Socratic Seminars

Socratic Seminars

Excerpted from Checking for Understanding 54-55.

Standards: This strategy has the potential to address all the Standards for Reading Literature and Informational Text, as well as SL1, SL3, SL4, and SL6.

Greek philosopher Socrates believed that the best way to gain and test knowledge was through the dialectic method of “disciplined conversation.” There are four essential components:

The text. Socratic seminar texts can be informational or literary, but they must be rich enough to engender readers’ questions. The text must capture the imagination of the group. The text should challenge readers’ attitudes and beliefs.


The question. A Socratic seminar begins with a question posed by the leader. The question should have no right answer but must have the capacity to send readers back to the text to think, search, evaluate, wonder, or infer. As students gain expertise in Socratic seminars, they will begin asking their own questions.


The leader. In Socratic seminars, the leader is both a participant and a facilitator. The leader must know the text well enough to anticipate issues that may invoke strong reactions, various interpretations, and possible misunderstandings. At the same time, the leader must allow the group to come to its own understanding of the text and the ideas it inspires.


The participants. In a Socratic seminar, the participants are responsible for the quality of the seminar. Good seminars result when participants study the text in advance, listen actively, share ideas, opinions, and questions, and search for evidence in the text.

Guidelines for Participants in a Socratic Seminar 

From C. Adams, 2004, Vestavia Hills High School, Birmingham, Alabama

1. Refer to the text when needed during the discussion. A seminar is not a test of memory. You are not “learning a subject”; your goal is to understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in the text.
2. It’s okay to “pass” when asked to contribute.
3. Do not participate if you are not prepared. A seminar should not be a bull session.
4. Do not stay confused; ask for clarification.
5. Stick to the point currently under discussion; make notes about ideas you want to come back to.
6. Don’t raise hands; take turns speaking.
7. Listen carefully.
8. Speak up so that all can hear you.
9. Talk to each other, not just to the leader or teacher.
10. Discuss ideas rather than each other’s opinions.
11. You are responsible for the seminar, even if you don’t know it or admit it.

To get started, model the process with a challenging but familiar text. After students in Grade 11 English engaged in an abridged reading of Chapter 1 of Henry David Thoreau’sWalden, RHS teachers Dakin and Casper organized students into small groups and each group selected a group leader to both guide and participate in the discussion. The Seminar Questions for Walden were composed by the teachers, who circulated and observed the first seminar.