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Encourage critical thinking by turning your class into a Socratic Seminar

By Mary Howard
August 4th, 2016

A Socratic Seminar gets students thinking, talking, and learning about texts

socratic seminar

With so much talk about the Common Core standards and truly increasing our student’s argumentative powers and critical thinking skills, some teachers are starting to think critically themselves about how best to engage students in thoughtful debate and discussion around texts they need to analyze anyway.

One method, called the Socratic seminar, challenges to students to formal discussions about a text based on open-ended questions. Throughout the exercise, students must alternately employ good listening, critical thinking, creativity, and rhetorical prowess.

The Socratic style of discourse lends itself quite well to establishing critical thinkers due to the fact that Socrates believed that enabling students to think for themselves was more important than filling their heads with knowledge. Even if you’re new to the concept, it’s easy to get started.

Select a text

To start, consider engaging the class in a guided reading of a novel with compelling themes and issues. Bullying, environmental issues, poverty, courage, scarcity and challenges are all good topics that elicit great conversation. Throughout the course of the week, students read assigned sections of a class novel and discuss story events and critical vocabulary associated with the readings.

The questions

Provide students with a Prep Sheet to elicit thought-provoking and questions. Students should be able to summarize the assigned section of the text, identify compelling quotes or statements from the reading, and attempt to create application and synthesis style questions that focus on things like the critical elements, difficult choices made by characters, and sometimes controversial themes running through their novel.

The set up

Arrange your classroom in a format that encourages discourse. A double horseshoe configuration works well with a small group of students to be the inner circle. The inner circle students will be slated to be the ones discussing and interacting. The outer circle of students will be slated to observe and reflect and provide a backchannel.

The discourse

Relinquishing control can be difficult! Once the seminar begins, discipline yourself not to guide or facilitate the conversation. Let it evolve organically. It can be awkward initially. When students realize it is their stage, they begin conversing, sharing, and engage each other in a truly critical level of analysis of a text that they’ve read in a deep and meaningful way.

Backchannel

Once great technique to engage the outer circle is to try a backchannel technique. The website Todaysmeet.com offers a live feed of comments and questions that the outer circle of students can collaboratively create to extend the conversations and give them a voice in the process. Through Todaysmeet, students can post thoughts, questions, feedback comments, and even prompts to assist the inner circle.

Reflection/assessment

After the discussion, an assessment piece is essential.  Students can write a paragraph indicating what they learned.  It allows them to reflect on the experience and reflect on their own comprehension and understanding of the critical issues that may have been brought up with respect to the themes in the novel.  This reflection can also afford students another opportunity to share events that relate deeply to the characters, the character’s choices and experiences.  They can also extrapolate character traits and applied them to new situations.

Enabling students through a Socratic Seminar is a powerful way to build critical, active thinkers that are engaged and involved in your classroom!

About the Author:

Mary Howard is a sixth grade teacher in Grand Island New York teaching ELA and social studies. She is passionate about technology integration and providing engaging and enriching classroom experiences to her students. Mary was recently awarded the Lee M Bryant Outstanding Technology teacher of the year award for her work with NYSCATE. For several years she has worked with students on virtual world experiences and has developed several curriculum modules integrating Open Sim Platforms for instruction. Much of her work is showcased in her blog: Yoursmarticles.blogspot.com and can be seen through Twitter @mrshoward118.

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