Higher Order Comprehension: The Power of Socratic Seminar

By Angela Bunyi on November 19, 2010
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

I was in my room when my assistant principal’s voice came over the intercom: “It’s time for us to schedule an observation.” I groaned. I had just been diagnosed with bronchitis and a bad ear infection, and my voice was barely hanging on. What was I to do? A Socratic Seminar saved the day!

Don't know what this is? A Socratic Seminar allows students to shine while deeply increasing comprehension. Do not miss this post. Learning about this methodology changed my perspective on teaching and also allowed me to secure a highly successful observation. Several videos, support tools, and a detailed lesson plan are included.

 

What Are Socratic Seminars?

Background (StudyGuide.org)

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.

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Planning a Socratic Seminar: As Easy as 1-2-3

One of the nicest things about Socratic Seminars is that you simply have to find a piece of writing that is interesting, engaging, debatable, or challenging. That's the biggest requirement. For example, I included a printed transcript on the Lakota Indians. Since my students lacked background knowledge of and vocabulary for this subject, talk and discussion was required in order to understand the text at all.

Once you have something to read and discuss, your planning session is almost over. Here is my routine:

1. FInd a challenging text and photocopy it. It is helpful to number each line for reference during class discussion (e.g., "On line 45, I noticed . . . ").

2. Create and print out some possible small group discussion questions based on the passage.

3. Create a chart (see example) of the lessons guidelines and goals. Without some ground rules in place, the session will not work.

Let me stress that this is all you need to conduct a seminar. I completed a one-hour observation with a struggling, wheezing voice. I had to rely on my students doing almost all of the talking, and they did not fail me. 

Minute by Minute Schedule of a Socratic Seminar

I use an actual timer for each component; moving the chairs counts as a component.

1 Minute: Move Chairs

Students move their chairs into a circle in the center of the room so that everyone is facing each other.

15 Minutes: Whole Group Circle

Read Printed Literature: If an article is selected, the teacher will read the article out loud, then the students will read it, in the circle, independently. The teacher will typically ask students to make notes or use a coding system for deepening understanding. In my class, we use symbols to mark areas of confusion and interest, good talking points (every voice is expected to be heard during the hour), and areas we would like to know more about. 

Watch and/or Listen to Multimedia: I have gone beyond printed literature and conducted Socratic Seminars that required listening to a song and analyzing the lyrics (I have used Arcade Fire's "Wake-up" and "We Used to Wait" which made me cry watching it), or more recently, watching a fifteen-minute video on the Lakota Indians. Below you'll find a resource that allows you to create an interactive and printable transcript so your students can go back and reread — and rethink — what was viewed.

Download our printed transcript on Aaron Huey's video transcript. 

3 Minutes: Review Ground Rules and Guidelines

I have included a photo of our rules and guidelines above. As with other activities, I also ask students to sit "EEKK" style (elbows to elbows, knees to knees) so that we can make a tight circle, with students facing each other. This minimizes lack of participation and noise.

12 Minutes: Small Group Discussion

In groups of four, students are asked to discuss the text together. With my past two Socratic Seminars, I simply provided some possible talking points. I have also provided more guidance through a company that offers Socratic Seminars lessons, including small group discussion points. I found both to work really well. You can find that resource below.

 Download our small group starters on Aaron Huey's video transcript.

15 Minutes: Whole Group Discussion

Students are asked to come back to their chairs. As a teacher, my goal is to have the conversation started and maintained by the students. In fact, students are aware that moments of awkward silence are okay, and we have modeled how to handle more than one student attempting to talk as well. 

While students are talking, the teacher simply writes down who has contributed to the conversation and what has been shared. With five minutes to spare, all but four of my students had participated in our last Socratic Seminar. I broke in and reminded our class of this and had one of the most powerful speaking notes occur because of it. (I am including that story below.) 

1 Minute: Put Chairs Back

Students quietly return to their desk and take out a sheet of paper.


