Socratic Seminar for Every Classroom

-by Jack M. Jose

Mortimer Adler Great Books Series
The Great Books collection in Jack’s home

Socratic Seminar for Every Classroom

The Friday before winter break, 16 years ago, in the middle of a formal classroom discussion – a seminar – I put down my pen. I stopped trying to capture what was happening in order to consciously be part of what had become a moment of transcendence. The gesture, putting down my pen, had an immediate effect on the students around the table. “Is something wrong?” a student asked. Other students seemed to have the same question. I searched for the right words. “Oh, no. In fact, it’s just about perfect. I’ve stopped writing because you’re all doing it.” This received a quizzical look, so I tried to explain. “You know … IT. You guys are having this great discussion about literature, citing the story, involving each other … you’re all getting 4’s. “ This was the highest possible score. “Please, don’t stop.” Fortunately, this interruption was not able to derail the conversation, and a student immediately picked up the thread of the previous question.

Two days earlier, my co-teacher and I had assigned “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote for our 11th grade students to read at home. The next day – yesterday – we read almost the whole thing aloud together. We had pointed out important aspects of characterization and setting, and highlighted other key elements of the story, working to answer questions as some students struggled to understand the text, while others picked up the subtleties of Capote’s masterful storytelling. In fact it was a small detail that the students examined in seminar that made me realize they understood the purpose of deep reading and conversation of good literature. The story examines a quirky relationship between an older woman and a young boy who are cousins in a large household. In the story, at Christmas time, they go in search of a Christmas tree. The boy describes their conversation about the tree, referring to the woman as “my friend”: “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me.

A student focused on one part of the sentence, saying aloud, “twice as tall as a boy.”

The students dug in and explored the comment, and looked for other similar ideas in the story. They noticed a pattern of how much of the older woman’s actions revolve around the boy. “It’s like, not just any boy. She measures the tree by the narrator. She does everything for him,” says one of them. “And with him,” adds another. Other students seize on this and find similar quotes in support. … And I put down my pen.

“It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me.

Getting to a moment like this took hard work. These students entered the Paideia program at Hughes Center as 9th graders, and some of them had gone to a Paideia middle school prior to that. So years of nearly weekly practice went in to an 11th grade seminar. However, the conditions for a successful seminar can be created in any classroom.

Mortimer Adler was the father of the Paideia philosophy of instruction. Named with the Greek word for “all knowledge”, the philosophy emphasized the need to expose all people to the important philosophies from mankind’s history, such that any two people waiting for a bus could strike up a conversation about the “great ideas.” The philosophy provided a formula for teaching which suggested small amounts of didactic instruction, larger amounts of guided work time, and a dedication to regular, formal guided discussions called “seminar” It looks somewhat like the 3-part lesson in Montessori classrooms, and places responsibility on the teacher to present information accurately, then to guide the student in exploration of the content.

Seminar: Selecting the text

Adler proposed a formal book list, which he called the “Great Books.” His company accumulated, bound, and sold this series of books, which included the writings of Aristotle, Shakespeare, Plato, Galileo, and Tolstoy. It came with a guide to the “great questions” asked in each, which aligns to the understanding in education today that our minds seek to acquire knowledge in an organized way, and that thematic organization promotes memory. While Adler’s “Great Books” series came to be criticized for emphasizing western thought, teachers at Hughes supplemented Socrates with Gandhi, and DaVinci’s notebooks with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and we read Amy Tan, Alice Walker and others to intentionally broaden our worldview. These texts can range from historical documents such as The Declaration of Independence to short fiction such as Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find”, both of which explore notions related to good and evil. I have also conducted seminar on one poem or a group of poems, or even on one or more works of art.

The best text fits well with a larger quarterly theme, engages the students, challenges them as readers, and is well written so as to stand up to the rigors of close reading. Sometimes the choice is clear, as a particular document is a core part of the curriculum. Other times the selection can only be reached after weeks of discussion and exploration by a team of teachers during the process of developing the quarterly curriculum.

Seminar: Preparing the student

This seminar formula is replicable anywhere. Many of the readings that address these large issues are challenging, especially for adolescents, and so a careful reading in advance is necessary for a successful seminar. Students are asked to read and highlight each text independently in advance, then to do a guided reading together as a class. Many times this involves the teacher(s) reading aloud, though depending on the difficulty of the text, allowing student readers or even small group readings can achieve the same goal. During the close reading, we taught and reinforced the skills of close reading – highlighting key ideas in the text, writing questions in the margins, and seeking constantly for the “universal ideas” in the text.

Seeking the universal ideas in the text is a key goal of the reading and seminar process. For instance, “A Christmas Memory” may seem to be a warm story about an an older woman some may describe as “simple” and a young boy always excited to see what she has planned for them to do each day, but in fact it reveals a lot about love and how to be in relationship with each other in general. Who doesn’t want to be with someone who eccentrically measures their world in relation to yourself? The last preparation was for students to gather a few, say 5-10, of these universal questions , which we referred to together as “critical thinking questions,” in preparation for seminar. Once this preparation is complete, you are ready to seminar.

Seminar: Preparing the space

A prepared seminar room allows students to sit at tables or desks in a circle or rectangle, with each student able to see the others. The ideal size of a seminar is 10 to 15 students, roughly half a class. (This can be accomplished in most classrooms without the aid of a co-teacher by having half the students completing independent work while the others seminar, then switching.) Students’ last names are written neatly on small formal placards: “Ms. Robinson”, “Mr. Chin”, “Ms. Simmons”.

