The Great Debate (Socratic Seminars in the Classroom!)

About four years ago I decided to “flip” my traditional classroom. I moved myself away from being the center of the room. I used to stand at a podium and offered 5 lectures a week. Instead, I shifted to a more student-centered classroom. This was not something I did overnight, however my first transition into the student centered room was via the Socratic seminar.

I first heard about Socratic seminars in grad school. I had never practiced them as a student but as I learned about them I saw the value in using text and evidence to support student reasoning as opposed to issuing opinions. Interesting, often controversial texts, are required for the best seminars. Socratic seminars are a form of debate, but should be used more to clarify a text then having a screaming match of opinions.

I set up my seminars in a fishbowl style (one outer circle watching an inner) in the beginning of the year, and move to one big circle by June when students are more comfortable with the practice. I lead the early seminars and have students take over by October/November. Students listen closely to the comments of others and are “Locked in” after they speak twice. The two students around them (one on their, left the other on their right have to speak) before they are unlocked. This allow not one student to dominate and encourages shy students to participate.

I love this activity as it encourages students to think critically for themselves, and grapple with their own thoughts skillfully. My favorite topics were:

  • Was the Populist movement a failure?
  • Were the business leaders of the 1890s “captains of industries” or robber barons
  • Was the dropping of the atomic bomb justified?
  • Did American involvement as an imperialist nation in foreign affairs reflect or reject US values?

Have you tried socratic seminars in your classrooms? What did you enjoy the most about them? If not, I HIGHLY recommend it!



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