As you’ve practiced being active listeners and effective communicators in your small groups the past week, you’ve received feedback on how to improve the discussions you’ve been having. Now it is time to actively work towards having informed, academic discussions in the form of Socratic seminars.

What is a Socratic seminar? Informed by the teaching of Socrates, a Socratic seminar is much easier that its name suggests – it is a discussion that encourages participants to rely on questioning techniques to examine a topic or issue.  There are three types of questions I’m looking for in our discussions:

Literal Questions: Literal questions are at the very beginning of a seminar to ensure comprehension of the text. These questions can be answered directly from the text. The answers are contained within the text and are stated clearly. These are very basic questions and should only be used at the beginning of a discussion. Sample literal questions might ask for an important text detail, fact, or quote. Example: “Where does Thoreau actually mention the bean-rows in Walden?”

Interpretive Questions: These questions ask students to interpret the text. They should be genuine questions – ones that you are also interested in. No single right answer exists, but arguments can be made to support different positions. Students need to make their points using passages from the text to answer these questions. Example: “What do you think was the reasons the author alluded to [outside text] on page 334 in his novel?

Evaluative Questions: Evaluative questions are sometimes used at the very end of a seminar, to allow students to share their own positions and opinions. Answers to evaluative questions rely on student’s own experiences – either personal first person experience, a connection to another text or media consumed, or a connection to a historical event – not on the text itself. Students will not need to cite particular passages to answer these questions. Sample evaluative questions might ask for student opinions about the author’s position, or how the ideas in the text relate to their own lives. Example: “When MLK discussed the ‘Other America’ in his speech, it reminded me of actual lines from Childish Gambino’s song ‘This is America’, and I wondered if he was making a direct reference to King because…”

 

Click here for a worksheet to practice brainstorming questions before the seminar.

If ‘literal’, ‘evaluative’ and ‘interpretive’ is confusing, you can also think of the questions you need to ask in these context

 

When we conduct seminars in class, you’ll first work in your small groups. During this time you will be responsible for the duties of your ‘role’ – see the post about active listening and effective communication if you don’t remember what your role is. You will need to take this seriously and keep track of your group member’s performance with this checklist. Being diligent in keeping your group communicating effectively will make the next step in seminar much easier –

After small groups you will move on to whole class discussion. Look back at the questions that sparked the most debate or conversation in your small groups – which of those would you like to pose to the whole class? You will receive a grade for how often your group participates in the whole class discussion. Please see the guidelines below.
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