9 Minutes: Written Reflection

Students reflect on their new thoughts and ideas regarding the passage and clip. And this is the component that allows you to see the TREMENDOUS power of Socratic Seminars. As I walked around during my observation, a student looked up at me with a light-bulb moment and shared, "Wow, Mrs. Bunyi, I just realized that when we first read this on our own, we really didn't know anything. But now that we worked and talked together . . . now, we all know so much more!" 

Just one lesson with one challenging script. I encourage you to try this, and not just do the written reflection component of the schedule. 


Total time: 55 minutes

Socratic 0 00 11-26 
 

Interested? Here Are Some General Tips:

~ Multiple reads are encouraged and endorsed. You may want to assign students homework time to read through the piece that will be discussed the following day. 

~ Students do not need to raise their hands. They seem to understand that this is a privilege, a sign of their maturity, and respect it greatly.

~ Watch the news? If there is a topic that has adults talking, it will most likely interest your students as well. This week, for example, we could use various articles on airport security and launch a discussion on amendment rights, protections, and government roles in our everyday life.

~ Using the guidelines, we are comfortable with possible moments of silence. We are also comfortable with working around several voices that want to share. After your first seminar, you can brainstorm or model how this might be handled.

~ Opinions are valued, but the talk must be grounded in text. I encourage students to start their talk with reference to a particular point in the text, and model how to do this. 

~ Number the lines on the text for this reason. We had an eight-page video transcript to read. Finding line 141 was a little easier when it was labeled.

~ Small groups should be mixed both academically and socially.

~ Socratic Seminars do not have to be routine, but I aim to incorporate them into a subject area once or twice a month.

~ If you have some students who dominate the conversation, provide them with a certain number of talking sticks. I choose not to do this because I stress the importance of every voice being heard. If this is followed, there isn't room for one person to dominate. 

~ There are a few companies that offer all the materials for Socratic Seminars. I have tried Touchstones, which specializes in content area discussions for the upper grades. Conducting a science lecture, for example, is a great way to mix things up and have students dig deeper into concepts unknown. Under the same company, if you are a teacher in grades 2 or 3, you might be interested in looking at Touchpebbles

~ Visit TEDTalks, which specializes in engaging, short video presentations. This site is one of my absolute favorite resources on the Web. If you want to find a speaker who can talk about bacteria and make it sound exciting, then you need to take a look. They also happen to host a slew of famous people. Sir Ken Robinson is one of the best educational speakers I have heard in my life. (One of his most popular videos is on how schools kill creativity.) Most every video has an interactive transcript that allows you to edit and print transcripts for your class. This is one of the few that doesn't and also required me to edit it due to an image of graffiti with obscene language.

 

Working Smarter, Not Harder: Integrating Curriculum While Increasing Reading Comprehension

I don't think I am going to be able to do a good job of convincing you to try this for comprehension purposes. You simply have to try it. And I'll admit that I had a moment of doubt about whether or not my students would be able to hold a conversation for more than two minutes. Then I was blown away by the level of talk, the depth of the conversation, and their willingness to share what was confusing them. 

My best comprehension lessons look futile when compared to one Socratic Seminar. You ask how students can write more deeply about what they read? You know that saying, "If they can think it, they can say it. If they can say it, they can write it"? Allow them to think and talk about a subject first. Allow them to hear from other students and deepen their understanding. This will greatly impact your students' abilities to critically read and analyze future texts. If students realize that one line in an Arcade Fire song can bring on lengthy debates, then they understand that it is okay to reread, rethink, and even be unsure about meaning at times. 

And one other note that I'd like to share. As we read the time line of Lakota history in the transcript, one simple statistic about diabetes sparked great interest in one of my students. He happened to be the only student who hadn't spoken at that point. With great emotion, he shared how he just couldn't help but compare his situation to theirs. His situation allowed him access to a healthy diet, insulin, an in-school nurse, medical care, and so forth, while the Pine Ridge Reservation did not provide any of those things. He questioned the statistics, wondering if the number could be even higher, if poor medical conditions and care might prevent identification of the disease in many cases. He wondered how people with diabetes addressed the problem with an unhealthy lifestyle and diet.

