What I learned from Socratic Seminars

What is it like to spend every English class sitting in a circle discussing articles? At my school, IB English is the place to go.

Ideal socratic seminars can serve as a metaphor for how education’s future is -- decentralized, organic, and artful. In such seminars, the teacher’s sole goal is to facilitate, and the discussion is open-ended, focusing on broad, general ideas rather than specific, factual information [1].

First, a primer of the general structure of our seminars:

Before class: Assigned reading -> Annotation -> “High level (HL) questions”

In class: Appointment of a discussion leader -> HL questions -> optional guiding questions -> notes & summary.

Yes, that’s the entirety of my current English curriculum. Judge as you may, we can all learn lessons about education from this simple activity.

  1. They make everyone leaders. There is a huge difference between being the center of attention within a field of desks versus within a circle of desks. My former English class oscillated between lectures and group work. I felt suppressed, because if I speak too little, I overthink in budgeting my words; if I speak too much, the class would find me repulsive. Then, I discovered my talent through speaking up in socratic seminars -- I can effortlessly summarize my peers’ arguments, respond to them while questioning if necessary, and open new “threads” to move the conversation forward. Everyone is free to do this, even if they’re not the discussion leader. When desks are all facing forward, we submit our power to a silencing consciousness of the “classroom”; when in a circle, we submit only to ourselves and the enclosed pool of wisdom. Think about projecting this student pioneering spirit onto classes! Students can create dialogue between units, evaluate their objective merits, and lead what they learn.

  2. They are decentralized. Not to say seminars completely block pragmatism -- a “point taker” still needs to make sure everyone speaks at least thrice -- but the limitation stops there. To put faith in this system where unpopular opinions are equally examined (tyranny of the majority still applies, though), you must first believe that for participants to gain deeper understanding of the text, “thoughtful dialogue” rather than memorizing information that has been provided works best [2] (i.e.discussion notes vs reading guides). I believe in the future, education will increasingly see the absence of a central authority -- both on the policy level and on the epistemological level, where information absorption is much easier than choosing what information to absorb.

  3. If done repeatedly, they create a trustful intellectual environment. We’ve been doing seminars for a year now, and I can largely predict what everyone’s opinion is regardless of the topic. This makes it less exciting, but for every new article, I don’t have to face the perils of a apathetic or hostile group. We are wiring a loose program together -- whether questions are heady or basic, someone would surely craft a take using their frame of mind, so everything flows fluidly like tai chi. In too many classes and activities, leaders spend half of the class addressing rules that don’t apply to one group or another; in a seminar, you sometimes feel the urge to respond to opinions that don’t even apply. Rules, on some level, diminish trust; simple rules in a seminar lies in the back and let continuous thinking take over.

[This is the 2nd article in a series about education.]

About me: I am a high school senior in Los Angeles. I transferred schools solely to try out the IB program, which is not the best but is educational. Any questions about IB, studying, or e-learning welcome.



[1] Copeland, Matt (2010). Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School. Portland, MN: Stenhouse.

[2] "The Socratic Circle" (PDF). Retrieved 17 July 2012.

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