Pushing Student Thinking through Socratic Seminars

This week I had the opportunity to do a two-part guest lesson with a group of seniors in their government class. Our essential question was “Why is America so polarized?” We looked at four different sources to answer this question: a Pew Research Study, a conservative’s OpEd, a liberal’s OpEd, and a podcast interview. I’ll be honest, the students did not love digging deeply into those four sources. It was mentally rigorous and at times, exhausting. But I knew that they needed that information for day 2’s agenda: a socratic seminar.

When the time came for the seminar, students were ready to speak. They shared their own personal vision for America, they supported what they believed to be the biggest contributing factor to political polarization with evidence from our readings, and they debated the best way to move forward to diminish the crippling polarization we see daily. The vast majority of students, even the shyest, participated in the discussion, bouncing ideas off of each other and challenging others’ conceptions with the evidence they drew from the articles. It was really a joy to just sit back in a student’s chair during this time and listen to these seniors, who will be voting in the next election, debate real ideas with real consequences. Socratic Seminars provide a great platform to do this.

In Socratic Seminars, students usually sit in a circle and discuss deeper questions that then lead to a bigger, essential question, which encapsulates the whole learning event. Teachers often stay back, letting students start the conversation (perhaps with some questions on the board), engage with one another, cite evidence from previously-read sources, and draw conclusions together. Socratic Seminars put the onus of learning on the students and allows them to explore different answers to complex questions in the safety of their classroom.

When I lead professional developments for schools who use the Thinking Nation curriculum, I often encourage teachers to incorporate socratic seminars into their use of our materials. While Socratic Seminars may seem intimidating at first, they are excellent ways to have students engage with complex ideas and empower them to think critically about the content they are studying. To successfully engage in a Socratic Seminar, students need to have read or looked at relevant sources to the topic at hand. They must have a broad essential question to frame their thinking about those materials and they need smaller open-ended questions that can guide their thinking throughout the discussion process. We’ve designed our curricular materials, especially our DBQs, to include all of these things so that teachers can effectively attach a Socratic Seminar to that learning process.

At Thinking Nation, we believe in empowers students to think historically. We aren’t satisfied with them being mere passive receivers of a historical narrative; rather, we want them to actively engage with the past. We want students to wrestle with historical sources and draw evidence-based conclusions as they navigate the sea of the past. Implementing Socratic Seminars gives students such opportunities in their learning process.