As he spoke, I realized that that the statistic had been just another line for me until then. It meant a great deal to this student. And that's the point of a Socratic Seminar. Joining together, we can take something and create a deeper understanding of what we read and interpret. It's a reminder that every line can have a story or spark an interest.

Why It's Important to Reread, Rewatch, and Retalk

1. Comprehension is NOT about answering literal questions from a text to prove you understood the text for a teacher.

2. Reading is about thinking. It's about sparking questions, provoking emotions, and making connections.

3. With that being said, comprehension grows naturally through talk and collaboration. You will reach a deeper understanding of what you read when you have others to bounce ideas and questions off of.

4. I vow to keep the real way and the school way of reading the same. Personally, I believe that the important thoughts communicated through text need to be shared. That's one of the reasons why rich texts are published and reprinted time and time again. And there is a reason book clubs are created. They are not comprehension quiz meetings.

5. It's not rereading. It's rethinking.

Bonus

 ~ Visit my site to find this lesson presented in more depth and come back next Monday for pictures and notes from our librarian who visited the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

~ Speaking of Native Americans, if you missed the Plimoth Plantation Webcast, be sure to watch the replay here with your class. 

To learn more about our classroom.

 

Comments

This type of learning is imperative for kids to express creativity and interact with a free mind. This type of exercise will build social interaction skill which one day when these student go to find a job after college, they will have the benefit of learning social interaction at an early stage.

Setting the things with the specific schedule or in way is the great deal to get the desired results from the seminar. A medical subordinates duties involve such kind of the tasks. which needs to be scheduled properly.

When you conduct a Socratic Seminar for Grade 3 or 4 students, do you provide them with the questions, or you let them come up with questions?
Thanks!
Judit

You've definitely caught my interest and I'm an art teacher! What if they aren't just reading a text but "reading" an art work?? Cool idea! I will have to research and try this out!

Charles,

Thank you! My observing adminstrator's children went to a Paideia school, so I felt a little more pressure to be conducting the Seminar properly. Thank you for sharing some more resources that have been tried and used in the classroom. I noticed a few when I did a Google search, but I didn't feel comfortable sharing something I haven't tried.

So my question is on the leveling of the two companies. What are the target grade levels and do they focus on content, themes, etc?

Thank you!

Angela

P.S. My class is in Chinese right now, but I'll be sure to research this on my own as well.

Great Post!

There are two other companies that have seminar materials as well: The Great Books Foundation and the Paideia Institute. I find choosing texts to be the most time consuming part of running seminars, so having a selection of texts is a great place to start.

Carrie, for high school science, my favorite resource is Marvin Minsky's The Society of Mind. It's a collection of short essays (most 1 page) on how the mind works based on experiments in artificial intelligence.

Thanks Diane...send me some good vibes on Thanksgiving morning (8am). I'd like to place top 5 overall for a 4 mile race in town. 1,300 have signed up so far, but I am feeling pretty good about it. I think I can. I think I can.

Angela

You do rock Angela!!! What a great run. I have admired your teaching as well as your running/training the past few years. Keep up the great work!

Diane

Shaira,

Thanks...and I think my husband would agree with you, which means I have done a good job showing who I am through writing.

And speaking of a firecracker, how's a 15 mile run with a 8:36 pace? That's what I just finished a few minutes ago. I rock!

Good luck with trying out the Socratic Seminar approach. Let me know if you have any questions.

Angela

Hi Angela,

Thank you for sharing such amazing ideas. I can't wait to try it! I always feel reassured after reading your posts because they are not only loaded with high quality teaching content, but also include a "slice of reality". They involve taking risks and trying new approaches. I think of you as a firecracker! Thanks again.

