Socratic Seminar FTW!

As you read last time, I love, love, love AVID. I was having a nerdy blast in Philadelphia last month and wanted to share another great learning tool that AVID has given me.

I’ve done Socratic Seminar in my classes before. It is a great protocol for class discussions. What makes Socratic Seminar different from the typical classroom discussion is three-fold:

  1. It is text based,
  2. Each speaker builds upon the information from the previous speaker, and,
  3. It is driven by high-level student questions.


Socratic Seminar takes a lot of prep. In AVID, the Weeks at a Glance Guide suggests team building games and exercises for each Friday. I’ve heard AVID teachers and trainers talk about their strong desire to skip these so-called fluffy activities, because, like in most of our classes, there is so much to do in so little time. However, these “fluffy” activities are critical for Socratic Seminar and many of the other activities in AVID that demand an atmosphere of trust and respect. In AVID, partly because of the fact that the cohort matriculate togher up the grades, these social and emotional characteristics of the AVID classroom grow into much more: a feeling of family. This emotional and social training are an on-going part of every AVID classroom.

Socratic Seminar is text based, so before the discussion, all students carefully read. In my training this summer, that reading was an article from the Atlantic on the power of reflection. Careful reading isn’t just an exhortation in AVID, it is a specific set of skills and behaviors we train our kids to do.

Before reading, I give my kids a quick write related to the topic of the text, then, as soon as they get the text, they number the paragraphs. This is important because, during the discussion, students will refer to the text, giving the paragraph number to the group so they others can follow. Then, they quietly read through the text a first time. Afterwards, they re-read the text, circling key vocabulary, underlining important phrases, and making an asterisk next to the author’s main point. Finally, my students write one level-2 and one level-3 question about the text. When it works great, these questions are authentic, they are questions the students want to talk about. They had been trained in Costa’s levels of thinking and questions prior to this activity.

Now we are ready to talk.

In the article we read about reflection, I circled words like, “demonstrated,” “explained,” “articulate,” “reflection,” “synthesize,” and others. I underlined phrases such as:

  • “he preferred to articulate each key point he had just learned and teach me how to do it,”
  • “Those given time to reflect scored 23 percent better,” and
  • “no significant difference between reflecting upon new knowledge alone and teaching or sharing it with someone else – both boosted performance.”

I made my asterisk next to the sentence, “Learning is more effective if a lesson or experience is deliberately coupled with time spent thinking about what was just presented, a new study shows.”

My questions were, “How much time do you imagine your students need to reflect on their learning to achieve the kinds of results described in the article?” “How often do you imagine allowing your students time to reflect and why?”

Socratic Seminar

Students sit in a circle. The leader, it doesn’t have to be the teacher as students become more and more adept at Seminar, asks students to share one of their questions. Around the circle, students take turns stating one of their questions. Once the circle is complete, the leader choses the first question and the discussion begins.

Students share what they think. They refer to the text as they share their idea. After the first speaker, the next summarizes what was just said and attempts to build off of that knowledge with their own, again, referring us back to the text.

We have a rule in Socratic Seminar, “Three before me.” After one person has shared, she should wait for three others to share before sharing again.

In my workshop, after we eight teachers shared our questions, the leader chose to begin with “How do we use reflection in our daily lives and how can we model that process for our students.”

I won’t go into the details of our discussion, just trust me that it was authentic, heart felt, and wonderful. Even though we were practicing a learning technique that we hoped to lead our students in this fall, we were simultaneously experiencing a rich and thoughtful discussion. Some teachers felt safe enough to share their vulnerabilities. Others shared their experiences. Others shared their hopes and fears.

As time ran out, my group quickly brainstormed a word-bank relating to the article and the discussion that we could use when we quietly wrote our reflection about what we learned about Socratic Seminar and the article about the power of reflection in learning.

What I’m taking away from this experience is two-fold:

  • First, I’m reinvigorated and excited to use Socratic Seminar in all my classes this Fall.
  • Second, I want to build more intentional reflection time into my lessons. The fantasizing part of my brain says “EVERDAY!!!” but I’m going to set my goal for twice each week.

How about you? Do you use Socratic Seminar in your classroom?

What about a different discussion protocol? Will you share that with us?

What do you think about the power of reflection? Can you imagine allowing your students time to reflect? How about allowing yourself that time?




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