Driving Discussion with the Socratic Method

A circle of empty chairs on a carpet with a bookshelf behind them.

In this post, teacher Cara Popecki shares advice for building a student-centered class dialogue.

Socrates was on to something when he pushed his student Plato to the pinnacle of philosophical thought by simply asking him questions. If you have ever sat through a college humanities course, you are likely very familiar with the Socratic method. It’s a teaching strategy that shifts the focus to student thinking and discussion in lieu of a lecture. Now, how can we make his strategy relevant to 21st century learners?

When I attempted a Socratic Seminar during my first year teaching 9th grade, I thought a single chapter and the one question I assigned them would be enough for a full 70-minute discussion. As you can probably guess, about five minutes in, the conversation fizzled. My students stared at me, while I panicked, and I had to improvise for the remainder of class. The worst part was that for the rest of the year if I wanted to try using the Socratic method, my students were so disinterested from the previous experience that they weren’t willing to participate.

Here is how you can avoid my all-too-common, first-year teacher mistake and engage your students in a Socratic Seminar. We’ll look at how we can blend modern tools with this tried-and-true method of instruction. If you want students to drive their own discussion, then start with these four key components of a great Socratic Seminar:

1. Curriculum — The Engine

Building a strong curriculum is like designing a good engine; without it you aren’t going anywhere. You need to provide students with a variety of texts for them to drive discussion. For every theme and text set on CommonLit, there are readings that offer historical background, literary perspectives, and even scientific analysis. Providing students with an array of texts widens their options for incorporating evidence into their seminar.

EXAMPLE:

If I’m going to teach a unit on the power of education to my 9th grade students, I can assign them: “Teaching Shakespeare in a Maximum Security Prison,” “The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass,” and “Village Schools and Traveling Soldiers.”

2. Questions — Fill up the Tank

Just like when you fill up your car with gas before a long journey, you should prepare plenty of stimulating questions for a Socratic Seminar. Questions need to spur conversation, debate, and thoughtful dialogue. You have to ask students the right kind of questions that open up more ideas, not close them off with simple one-word answers. I used to agonize over writing these myself.

A preview for the CommonLit text "Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet."

I recommend writing a few questions that can relate directly to your students and their interests. I also recommend stopping to “fill-up” for more questions; you can use the 3–5 discussion questions CommonLit provides per text. If you want to ask broader theme-based questions, you can start with some of the suggested themes and essential questions CommonLit offers in the theme library to shape your seminar topic. You can even ask questions that prompt students to think across texts with our paired texts questions.

EXAMPLE:

If I was going to ask about the power of education, I would prepare questions like:

  • How can education be used to create change?
  • What is the goal of education?
  • How does literacy help people overcome adversity?
  • Of the texts we read, how would each of the authors react to our school today?

3. Assessments — Your GPS

Just like we use the GPS to help us navigate to our destination, students need to know how they’re going to be assessed on their performance. Having an assessment on the most basic level helps with classroom management because it keeps students on task and engaged. If you’re trying a Socratic Seminar for the first time, you may want to start with rewarding kids simply for their participation. As you (and your students) become more proficient, you may also want to reward your students for showing mastery of standards, using text evidence, using evidence from multiple texts, etc.

The Socratic Smackdown, from the Institute of Play, offers a great rubric for assessing student performance. It also revolutionized the way we executed the seminar in my class because it was no longer a “task” — now it was a game! You can tailor the rubric to your own needs, depending on what standards and skills you want students to utilize.

EXAMPLE:

A scorecard titled "Socratic Smackdown."

4. Logistics — Rules of the Road

The final major consideration is to figure out the actual logistics of how to run the seminar. Just like how we need drivers to obey the rules of the road, your students need to follow some basic guidelines. The more students you have, the more likely you will have to run different rounds of seminars. Rounds can be really helpful for differentiation; they allow teachers to utilize different texts and ask various groups of students tailored questions. You have to find what works best for your space and your students.

EXAMPLE:

If I’m running my Power of Education Socratic Smackdown in my 9th grade class of 25 students, I would likely:

  • Use the fishbowl method
  • Group 6–7 students together
  • Make each round approximately 10 minutes
  • Have students in the “outer circle” help me assess the “inner circle” with the scorecards (to keep them engaged)

PRO TIP:

Students need to feel safe to explore and even fail so they can truly learn from the experience. Set strong classroom culture and norms before starting the seminar. You may even make certain character expectations (like active listening or empathy) part of your rubric.

Final Thoughts

The Socratic method is not just for old guys in togas. Whether you want your students citing evidence, thinking critically, or making reasoned arguments, plan an insightful seminar that will drive them to the desired destination. I found that the seminar was really useful for mixing up a writing-heavy curriculum and it was an enormous confidence-boost for the majority of my students.

You can blend other discussion strategies with the Socratic Seminar to make it work for your class. Try using CommonLit to support your class discussion this year!