Resource Spotlight: Scaffolding Socrates

The summer before I started teaching, I had a romanticized vision of class discussion. My dream class looked like my AP English class when I was in 12th grade: we devoured literature and led lively small group discussions, while our teacher paced around us, tossing out lines from Hamlet. Or at least that is how I remember it, two decades later.  

I surely didn’t anticipate the soul-crushing, awkward silence the first time I tried to facilitate a class discussion: it landed closer to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off than Dead Poets Society. Meaningful discussion didn’t just magically happen, whether it was my juniors in IB English, my squirrely freshmen, or my sleepy Film Studies class.

The truth is that many students have very little or no experience of fruitful class discussions before they get to high school, particularly as our educational environment has become fixated on drilling down on data, and our students spend more time in front of their Chromebooks than looking at each others’ faces. It can feel impossible to facilitate meaningful, productive, and student-driven  discussions with inexperienced or disengaged students. 

How does a teacher create a climate where students not only feel safe, but also excited, to contribute? 

Setting the stage for collaboration and fruitful discussion requires both teacher planning and intentional work to help students build the skills they need to engage in that way. These both take time… and resources. And today I want to share one of those resources with you: Scaffolding Socrates.

This resource will help you implement one potentially transformative strategy: the Socratic seminar.  Named after the technique that Socrates used with his pupils, a Socratic seminar is based on the belief that students learn deeply when they ask questions and engage in dialogue with one another. At the heart of a Socratic seminar is student-driven inquiry, a collaborative exercise that prioritizes questioning as a method for pursuing truth and understanding. During a Socratic seminar, students ask questions and challenge one another, respectfully debate perspectives, and drive the discussion themselves (instead of the teacher).

But how do we help students build the foundational knowledge and skills that students would need to be successful with this kind of student-led inquiry and debate? Scaffolding Socrates is a Project Development Guide that leads you step by step through the process of planning and supporting student engagement in a Socratic seminar. 

Brainstorm and make choices about the learning goals and project parameters that are right for your students and your content. Review an extensive set of sample materials and make student-facing materials for your class, using our fully customizable templates. These templates include everything from prompts to help students develop higher-order thinking questions to two detailed rubrics for the preparation process and seminar. 

Fruitful, student-driven discussion doesn’t just magically happen, but this resource gives you nearly everything you need to make it seem like you’ve pulled a rabbit out of a hat. 

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