Socratic seminars: A place for rich discussions when  used sparingly, with intentionality

English and history classes have long been places of discussion, debate, and disagreement. Conversations can quickly become rich, nuanced, and even heated.

English and history classes have long been places of discussion, debate, and disagreement. Conversations can quickly become rich, nuanced, and even heated. For this reason, humanities classes frequently depend on the Socratic seminar as a way to discuss ideas respectfully. 

At its core, the Socratic seminar allows for complicated issues to be explored with the nuance they deserve. Over time, however, Socratic seminars have become overused and it has become unclear how structured they should be. While Socratic seminars can be valuable learning tools, they must be used sparingly and follow common ground rules.

Socratic seminars originally stem from the Socratic method. The Socratic method revolves around the presence of an ongoing dialogue between students and teachers. Essentially, students are encouraged to question the information they are taught and engage actively with their teachers. Socratic seminars are the open-ended discussions that mirror this philosophy.  

Teachers use Socratic seminars for a variety of reasons. “I think some of the best learning occurs when students talk to each other,” Victor Aguilera said. Aguilera teaches Comparative Values and Beliefs in addition to 12-grade government. The benefits of peer instruction and learning are well documented.  A 2020 study published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, found that learning through peers has a great impact on the knowledge acquired as well as the ability to be metacognitive. In a peer-to-peer situation, students can better tackle complex, information-dense topics than if they were receiving information through a lecture. 

While socratic seminars can spark critical thinking and collaboration, they are much less effective at helping students retain course material. A 2017 study published in Educational Psychology, compared the efficacy of Socratic seminars to the efficacy of test-enhanced learning (memory-based learning). The results indicated that for retaining core information, memory-based techniques far exceeded socratic seminar discussions.

This is to say that teachers must use Socratic seminars in a purposeful way. By using them sparingly and alongside other teaching methods like lectures and exams, teachers can preserve their value while mitigating their shortcomings.

“There should be something worth discussing with a certain level of subjectivity,” Aguilera said. “That way it is worth discussing and spending time on.” 

Aguilera cautions against teachers forcing Socratic seminars into the wrong situations. 

“I have seen math teachers try to hold Socratic seminars about objective problems that are difficult to discuss,” Aguilera said. “It ended up being a discussion about how to solve a problem, which is not a Socratic seminar.”

There is also the question of how structured a Socratic seminar should be. Ideally, guidelines are given at the beginning, and the rest of the discussion is student-run. 

“I like to emphasize the difference between a debate and a discussion,” Aguilera said. “Students are really used to debating and contradicting. Before we start, I ask them to avoid back and forths.”

As the discussion progresses, it is key for the teachers to observe and let the students explore the topics at hand. Even if a discussion is moving slowly, teachers should only intervene if there is a direct conflict between students. By doing so, teachers allow students the autonomy necessary for critical thinking.

A successful Socratic seminar should also have two components, or circles. In the outer circle, students should individually reflect on the prompts. In the inner circle, there should be a traditional Socratic seminar discussion.  By allowing students to reflect individually and in a group, students with anxiety have more opportunities to share their thoughts.  While these two circles may make the Socratic seminar more complex, they are a crucial component for the discussion’s success.

According to Harvard’s Instructional Moves project, time for students to reflect is crucial for consolidating learning. While many teachers employ a written reflection, this should not be necessary.  Students will have already reflected in writing during the Socratic seminar. Adding another writing element to the discussion will only stress students as they race to complete what is ‘required’. Having students think without writing is a more effective way for them to reflect meaningfully.

All in all, using Socratic seminars is a complex process. While Socratic seminars are clearly worth implementing, they are not without their problems. Maximizing their potential with the guidelines above will require the efforts of students and teachers.