How to Bring Socratic Seminar to Your Classroom

People sometimes ask me what Socratic seminar is, whether it would work for any grade or subject area, and most of all: is it worth the effort?

Socratic seminar is named for the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, one of the most famous teachers of the Western world. Socrates did not teach by lecturing. He taught by questioning.  And his questioning sometimes seemed to draw wisdom out of his students that they did not know they had. Socrates still embodies what we mean when we call someone a philosopher, a name that the ancient Greeks coined from two root words: philos and sophos.  Philos meant love, as in philanthropy, the love of mankind.  Sophos meant wisdom. Philosophers are therefore lovers of wisdom, and this is exactly why you should bring the Socratic Method into your classroom.

So what does the Socratic Method look like in your classroom? Picture students sitting in a circle, or around a large table, or if that’s not possible, sitting around the edges of the room looking towards the center so that they can make eye contact with one another.  A student or a teacher asks an “opening question.”  This does not have to be the only question discussed, but begins a discussion.  You have classroom discussions all the time, but this is a formalized discussion, and one that takes the time to reach a much deeper level of understanding.

Why teach your students to participate in this kind of formal discussion? Socratic seminar:

  • Is enjoyed by students
  • Teaches the art of questioning
  • Teaches higher-level thought, which is a skill
  • Allows students to speak to each other, rather than to the teacher, in a formal setting
  • Can unite the class as a team looking for the truth or truths
  • Engages students with a topic in a new way
  • Appeals to students who struggle with academics
  • Is a kind of “writing aloud” activity, so is a great lead-in to writing on a following day
  • Can be modified for nearly all ages
  • Can be modified for all levels of shyness
  • Leaves students asking for more.

Whether it is a high school or an elementary classroom, and whether it is an English class, science, art, or history, this method of discussion and teamwork resonates with students, and will engage them at a higher level.

But how to teach this? Questioning is a skill in itself and an exercise in higher level thought.   Ideally, have the students write their own questions for their seminar, either individually or in a group. They will require instruction on what an “essential universal question” is; it is not a yes or no question, but one that opens up a deeper discussion.  For example, if the student suggests the question, “Is Naomi’s mother nice?” other students (or you, the facilitator) can deepen that question by asking, “Was Naomi’s mother a good mother?”  To make the question universal, it becomes, “What is a good mother?” and even, “What makes a good person?”

I sometimes project everyone’s questions on a screen; this allows students to reflect on just how much there is to discuss. If you use Google Classroom, students can post their questions to a public forum or list that you can then project.

Don’t be afraid to delve into the impossible. Students are just as equipped as we are to explore the deepest questions of humanity; what they lack in experience, they make up for in directness, curiosity, and simplicity.

Allow students (and yourself) to luxuriate in those questions that so often do not get asked:   Why are we here?   What is morality?  What are good and evil?  Is there a right and a wrong?  What are the problems with saying that there is not a right and a wrong?  What makes a hero?  Is love important?  Where does prejudice come from?  Is it possible to achieve peace?  My ninth graders this year repeatedly asked to discuss the meaning of life, and though there was some humor and irreverence in the discussion, there was also a real discussion taking place, surprising them, I think, though they may have thought they were surprising me.

The day before the seminar, go over the rules.

1. Students should speak to each other instead of to the teacher. Since this will take them some time to get used to, you as the facilitator can give them gentle reminders.

2. Students must react to what is said rather than ignoring it and jumping in with an unrelated statement.  Teach them how this sounds in practice: “I agree with Maya, but I think that….”  Or, “I think both Cyrus and Juan are right, and I want to add….”   Or, “I think so far we are missing the point, because…”

3.  Students do not need to raise hands as long as they take turns.

4.  While everyone should participate for an A, no one should dominate.  This is their chance to learn to have a balanced role.

5. Disagreements are normal and expected, even encouraged.  But no one should insult or disrespect another person for their opinion, and certainly not for a belief system.

6.  Remind students that if they can learn to discuss difficult issues and ideas with their peers, they can become leaders, and just possibly save the world, or at least their own community.

7.  Encourage students to act as a team.  In the middle of the circle or table are ideas, and the team is grappling with them together.

What about the shy? You as facilitator can sometimes stop the seminar to allow those who have not spoken to get a word in edgewise.  You can even call on the shyest members of the class directly, explaining that you can raise their grade if they can express an opinion on the current question, and more importantly, that their voice matters.

Too many kids in the classroom? There are various tricks you can try, such as outer circle and inner circle, where the outer circle takes notes on the inner circle’s seminar.  You can also use Popsicle sticks or paper clips if you feel you need to monitor how many times students speak.  More mature students can run their own seminars so that you can have several in one classroom.

Finally, let your students know that silence is an accepted part of Socratic seminar. There is a tendency to panic when there is silence, but people need time to process and think.   Try to avoid jumping in to give them answers.  They will likely leave the class inspired with a new “love of wisdom”


  1. Thank you you your article about the efficacy of Socratic Seminars. Our students, as 21st Century Learners, are poised for this communication and learning approach. Farmington High School English teacher Stephanie Jaquez , 2017 Golden Apple Award Recipient, also implements Socratic Seminar with her students.

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