Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Socratic Seminars in Science Class: Providing a Structured Format to Promote Dialogue and Understanding

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Socratic Seminars in Science Class: Providing a Structured Format to Promote Dialogue and Understanding

Article excerpt

Discussions are important classroom tools-and those that focus on science in society have the potential to interest and engage students. In these kinds of discussions, students can apply their understanding of science content, practice articulating a position, and collectively build a deeper understanding of a complex topic. However, a conversation can quickly veer out of control if expectations are not clearly set by the teacher and if the discussion is not structured appropriately.

This article describes the use of Socratic Seminars, which provide a constructive format for discussion and help facilitate a spirit of shared inquiry among students as they discover meaning in a given text. This article also provides information on how to conduct these text-based seminars with confidence and outlines some of the educational benefits they provide.



The following vignette provides an example of a Socratic Seminar used with a group of high school students in a summer science program:

After reading the article, "Wanting Babies Like Themselves, Some Parents Choose Genetic Defects" (Sanghavi 2006), students sat in a circle, talking with one another about how some prospective parents use preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to select for embryos with genetic predisposition to deafness or achondroplasia (dwarfism). While these conditions are sometimes perceived as dis- abilities, individuals with such traits often belong to vibrant communities and cultures. I had posed the question: "What is the primary ethical concern that the author raises in the article?"

One student chimed in, "In paragraph 18, it talks about how the mother is concerned about what life will be like for her daughter if her parents are 'little people' (with achondroplasia) while she [the daughter] is not. The author is pointing out the argument that we should respect what parents decide about their kids' future because they are responsible for them." Another student said: "But does that mean the parents should be thinking about what they want for their children or what's best for their children? In paragraph 11, the doctor notes that 'one of the prime dictates of parenting is to make a better world for our children...dwarfism and deafness are not the norm' (Sanghavi 2006). I think that this is the main ethical issue that the author is raising."

Although students were discussing a topic they felt passionately about, they were waiting their turn to speak directly to one another, building upon the points made by their classmates, and focusing on trying to interpret and understand the text. These are all important elements of a Socratic Seminar. As we debriefed, students told me that earlier in the day they had participated in a debate and found this seminar discussion to be much more productive. In the debate, they had become argumentative with one another, and were primarily concerned with being "right." In the seminar, however, students felt they were exploring a difficult topic together to understand the issue in more depth, and they appreciated how the seminar invited the participation of all students.

What is a Socratic Seminar?

The National Paideia Center (see "On the web"), which has developed extensive materials on using seminars in classrooms, describes Socratic Seminars as "collaborative, intellectual dialogue facilitated with open-ended questions about a text" (Billings and Roberts 2003, p. 16). The formal aspects of these seminars, which are outlined in the next section, "Key elements of a Socratic Seminar," foster collaborative intellectual dialogue, distinguishing them from other types of classroom discussions.

Because of the emphasis that this strategy places on disciplined inquiry, it has acquired the name "Socratic." The seminar format echoes the importance placed by the classical Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC) on empowering students, through conversation and questioning, to build their own understanding and to learn to think analytically. …

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