Virtual Learning: Using Socratic Seminar for Thoughtful Discussions
For many of us, virtual learning is giving us opportunities to become creative in our approach to instruction, and leverage technology to deploy our favored classroom tools.
A couple mornings each week, after checking in and reviewing our assignment for the day, our 7th grade Language Arts students participate in small group discussions via Google Hangouts. It’s our way to leverage Socratic seminar principles for student learning. This gives the students enough time to have read two chapters and have a discussion.
Elfie Israel defined Socratic seminar as “a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others. They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly.” 1
Our students are currently reading Lord of the Flies, so I have put them into small groups where they discuss the chapters of the book that have been assigned. It's important because they are writing and thinking, discussing the novel, and I can go back and see how they all contributed to the discussion as well as check in to see if they are understanding the novel.
There are numerous benefits from Socratic seminars for both students and faculty. Our former colleague, Chuck Fischer, shares some observations in his work: “The students get to engage in challenging philosophical or intellectual conversations, often for the first time in their lives. Accompanying this is a sense of confidence and pride as they get excited by the big ideas of life. Students become more curious as they quickly realize most things do not have simple, textbook answers. They develop wonder and begin to hunger for proof and rigor. They extend themselves, become better at reasoning with language, and practice habits of mind or scholarly dispositions. To put it succinctly, they meet their future selves.” 2
3 Tips for Implementing Socratic Seminars in Virtual Classrooms
- Before meeting with students, organize the students into small groups and create the small groups on Google Hangouts.
- During your live sessions, explain why this is important (and that having a discussion with 50 kids isn't reasonable over Zoom if you want everyone to get something out of it). Share why small groups are essential -- with 5 or 6 students in a group, each is compelled to participate.
- Comment during and after they meet, as well as give them credit for participating in the discussion. When they know that I'll be participating and/or reading through their discussions, they stay focused, communicate appropriately, ask meaningful, clarifying questions, and discuss a novel at a level they might not be able to during a Zoom session.
What I’ve seen so far: the benefit is not only to the learning, but also the social and emotional connection forged by students in the small groups at a time when they’re physically separated from one another.
About the Author
7th Grade Instructor, Language Arts, Student Leadership & Entrepreneurship Coach
Nicole worked from 2003 to 2016 as a middle school language arts teacher before becoming the Aspen Entrepreneurial Institute coach. In 2019, she made a celebrated return to teaching middle school language arts. She feels that helping students create memories and watching students develop possibilities is one of the most worthwhile opportunities she's ever had. She loves that Aspen Academy teaches students to become lifelong leaders who think creatively, lead passionately, and live authentically.
She hails from Ohio where she received both her Bachelor's and Master's Degree at Ashland University. She now lives in Denver with her husband Dustin, and their sons.