Socratic Method Is No Longer Greek to Modern Teachers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

Socrates had it good.

As a teacher, he usually taught one or a few students at a time, conversing with them as they strolled the streets of Athens.

Today’s public schoolteachers are largely confined to classrooms and burdened with oversized classes. Even so, some are trying to reclaim one component of the Socratic method: teaching students via intense discussion.

Sure, teachers have always held classroom discussions. But these are usually question and answer sessions in which teachers try to lead students to predetermined “correct” answers about the facts of an issue, reading, work of art or experiment.


The so-called Socratic seminar method is different. A teacher begins a discussion with an open-ended question that may have no right or wrong answer, then tries to help students make discoveries about the material and their thoughts about it.

The approach can be used in all grades and for nearly any subject: English/language arts, history/social science, the arts, the sciences and even mathematics.

Of course, students must still learn facts and other background information during other lessons, but the seminar aims to increase their understanding, help them see patterns and clarify their opinions and questions about the material.

The seminars, in other words, concentrate on issues larger than mere factual content. Instead of simply reciting the plot, theme and traits of characters in a short story, for example, seminar participants might explore what the writer was thinking, saying about life and the world, and how that jibes with or differs from the students’ ideas.

Properly conducted, a seminar is not just a touchy-feely free-for-all. The teacher (and other students) can correct outright mistakes or left-field interpretations of the material. The teacher should also set the standards of discussion by insisting, for example, that all opinions be supported by credible arguments.

A seminar generally steers itself. There is no set agenda of questions to address, and the conversation flows according to what the participants want to explore.


Teachers need a few tools to conduct a Socratic seminar: usable texts, training, time and some basic guidelines.

The best texts for Socratic seminars are those which, as educator Dennis Gray puts it, are “rich in ideas, values, and issues, in complexities and ambiguities, perhaps in contradictions or mysteries.” They could, for example, be works of literature, art, or music from any culture or era.

Teachers need extensive training before they try to lead a Socratic seminar, but there’s some disagreement about how much. Gray, for example, suggests 50 to 60 hours of participation, while some others suggest observing five, participating in five and then practice in leading five.

Time is needed to select and prepare material for a seminar. The teacher has to read it carefully, choose ideas and issues for discussion, then formulate at least a few probing questions to get things started.

There must also be an extension of the typical 50-minute class period, at least in the upper grades. Gray and others say the ideal Socratic seminar should last about two hours.

Developing guidelines for students is also crucial. They may include hints such as “Address each other, not just the teacher,” “Don’t participate if you haven’t done the reading,” or “Say ‘pass’ if you don’t wish to contribute.” In the beginning, a teacher may experiment with a brief seminar, perhaps 15 minutes in primary grades and 30 or 40 minutes in upper grades.


For all that work, time and change of teaching style, what exactly do you get?

There are many positive results of Socratic seminars for students.

First, students improve their critical thinking skills, as well as their reading, speaking and listening abilities.

Also, every student gets a chance to express views and questions, and to be taken seriously.

Students learn to support their statements and opinions with logical arguments and evidence.

They also get to the real heart of a work, see how it relates to their lives and why it is important and relevant to read.

Improved social skills also result. After all, seminar participants must learn correct manners and courtesy needed for meaningful conversation. They must also learn how to debate others civilly, allowing each “combatant” a chance to speak and finish thoughts without interruption and name-calling.

Finally, students learn to examine all sides of an issue before taking a stand, and to question the attitudes and opinions that have been handed to them by parents, peers, the media and various societal institutions.