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Effective Strategies for Implementing Socratic Seminars in the 3rd-8th Classroom

Updated: Jun 4

Running a Socratic Seminar in a classroom involves several key steps to ensure that the discussion is structured, engaging, and leads to higher-level thinking. Here’s a detailed guide for organizing and facilitating a Socratic Seminar in a 3rd-8th classroom.

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Let's start with the inspiration behind Socratic Seminars: Socrates

Who was Socrates?

Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, is the inspiration behind Socratic Seminars. Socrates believed that the best way to gain knowledge was through the practice of disciplined conversation, and examining ideas logically.

What is a Socratic Seminar?

The objective of a Socratic seminar is to have a deeper understanding of complex ideas through thoughtful and collaborative conversation (just like Socrates did). 

Socratic Seminars can be used with scholars of all ages! I’ve seen them run effectively with students as young as 2nd graders! Before the seminar, everyone in the group reads the same article, story, or looks at a topic. This gives everyone something to talk about.

Socrates believed that enabling students to think for themselves was more important than filling their heads with “right answers.”

Everyone sits in a circle so they can see and hear each other. “Pilots” sit in the inner circle and lead the discussion, while “Co-Pilots” sit behind them offering insight, information, and holding the Pilots accountable. The discussion starts with an open-ended question, and everyone takes turns sharing thoughts, adding ideas supported by the text or topic, and listening to each other. This collaborative conversation leads to a higher-level thinking about the topic, and an understanding of different perspectives.

Recommended Materials:

Here's a free PRINTABLE version of this Step-by-Step Guide

Running a Socratic Seminar:

Step 1: Text or Topic Selection

Select a text or topic that is rich in ideas and open to interpretation. This will be the starting point of discussion during the Socratic Seminar. Examples of texts: fiction or non-fiction books, close reading passages, articles, historical documents, primary source documents. poems, biographies, etc. Examples of topics: themes, ethical issues, philosophical questions, opinions, etc. All students should have access to the same text or topic, and plenty of time to read, analyze, and annotate beforehand. 

Step 2: Open-ended Questions

Prepare a series of open-ended questions related to the text or topic that encourage critical thinking and deep discussion. These questions should be designed to provoke analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of ideas. Example: Text: Non-fiction story with a brave character / Question: What does it mean to be brave? I recommend having 3-4 questions prepared to keep the conversation going if needed. Oftentimes, one guiding question might be enough to run a complete Socratic Seminar!

Step 3: Whole-Group Lesson

Start by explaining who Socrates was, and how he inspired the Socratic Seminar activity. Explain the purpose and format of the Socratic Seminar, and the different roles (Pilots & Co-Pilots). Describe the difference between dialogue and debate. Explain the process of coming up with open-ended questions, and allow students the opportunity to come up with their own open-ended questions.  Remind students of the importance of listening to multiple viewpoints and responses, and being a respectful participant. Use teaching slides to facilitate this lesson and discussion. Here are some key points to reinforce:

  • Listen respectfully without interrupting (this is important, because students do not raise their hand to participate; they politely take turns speaking).

  • Support your statements with evidence from the text/materials.

  • Everyone has the opportunity to speak and contribute, and only one person may speak at a time. 

  • Build on what others say, and do not debate their views. 

  • Once you have spoken three times, pause to let others contribute. 

  • Be respectful and kind. 

Step 4: Practice (optional)

Facilitate a short “practice” Socratic Seminar with a low-stakes prompt (What is the best subject in school? Which one doesn’t belong? (4 images). Review the expectations and guidelines beforehand, and be prepared to interject as needed to remind students. Allow time for a reflection and class discussion after the practice. 

Step 5: Provide the Text

Assign the text or material to the students ahead of time, allowing them to read, annotate, and reflect on it. Sometimes I have students view the content through a specific lens (Think Like a Historian, Think Like a Mathematician, Think Like an Innovator, etc.) Provide a “Note-Catcher” graphic organizer for students to record notes, ideas, and questions. Encourage them to note significant details, and formulate additional open-ended questions that they could use in the socratic seminar.  

Prompt higher-level thinking by using the Depth & Complexity prompt icons and Thinking Frame. There are 11 thinking prompts that will help students focus on many different aspects of the text/topic such as “Multiple Perspectives” “Ethics” “Big Idea” and “Language of the Discipline.” I like to select four of these prompts, and format them into a Thinking Frame with four quadrants. Students may use the frame to record bullet-point style notes and ideas. This is an excellent tool to have available during the seminar. You can find more information about how to use this here

Step 6: Student Planning

Have students organize their notes, thoughts, ideas, and questions into a format that will be easily accessible during the Socratic Seminar. This will be used for quick reference during the discussion. I created a one-page sheet that can be used for notes, as well as sentence frames for collaborative dialogue. There’s also a section for a “Collaboration Check.” Students fill in a green, yellow and red box. When they contribute to the conversation during the seminar, they move a paperclip over to the green box. The next time they speak, they move it to yellow, and then finally to red. If they want to speak again, but a lot of people are still on “green”, they must wait for others to have the chance to contribute first. This ensures that everyone gets an equal opportunity to speak, and serves a visual cue for some that haven’t spoken very often. (see photo below)

Both the pilots and the co-pilots should have notes and questions prepared. The co-pilots will also need a “Peer Co-Pilot Checklist” that they will use during the seminar to keep track of how often their peer contributes to the conversation, how well they followed expectations, and the types of contributions they are making to the discussion. In addition, co-pilots should have some post-its on hand, so that they can make quick notes or ideas for the pilot, if they need assistance. 

