Socratic Seminar Rules and Goals

Socratic Seminar is a great way to coach students in vital 21st century skills—especially critical thinking and speaking and listening skills. Seminars are most effective when facilitators establish some rules for respectful dialogue and ask students to set goals.

Before the Seminar: Explain the Rules

First, set up your classroom for a seminar. To encourage a collaborative dialogue, arrange students’ seats in a circle. Use name displays, even if they all know each other. Talk about why and how we do Socratic seminars. It’s important to do this every time, even if you teach seminars on a regular basis. Go over these rules:

  • Students don’t need to raise their hands to talk. They should focus on the main speaker and wait their turn.
  • They should respond to each other, using each other’s names.
  • They should express agreement or disagreement in a courteous, thoughtful manner.

Paideia’s Seminar Process Script for teachers offers in-depth guidelines for introducing a seminar. Paideia also offers free Socratic seminar lesson plans.

Elementary Socratic seminar

Setting Goals for the Seminar Process

Group goals

Before the seminar, ask the student to choose a group goal, such as:

  • Focus on ideas and values in the text.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Invite everyone to share their ideas.
  • Use others’ names.
  • Remember that one person speaks at a time.

NOVICE GOALS

Then ask the students to each choose an individual goal. You can provide a list of goals for them to choose from. If your students are young or new to seminar, you might suggest goals like:

  • Look at the speaker.
  • Speak voluntarily at least twice.
  • Make clear, accurate statements.
  • Refer to the text.

ADVANCED GOALS

If your students are more advanced, you can suggest more challenging individual goals like:

  • Refer to the text and other relevant sources.
  • Test assumptions and explore inferences.
  • Acknowledge changes in your perspective.
  • Offer a more global interpretation of a previous statement.

You can find more examples of goals in the Seminar Process Script.

After the dialogue, ask the students to assess how well they met their goals. Then talk about future goals.

Guidelines for Socratic Seminar leaders

Teaching Socratic seminar
National Paideia Center director Terry Roberts leading a Socratic seminar.

Your role as the facilitator is to ask thought-provoking questions. You should be careful to limit your own talk time. Still, you play an active role shaping the dialogue and tracking how it goes so you can coach the students to improve their skills.

As they talk, listen carefully, so you can ask thoughtful follow-up questions. Keep track of talk time so you can encourage everyone to participate. It helps to draw a map of the dialogue, taking notes on who participates and how. Afterward, use your notes to offer helpful feedback.

If the discussion gets out of hand, you might need to break in and remind students of the seminar rules and goals. But don’t get discouraged! Critical thinking and speaking and listening are learned skills, just like reading and writing. And regular practice with Socratic seminars is how students learn. It’s exciting to watch them progress.

Socratic seminar resources for teachers 

Find lesson plans
We offer free lesson plans outlining how to teach a Socratic seminar. The Paideia approach to Socratic seminar is aligned with Language Arts curriculum goals, including reading, speaking and listening, and writing. You can search plans by subject, grade level, and main idea.

Join a training
We offer professional development opportunities for teachers, including conferences, workshops, and on-site trainings at your school.

Learn more
Our website offers an introduction to teaching Socratic seminars.

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