instructions (pdf file - 12 KB)

    pdf .pdf: You need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader (version 5 or higher) for PC or Macintosh to view this file type.

Related Links
    » Opening and Sustaining questions
    » Questions, etc.

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