The Power of Socratic Seminars: Developing and Fostering Higher-Order Thinkers in our Classrooms

by Angela Bunyi, first grade teacher at The Discovery School in Murfreesboro City Schools

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” Albert Einstein

If a teacher has a class filled with deep and critical thinkers who can effectively communicate their thoughts, questions, and connections- both through talk and written reflection- chances are they regularly utilize a Socratic Seminar format within their classroom. The Socratic method is named after the Greek philosopher Socrates who taught students by asking question after question. The principle underlying the Socratic method is that students learn through the use of critical thinking, reasoning, and logic. This post will share the fundamentals of what a seminar looks like within a one-hour block for students in any grade.

Minute by Minute Schedule of a Socratic Seminar

I have successfully used this format with students from first grade to college. While the selected text can vary from a printed transcript of a picture book to interpreting song lyrics, it should be a challenge to read and comprehend independently.

1 Minute: Whole Group Move

Students move their chairs into a circle in the center of the room so that everyone is facing each other. For lower grades, students come to the carpet area.

15 Minutes: Whole Group Circle

If an article is selected, the teacher will read the article out loud, then the students will reread it independently in the circle. 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, depth and complexity, good talking points (every voice is expected to be heard during the hour), and areas we would like to know more about. 

We write directly on the article when students first read independently, but when we move into small groups we use post-it notes for shared thoughts. I typically color-code the notes by group so when we return for whole group discussion I can visually see what each group contributed. For example, one group will have green sticky notes while another will have pink. I often have students categorize it by a shared chart, as you can see in the picture.

3 Minutes: Review Ground Rules and Guidelines

As with other activities, I ask students to sit “EEKK” style (elbows to elbows, knees to knees) while reviewing how our body language shows others that we are listening and contributing.

7-12 Minutes: Small Group Discussion

In groups of four, students are asked to discuss the text together. Sometimes, I simply provide possible talking points; other times I provide an overarching question. I have also jig sawed articles by asking groups to focus on a particular element at the start. Students are expected to use their previous notes, but also add to it during small group discussion.

15 Minutes: Whole Group Discussion

Students are asked to come back to their chairs or the carpet area. 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, my goal is to write down as much as I can about who has contributed to the conversation so all students can fully participate and occasionally redirect as needed. I remind students that every voice is valued and needs to be heard, even if it is to share what a peer said or asked. My notes are helpful in giving students feedback later on their role in the seminar and how they might improve as a contributing voice.

1 Minute: Put Chairs Back

Students quietly return to their desk with their article.

9-15 Minutes: Written Reflection

Students reflect their new thoughts and ideas regarding the article, either through a simple reflection of conversation or through an overarching question.  

This is the component that allows you to see the TREMENDOUS power of Socratic Seminars. It is so empowering to read student reflections where they write about how they started out thinking one way about the topic, but through talk and discussion with their peers a deeper and better understanding was gained. 

Using Socratic Seminars in my first grade classroom has had an incredible impact on my students’ thinking and my teaching, and I know it can impact your classroom, too. Be sure to check the blog again in the coming weeks for an additional post that will share seminar resources and tips on how to enrich your seminars through Dr. Kaplan’s depth and complexity thinking icons.

Angela Bunyi is a first grade teacher at The Discovery School in Murfreesboro City Schools. You can connect with her by email at angela.bunyi@cityschools.net