Sunday, December 30, 2012

Socratic Seminar

This teaching method is modeled after the one proposed and utilized by Socrates himself.  The methodology in practice involves questioning with depth and purpose, but not necessarily debate, concepts and logic or philosophical perspectives in subject study.  This is a methodology that thrives in many classrooms and invokes interest in learning because it is largely student-driven and student-centered.  This methodology is all inclusive in that it brings into action students' problem-solving skills and inquiry-based learning repertoire developed in their math and science learning, and the use of rhetoric and support for ideas, as well as knowledge of historical and social relevance, areas developed in their humanities learning experiences.  Of course, their participation and creative development of ideas as well as ability to interact and appreciate alternate viewpoints to their own are developed in all areas, including their fine arts and physical education courses.

Socratic seminars require some front loading on the part of the teacher.  Students should be given a text to read (article, poem, book, textbook selection) or view (film, short video clip, picture, painting, speech, etc.)   It is important that all students have been given the same text, for discussion purposes.  In the case of a reading text, it is helpful to number the paragraphs so students can easily refer to specific quotes or examples to support their ideas.   Also, consider the reading level of all students and choose one of a middle level text complexity to ensure that all students will be able to participate
Teachers should explain this method briefly, that is will require students to answer and pose questions to the class, that participation is vital to get the most from the learning experience, and that they should arrive with prepared ideas or notes for recollection purposes during the discussion.

As you prepare the classroom environment for discussion, remember that this is intended to be student-led; arrange the desk accordingly so that the teacher is not at the center of the discussion.  A circle works well for this type of discussion, with all students facing one another.  A square could
also work.  It is necessary to establish with students that they should be as natural as possible in the discussion, with no hand-raising or "talking to the teacher".  This is difficult for students at first, so, if possible, avert your gaze from the talker without completely appearing disinterested.  Warning the students that you will be taking lots of notes may ease their minds on this expectation.  While you would like the conversation to be natural, students should still bear in mind that they need to be respectful of one another's opinions and use proper conversational etiquette.  Yes, you will need to remind them that this means no inappropriate language, no derogatory comments to or about anyone else (even if they are not in the room), no raising one's voice, and no interrupting others.  Establish that this is intended to be a discussion only, not a debate.  The point is to question and learn in a more in depth manner through exploration of ideas, not just to be right or convince others of a strongly held opinion or viewpoint.

While the teacher is not the center of the discussion, you do play an important role as facilitator.  The link at the right includes some great sample questions for initiating the discussion, encouraging insightful interpretation of the text, acknowledging and validating the views of all students, expediting the conversation, closing the discussion, and debriefing about the Socratic process.

Evaluating the Socratic seminar can be as complex as you desire.  Evaluating the student based on his or her participation within the discussion is a good way to do this; be sure to have a roster ready to jot down notes about participants during the discussion, if this is your intended route.  Participation
should not be evaluated by frequency of responses as much as quality and ingenuity of responses.  A combination of participation points and a self-reflection piece is best.

Please reference the links as they are both very helpful in guiding you thoroughly through the process of using this discussion method in your classroom.  Enjoy!

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