Worth Talking About: Topics for Socratic Seminars

What makes a good topic for a Socratic seminar? You can use any kind of text—a poem, a painting, a science experiment, a math problem, an historical document—as long as it’s worth talking about.

What to look for in a Socratic seminar text

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Seminar topic: Martin Luther King Jr.s “I Have a Dream” speech.

A text can take a wide variety of forms, from M.C. Escher’s drawing of a Moebius Strip, to Dr. Suess’s The Lorax, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But all good topics for a Socratic seminar will have four qualities in common:

  • They are rich in ideas and values.
  • They offer complexity and challenge.
  • They are relevant to seminar participants.
  • They are fundamentally ambiguous.

Find Socratic seminar lesson plans 

Socratic seminars can be used to teach any subject

Moebius Strip by M.C. Escher
Seminar topic: Moebius Strip by M.C. Escher

While Socratic seminars are highly valuable for teaching the language arts skills of reading, speaking and listening, and writing, they can be used in all subject areas. Seminars teach critical thinking and communication skills, which are essential  to students’ success across school subjects and career fields.

Seminars also give students the opportunity to explore the most profound texts in any field of study. In history, an example might be The Declaration of Independence. In science, it could be an excerpt from The Origin of Species.  In literature, it could be a soliloquy from Hamlet.

Seminar dialogue also encourages collaborative problem solving, a valuable skill in both school and life. For example, one seminar in a math class considered how to calculate the height of a building with a limited set of tools. Students proposed various solutions and built on each other’s ideas to solve the problem.

Socratic seminars inspire students to think about big ideas

Starry Night
Seminar topic: Van Gogh’s Starry Night

One reason that Socratic seminars are such an effective way to teach is that they engage students with big ideas that are interesting and exciting to think about. Seminars also build critical thinking skills by teaching students to examine their assumptions and biases.

For example, ideas and values to discuss in a seminar on the painting Starry Night could include Astronomy, Beauty, Life and Death, Eternity, and Symbol. Ideas and values to discuss in Thoreau’s Walden might be Determination, Life Experience, Discovery, and Choice.

Resources for Socratic seminar teachers

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

Find lesson plans
You can search for seminar lesson plans by subject, grade level, and main idea. Plans are available for English and Language Arts, Math, Science, or Social Studies classes.

Explore professional development opportunities
Options include workshops, conferences, and on-site training at your school.

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