Step 7: Assign Roles

Assign or allow students to choose which role they will have in the Socratic Seminar: Pilots (discussion leaders) or Co-Pilots (assistant). If you are doing more than one group, you might also have some students that will be in the audience role until it is their turn to participate. 

There should be 1-2 Co-pilot(s) assigned to each Pilot. I recommend having groups of 10-12 students for each Socratic Seminar. (5-6 Pilots and 5-6 Co-Pilots). You can run a socratic seminar with more students, but it becomes more difficult to manage collaborative conversations and ensure that every participant has a chance to contribute. 

You could have students switch roles from pilot to co-pilot after each socratic seminar, or you could have designated roles for each student. For example, if you have students that might be more comfortable in a “co-pilot” position, you could have them stay in that role, or move them into a “pilot” role when they are ready.

Rotate these roles in future Socratic Seminars, to give everyone an opportunity to lead and assist. Use the Seating Chart template to record the seating arrangement. There are multiple templates to choose from. 

Pilot Role: The pilots are the main facilitators of the Socratic Seminar. The pilots start the seminar by presenting the central question or topic for discussion. This question is typically open-ended and designed to provoke thoughtful dialogue. Pilots help keep the conversation on track by asking follow-up questions, providing clarification, and giving thoughtful responses.

Co-Pilot Role: The co-pilots support the pilots by offering feedback and ideas, both before and during the Socratic Seminar. Co-Pilots track who is speaking and how often, ensuring equitable participation. The co-pilot can prepare additional questions or prompts to support the pilot. They may step in with these questions if the discussion stalls, or if the pilot needs a moment to regroup.

Step 8: Setup

Arrange the seating in a circle or rectangle to facilitate face-to-face interaction, and create an inclusive environment. I recommend having the students sit around a table or groups of desks, so that they have somewhere to place their materials. You can also set up additional pencils, highlighters, and post-it notes in the middle. If you are using Depth & Complexity prompts to guide the conversation, you could print out the Depth & Complexity Prompt Icons, and display them in the middle for reference. Pilots will sit in the inner circle/rectangle. Co-Pilots will sit behind them in the outer circle/rectangle. 

Step 9: Conducting the Seminar

Once everyone is seated, the teacher, or a Pilot begins the seminar by posing the initial open-ended question. This question should be broad enough to open up multiple viewpoints and opinions. Students take turns contributing to the discussion in one of the following ways:

  • Support or Agree (“I agree with your point about ___ because ___.”)

  • Disagree or Contest (“I see your point of view, however in my opinion…”)

  • Expand or Elaborate (“I would like to add on that…” “Another question I have is…”)

For a complete list of sentence stem ideas, see the Complete Socratic Seminar Resource.

It is important that students are using the “Collaboration Check” to keep track of how often they are adding to the discussion. Students should also be continually referring to their notes, and making points based on evidence from the text and/or research. Co-Pilots may offer assistance to their Pilot throughout the seminar, and should be actively monitoring the discussion.

Toward the end of the seminar, assign one pilot to summarize the main points that were discussed, and ask one final question to wrap up the seminar. The entire Socratic Seminar should be about 15-20 minutes, and I suggest using a timer!

Step 10: Post-Seminar Reflection

Conduct a debriefing session where students reflect on the seminar. I like to do this as a whole group, and then give students an opportunity to complete their own self-reflection in the form of a handout, journal response, or Google Slide template. I have templates for all of these versions included in the Complete Socratic Seminar resource. 

Discuss what went well, what could be improved, and how their understanding of the text/topic has deepened. 

Tips for Success

  • Be patient. Allow the discussion to develop naturally. Avoid the temptation to fill every silence. Sometimes pauses can lead to deeper thinking. 

  • Model behavior. Demonstrate active listening, respectful dialogue, and thoughtful questioning. Remind students to make eye-contact with their peers, speak clearly, at an appropriate volume, and use each other’s names when addressing them. Practicing this a lot in the beginning will be very helpful for the actual Socratic Seminar. 

  • Encourage critical thinking. Push students to go beyond surface-level responses and explore multiple viewpoints and deeper interdisciplinary connections. 

  • Consider different themes for the Socratic Seminar. I ran one called “Think Like an Innovator” where students viewed the topic: The Value of Innovation through the lens of a famous inventor/innovator. They were allowed to dress up like the innovator on the day of the seminar, and speak in first person as if they were that famous person! They loved it!

  • Save time! I've put together everything you need to run an effective Socratic Seminar (templates, teaching slides, digital student versions, bulletin board materials, and more!) Find it all HERE

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