Shaira DeLeon Jonas Salk Elementary 4th Grade Bilingual Teacher

Thanks Linda!

So have you tried this out as well?

Angela

Hi Angela! Great description and strategies for running a great Socratic Seminar! Linda Foote

Carrie,

The company I referred to goes up to high school. I have a middle school science/math book and the company advised me not to purchase it due to the heavy content. I purchased it anyway and have used a few pieces. Here are some sample articles and lengths included in that book. Several pieces include sample writings from our greatest thinkers:

Title- Where'd They Get That Idea? Issues and Ideas in Science and Mathematics- Volume I. * Touchstone Discussion Project

~ How Big is Infinity? Physics, Aristotle

~ Why Do I Have to Prove It? Two Proofs of the Same Truth

~ Will the Sun Rise Tomorrow? "Common Ideas" from The Elements, Euclid

~ Are Scientists Responsible for Their Inventions? The Value of Science, Henri Poincare

~ Should Scientists Experiment on Animals? Introduction to Experimental Medicine, C. Bernard

There are 18 lessons in my middle school edition. I would expect the same for the high school level.

And in the training session, we covered all contents and all grade levels (eg- there was a middle school art teacher in attendance). Our instructor used a lot of magazine articles for the middle and high school level...artificial intelligence, for example. If you find an interesting article, that would work.

And regarding length- It just depends. For the observation my students read a 7 page transcript for H.W. and jotted down notes while reading. I teach 5th grade gifted and high achieving students.

If you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask me here!

Angela

Genna,

Perfect. And you can understand then why I used this for my observation, right? My voice was rarely heard, and I LOVED reading my observation notes to catch all the mature statements being said by my students. Example: Student says, " I feel very passionate about that..." A peer responds, "Can you explain why?"

One hour of great conversation recorded.

And it's great to hear from a third grade teacher with direct experience. I have a copy of TouchPeeble at school. If you visit again, please let me know if you use a one-day model or multiple day version. That was the only component that I struggled with during training...spending more than one seminar on one text.

Thanks again,

Angela

Sharon,

That's exactly what I was referring about in the post. When we are seeing a real lack of depth in our written reflections, this is the component that is missing.

And I have to admit that I was rushed when I wrote the post and didn't include the detailed information about TouchPeebles. I was able to look through all of their material, which was created for 2-3 grade.

And regarding how to handle "right" vs. "wrong" if you purchased either of the products mentioned, they always include an orientation session that would help. Group work, for example, would include deciding which ground rule will be the most difficult for the class to follow and explaining why.

I hope that helps. I will get the additional links up shortly.

Best,

Angela

This is such an interesting idea. I want to try it with my high school science students, but I think it will take me a while to find an appropriate text. (Gonna aim for one that would lead to a discussion on ethics and bias in experimentation). How long is too long for an article? Most of the grade appropriate articles I find are at least two pages long.

I have taught 5th grade the past few years and have done Socratic seminars many times. This year I am teaching 3rd grade and just today I did my first Socratic seminar with them and it went great. I used a text from the Touchpebbles series. This series is geared towards 3rd graders and is great for setting up a successful seminar. My students really loved that they were in charge of the discussion. All I did as the teacher was read the text aloud and then I started the discussion with a question. The rest of the hour was lead by my students. I highly recommend using Socratic seminars with the younger grades. I think you will be surprised with all they have to say.

I have been trying to get my third graders to think about what they are reading. This year I started having them write response letters to me once a week that include a summary of the reading, connections, inferences, etc and what they want me to know about their reading. They are really struggling with this. Is the method for third grade the same as you described? What is the best way to begin with students who have experience with only right or wrong answers? Thanks!

Melissa,

No, but I wish I had. There are materials geared for 3rd that deal more with strictly comprehension (eg- a fable story). I found out about this method after attending Confratute in CT. It was a week-long session, so if you have any questions just post them here.

Best,

Angela

This sounds really cool. Have you tried this with younger grades, third in particular? Melissa

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