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6 Tips for Running an Engaging Socratic Seminar

A quick rundown on Socratic Seminars.

Socratic seminars are student-led discussions where students have an open dialogue on a topic or idea. Students are prompted with open-ended questions from the teacher or their peer(s) and then they discuss一working together to form knowledge and new ideas. This is active learning at its best!

This activity is an exciting and engaging way to encourage student participation and get them thinking about big ideas in a hands-on way. Now let’s get to the tactics and tips that will prepare you and your students for having the best socratic seminar.

Socratic seminars

6 Tactics and tips for the best socratic seminar.

1. Make a Social Contract

In preparation for having a socratic seminar it’s important to discuss with your class how they’d like to deal with different issues that might arise during a discussion. Some examples include: How should we deal with silences? Or, what are some ways that we can accept and move on from disagreements? Should we manage our emotions? If so, how do we do that?

This preparation is important for students who are new to socratic seminars because they are still learning how to communicate with others. It’s important that all students are on the same page about how to deal with challenges that could derail a constructive dialogue一this will make the discussion much smoother and keep it on track!

Have a discussion about it! You can use the Parlay Universe discussion: Creating Our Classroom Contract to help you and your students determine what rules work best for them.

2. Pause, Reflect and Restart

There’s no shame in starting over. This beginner tip makes that clear!

Sometimes all that’s needed is some time to reflect on how student participation is going. Take 5 minutes to see how the class is feeling about how they’re participating, what is going well, and what could be improved. Ask questions like:

Does everyone feel involved? Or, what is one thing each of us can do to improve our communication? How can we encourage quieter voices to speak up? Other examples:

Pause and Reflect

Do this around 10 minutes into the discussion, or when students seem to be having a difficult time, then start over. This can greatly improve participation and how your students take initiative to communicate with one another. For more reflection activities make sure to check out our blog: 6 Easy Activities that Empower Daily Learner Reflection.

3. Breaking the Ice

No this isn’t your typical, “3 activities for breaking the ice with your students.” One of the #1 things we’re asked is, “What do I do if my students don’t know where or how to start?” It can be tough for your students to get started with discussions when the activity is new to them, they may be hesitant to participate because they’re self-conscious of saying the wrong thing.

The fix? Try what we like to call, the ‘Circle of Voices.’ In this activity you ask your students a simple question that can be answered in  1 – 3 words. Have students write down their answers and then start the discussion一go around the room and allow each person to share their answer. This gives everyone a chance to participate and gets the ball rolling. Now that everyone is warmed up you can transition into a course related discussion.

Bonus! Break the tension by saying something silly or giving an obviously wrong answer. Once they see you make a mistake, they’ll feel much more at ease and they’ll know that it’s perfectly okay to make a mistake. We all do it, even the teacher!

4. Wait Out the Awkward Silence

Within every teacher is a superhero who wants to save their students from impending evils. The awkward silence can seem like the biggest evil, and it can even make you feel awkward. But just wait, the silence is actually golden.

If you’re always saving your students then you may be missing out on some wonderful possibilities, such as a student who finally jumps in to share their perspective. The silence is also a great time for students to think about and come up with thoughtful responses. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither was Sam’s unique insights on how we might approach climate change.

Give your students space to sit in the awkward silence and you’ll be amazed at what they come up with and who might participate.

5. Poll the Class

Starting with a simple introduction can be the easiest way to get the ball rolling. Poll your class with a simple question that ends in a yes or no. This now opens the door for you to prompt the class further with deeper questions, like:

Why did you say that? Or, explain why you answered yes or no.

This is a great way for every student to get a foot in the door and will crack open the discussion for further exploration.

6. Designated Questioner

We still believe that you should embrace awkward silences! But this is another great way that you can keep a socratic seminar flowing.

Designate 1 or 2 of your students as the designated question asker. This is a great fail-safe for if silence falls over the group. Depending on what you decide, have them chime in with a question based on the last person’s point, or have them change direction and ask a general question about the topic you’re discussing.

Round Up

That was 6 tips for having more engaging socratic seminars. Your students are now on their way to having better discussions where they’ll be learning important communication skills.

If you try any of these tips let us know how it goes! Make sure to reach out to us if you have any questions, just click the smiley face in the bottom right hand corner. We look forward to hearing from you! Or find us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram for more discussion-based tips.