The teacher should be in this circle, as well. The skilled teacher seeks to play the role of a moderator, asking probing questions, challenging students to remain engaged in conversation on matters related to the text or the universal ideas, and seeking full engagement. The teacher may have prepared a list of dozens of questions, often gathered while seeking the best opening and core questions for the seminar. His text is marked with areas where students expressed confusion, excitement, or strong emotions; every well-chosen text has moments of clarity, important ideas, or strong emotions that must be visited in seminar, just as every foreign state has monuments and memorials that must be visited when one is travelling.

Guidelines for Socratic Seminar image

Additionally, the seminar space should have the formal rules of seminar, which have been taught to them previously, posted where students can see and be reminded of them. The final preparation is the formal display of the opening and core questions. These are visible to the student to avoid confusion and allow revisiting both questions throughout the conversation. Here is an example of the rules of seminar: Guidelines for Socratic Seminar final


Every well-chosen text has moments of clarity, important ideas, or strong emotions that must be visited in seminar, just as every foreign state has monuments and memorials that must be visited when one is travelling.

Seminar Itself

As participants entered the space, or prior to them doing so, the teacher might indicate which skills students should focus on during the seminar by marking their self-scoring sheet. Students entering should be asked to write down and respond to the opening question, if it was not assigned as homework. A good use of the arrival transition time as students are writing their opener is to check for the critical thinking questions, assisting students and the seminar by circling the questions most likely to lead to more in-depth conversation or to head toward the core question. This is especially important for those students who have trouble knowing when to interject in seminar; if a question has already been designated by the teacher as a “good” question, they are far more comfortable asking it in front of their peers.

Seminar begins with one person, usually the facilitator, asking the opening question aloud. The students respond to it by reading their written response, and often adding a brief comment reflecting their thoughts in the minute since their writing began, or contradictions the did not have time to address. From there, the guide or facilitator seeks to use questions to accomplish several tasks:

  • Promote in-depth discussion of key questions
  • Promote universal involvement
  • Visit key text ideas to examine the author’s purpose
  • Lead students to the core question

Seminar demands a lot from the facilitator, who must not only guide the intellectual direction of the conversation, but who must also help manage the behaviors of the group of adolescents in the room. The formality of the setting, and the advanced preparation of the students, helps everyone stay focused and successful during seminar.

Every seminar, like every conversation, seems to have a natural length. Typically, a sustained conversation of 40 minutes is a good benchmark. Seldom is a question so engaging as to involve a group of students for much longer than that, and it is difficult to get very deep into a text in a shorter period than that.

That said, the best seminar is the one where the facilitator has taught and coached the students in the strategies such that they self-regulate – making sure everyone gets a chance to respond to the opening question, asking and answering each others’ questions, and finding the appropriate way to drive toward the core question with enough time left to adequately address it. Students in a high-functioning seminar, who have grasped the essential meaning of the text, might even have the confidence to reject a core question and replace it with one of their own.

Seminar: Evaluation

Evaluation in my “A Christmas Memory” seminar was easy at the end, because I had observed (and noted) all of the key aspects of good seminar activity prior to setting down my pen. Prior to that I had been almost frantically recording notes, often in an improvised shorthand, to try and capture the thread of the conversation and who was exhibiting which key seminar skills. (In fact, it was likely the sudden lack of constant activity at my end of the table that disrupted the seminar.) The self-evaluation sheet I gave to every student looked for a series of appropriate actions they were to attempt, while being aware that they might not be able to do them all. A non-comprehensive list of these skills includes:

  • ask questions for clarification
  • make eye contact
  • cite the text
  • involve others
  • help clarify ideas for others
  • ask universal questions
  • make allusions to other common texts
  • allow others to speak.

This list can be modified for the needs of the class. A final score for seminar can be derived from looking at these items holistically: the marked text, the student’s critical thinking questions, the written response to the opening question, the student’s performance in the seminar itself, and the written response to the core question. Here is one example: Seminar Evaluation Form – modified

Seminar key items revisited

To recap, a successful seminar happens when conditions are right. The teacher has great responsibility for helping these conditions. Here is what can be prepared to provide the greatest chance for success:

  • An engaging text, preferably related to a larger quarterly theme
  • A plan for creating a group of 10-15 students
  • A plan for allowing 40 to 60 minutes of unbroken conversation
  • Formal name card for each student participant
  • Room for a circle or rectangle where all students have equal access or status
  • An opening question, one which requires some exploration of their prepared text and/or invites discussion or even disagreement
  • Seminar evaluation form for each student (here’s another example: Conscience seminar form )
  • A tracking document to note student involvement and performance; some use blank paper, some use a chart like this one: Seminar tracking document example
  • A core question, one which exposes a universal question in the text and calls on the reader to address the question in their text, in the quarterly readings and experiences, and in their own experience.

The guided formal investigation of a topic is an essential part of a successful classroom plan. When students gain the ability to formally interact with each other to examine a topic in-depth, they are ready for the most demanding tasks we can place on them after they leave the classroom.

I invite you to comment with a specific piece of literature that you have used to address a key component of your curriculum – was it an historical text to support a social studies standard, or perhaps a work of fiction to help explain a science objective? Please share your story in the comments, and be sure to enter your address to subscribe to our blog, where you will get weekly updates delivered straight to your inbox.