Laying the Groundwork for Courageous Conversations: A Beginner’s Guide to Socratic Seminars

The Socratic teaching method — a rigorous dialogue with one question leading to another — originated with the Greek philosopher Socrates circa 400 BCE. Despite being one of the oldest pedagogical strategies, Socratic seminars are still one of the best ways to engage modern-day diverse learners with a variety of skills and personal experiences.

[Above: English teacher Meg Arbeiter’s students participate in a Socratic seminar at ChiArts in Chicago, Ill.]

For Amber Murphy, a veteran high school teacher and development assistant at Marian Middle School in St. Louis, Mo., Socratic seminars allow her to give her students, especially those from marginalized groups, the most prominent voice in her classroom. 

Amber Murphy
Amber Murphy

“I think in an English classroom, particularly, the questions the teacher asks are the questions that really frame the way everything is analyzed and viewed,” she says. “If I’m the one leading classroom discussions, I’m leading the conversation from the perspective of a white [woman] in ways that I’m not even aware of.”

The Socratic format empowers students to make their voices heard, teaches young people to actively listen to opposing viewpoints, and shows them how to respectfully engage in courageous conversations. Students learn to make connections between different ideas and arrive at new, more complex insights rather than prove the merits of one particular argument over another.

Introducing Socratic Seminars to High School Freshmen
A fundamental characteristic of Socratic seminars is that they are dialogues, not debates, says Meg Arbeiter, a National Board-certified educator who teaches English at The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts).

Meg Arbeiter
Meg Arbeiter

She emphasizes the distinction between the two when she introduces Socratic seminars to younger students. It’s a concept worth repeating, she says. Even with seniors, Arbeiter reiterates the idea that “in dialogue we’re listening to understand, not debating one another’s ideas to win.”

Arbeiter gives students “sentence starters” to use during the seminar, such as, “I hear what you’re saying, [classmate’s name], but I’m not sure,” or, “I respectfully disagree with that because … .” She requires them to refer to each other by name throughout the discussion and encourages them to paraphrase their classmates’ ideas before launching into their own comments.

Another crucial part of preparing students for their first seminar is teaching them how to ask meaningful questions. Arbeiter instructs them to ask clarifying questions with a specific answer as well as broader and more provocative open-ended questions.

Creating A Safe Space
Working to make the classroom a safe space is essential to laying the groundwork for Socratic seminars. One way to do this, Arbeiter says, is to have students respond in writing to some simple prompts during the first few days of school: What does safe space sound like? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Through discussion, the class can then collectively answer each question.

Murphy found it was a good idea to post the collective responses for the remainder of the school year because “students’ sense of safety has a lot to do with what’s hanging on the walls in your classroom,” she says.

When students are ready to discuss controversial or culturally sensitive topics, reminding them of the group’s norms prepares them for potential emotional triggers.  To do this, Arbeiter asks them to write independently about what they feel when speaking about race or other sensitive topics. Then her class collectively discusses what they think are “some feelings that might be in the room.” This short activity can ease the tension and create an atmosphere where everyone can feel safe participating in an open dialogue about race, she says.

Supporting Students Who Struggle with Public Speaking
Another consideration during Socratic seminars is supporting those who are uncomfortable speaking up in class, including introverts, English language learners, hearing-impaired students, and students with speech impediments.

Arbeiter says she never grades Socratic seminars. Not attaching a grade helps the participants understand that it’s not a “points game,” says Arbeiter. “They know that you don’t win or lose points based on the number of times that you talk,” she adds.

A more specific strategy Arbeiter uses is to set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning of the seminar. When the timer goes off, she reminds the class to think about who has already spoken and who hasn’t. If anyone seems nervous about jumping in, Arbeiter pauses for a one-minute quick write. “When students have the chance to get some ideas on paper, then it happens in a magical way that the next person who speaks is someone who hasn’t contributed yet to the conversation,” she says.

In addition, Murphy sometimes deliberately selects an introverted student to be the discussion leader. “It sounds counterintuitive,” she says, “but it gives them a chance to get their ideas out right at the beginning. Or they can just start the seminar with a question.”

Witnessing Courageous Conversations
The result is that students have powerful and respectful conversations about topics many adults either avoid or fight over. Murphy recalls a Socratic seminar about To Kill a Mockingbird in which her freshmen English class got into an enthusiastic dialogue about poverty and race.

Initially, African American students were discussing what it means to be black and poor versus what it means to be white and wealthy. Then a white student who had just moved to St. Louis from rural Virginia spoke about his experiences with poor people who were white.

“They connected it back to the book and talked about how the black poor versus the white poor were represented and whether that was a [fair] portrayal,” she says. “It led to a really rich discussion about the book, but more importantly it was a good discussion about society, and it really was an ‘aha’ moment for some kids.”

“Socratic seminars are really so much for me why I teach and why I am so passionate about teaching,” Arbeiter says. “Ultimately the most important skill we’re teaching isn’t speaking. The most important skill we’re teaching is listening — how do we really listen to understand one another?”

Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in our Spring 2019 issue.