The Socratic Method

What is a Socratic seminar or discussion?

A Socratic Seminar is a method to try to understand information by creating a dialectic in regards to a specific information source. In a Socratic Seminar, participants seek deeper understanding of complex ideas in the material through rigorously thoughtful dialogue, rather than by memorizing bits of information.

An Approriate Discussion Source

Socratic Seminar sources are chosen for their richness in ideas, issues, and values and their ability to stimulate extended, thoughtful dialogue. A seminar can be drawn from readings in literature, history, science, math, health, and philosophy or from electronic media, works of art, or musical compositions. A good source raises important questions in the participants' minds, questions for which there are no right or wrong answers. At the end of a successful Socratic Seminar participants often leave with more questions than they brought with them.

The Question

A Socratic Seminar opens with a question either posed by the leader or solicited from participants as they acquire more Experience in seminars. An opening question has no right answer, instead it reflects a genuine curiosity on the part of the questioner. A good opening question leads participants back to the text as they speculate, evaluate, define, and clarify the issues involved. Responses to the opening question generate new questions from the leader and participants, leading to new responses. In this way, the line of inquiry in a Socratic Seminar evolves on the spot rather than being pre-determined by the leader.

The Leader

In a Socratic Seminar, the leader plays a dual role as leader and participant. The seminar leader consciously demonstrates habits of mind that lead to a thoughtful exploration of the ideas in the text by keeping the discussion focused on the text, asking follow-up questions, helping participants clarify their positions when arguments become confused, and involving reluctant participants while restraining their more vocal peers.

What does Socratic mean?

Socratic comes from the name Socrates. Socrates (ca. 470-399 B.C.) was a Classical Greek philosopher who developed a Theory of Knowledge.

What was Socrates' Theory of Knowledge?

Socrates was convinced that the surest way to attain reliable knowledge was through the practice of disciplined conversation. He called this method dialectic.

What does dialectic mean?

di-a-lec-tic (noun) means the art or practice of examining opinions or ideas logically, often by the method of question and answer, so as to determine their validity.

What is the difference between dialogue and debate?

Dialogue is collaborative: multiple sides work toward shared understanding. Debate is oppositional: two opposing sides try to prove each other wrong.

In dialogue, one listens to understand, to make meaning, and to find common ground. In debate, one listens to find flaws, to spot differences, and to counter arguments.

Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant's point of view. Debate defends assumptions as truth.

Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude: an openness to being wrong and an openness to change. Debate creates a close-minded attitude, a determination to be right.

In dialogue, one submits one's best thinking, expecting that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than threaten it. In debate, one submits one's best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.

Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one's beliefs. Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one's beliefs.

In dialogue, one searches for strengths in all positions. In debate, one searches for weaknesses in the other position.

Dialogue respects all the other participants and seeks not to alienate or offend. Debate rebuts contrary positions and may belittle or deprecate other participants.

Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of answers and that cooperation can lead to a greater understanding. Debate assumes a single right answer that somebody already has.

Dialogue remains open-ended. Debate demands a conclusion.

Dialogue is characterized by:

suspending judgment

examining our own work without defensiveness

exposing our reasoning and looking for limits to it

communicating our underlying assumptions

exploring viewpoints more broadly and deeply

being open to disconfirming data

approaching someone who sees a problem differently not as an adversary, but as a colleague in common pursuit of better solution.

Sample questions that demonstrate constructive participation in Socratic Seminars.

Here is my view and how I arrived at it. How does it sound to you?

Do you see gaps in my reasoning?

Do you have different data?

Do you have different conclusions?

How did you arrive at your view?

Are you taking into account something different from what I have considered?

Information for this cite came from the following sources:

Murphy,J.(2000) Professional Development: Socratic Seminars. Regions 8 and 11 Professional Development Consortia, Los Angeles County Office of Education 6

Stumpf, S. E. (1999) Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy, 6th ed. McGraw-Hill.

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