The Socratic Seminar and It’s Benefits in Our Digital World

A Socratic seminar is a type of discussion-based learning where a group of participants engage in a discourse on a particular text, topic, issue, idea or concept. The aim of a Socratic seminar is to encourage critical thinking, inquiry, explore an idea and collaborative learning. 

Here you can learn more about the Socratic Seminar method, what it is and how you can use it in the classroom and beyond.

At the moment I am preparing two series of Socratic Seminars using the Swedish book “Mördarens Apa” in one of my Language and Literature classes, and excerpts of texts from Astrid Lindgren’s wonderful  “Ronja – the Robber’s Daughter” in two of my Language Acquisition classes.

What I have noticed is that our literature studies acquire depth and almost become like philosophy classes, when using the Socratic Seminar method.

Let’s look at some key elements of the Socratic Seminars.

Focus on a text or concept: A Socratic seminar is centered around a specific text or topic that is chosen by the teacher or group leader. Participants read the text or research the topic in advance of the seminar. It can be a quote, an excerpt of a book, an article or a whole book. It can also be an idea such as “What does it mean to be human in a global age of technology?”. It can be the exploration of a concept such as love, childhood, courage, adventure, the city and so forth. Key is that the participants get time to prepare prior to the seminar. 

Open-ended questions: During the seminar, participants engage in a dialogue about the topic through the use of open-ended questions. Instead of simple factual questions, participants are asked to reflect deeply on the text, ask questions, and make connections. What I personally love is when we dive deep into concepts, and discover their transferability. When we learn about a concept in one area, we can transfer the knowledge and application to other areas in our lives. 

Encouraging Collaboration and Communication – Socratic seminars require participants  to listen actively, articulate their thoughts clearly, and engage in respectful dialogue with their peers. These skills are essential in a world where collaboration and communication across diverse cultures and perspectives are increasingly important to help shape the future we want to have. The future doesn’t happen, we write it.

Active listening: Participants are expected to actively listen to each other and build on each other’s ideas. The focus is on building an understanding through dialogue, rather than winning an argument. It’s not a debate, it’s not a competition of who is right. It’s an exploration of an idea, an expansion of knowledge.  This is highly relevant in the focus-deprived world we live in. Many young people find it difficult to concentrate for a longer period of time, and they get distracted. Dopamine has stolen our concentration, hence practicing listening skills is a great benefit from the Socratic Seminars. 

Respectful dialogue: Participants  engage in a respectful, constructive dialogue. This goes hand in hand with active listening. The participants  are encouraged to express their opinions, while also listening to and respecting the opinions of others. They need to practice being mindful about the time they use and give space for others too, not consuming the speaking time. It’s like a dance with words, a practice in constructive conversation.

Developing Critical Thinking and Inquiry Skills – Socratic seminars, we said,  are based on open-ended questions. The discussions  require the participants  to analyze and evaluate complex issues. These skills are vital in a world of information overload, where it’s important to discern truth from misinformation and fake news.  In a digital world where information is readily available, it is more important than ever to be able to critically analyze and evaluate information. Socratic seminars help individuals develop critical thinking skills by challenging assumptions and exploring different perspectives.

Fostering Social and Emotional Learning – Socratic seminars can provide a safe space for students to express themselves, listen to others, and develop empathy and understanding for different viewpoints. These social and emotional learning skills are crucial in our digital age, where social interactions are often mediated by screens. 

Empathy and understanding: Building on the thought of social emotional learning, Socratic seminars can develop empathy and understanding by encouraging participants to explore and grapple with different perspectives. This is particularly important in a world where digital communication can sometimes reduce human interaction and make it more difficult to develop empathy. Ten years ago, my dad asked me, whilst my son was eight, how young people of today would learn how to read faces and understand feelings, if most communication was done behind a screen? I think he posed a highly relevant question.

Lifelong learning: Socratic seminars can foster a love of learning and encourage individuals to seek out and explore new ideas and perspectives throughout their lives. My aim for my students is that they would be able to hold Socratic Seminars themselves, so that the methodology becomes something that they use throughout their lives as a tool to understand themselves, the  world and its inhabitants better. 

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