Saturday, September 29, 2012

Socratic Seminars Succeed With Tech Tools!

Over 2400 years ago Socrates figured out that: 
  • Lectures are boring and should not be the sole means of imparting knowledge
  • Regardless of grade or ability level, all students can learn, and learn best when given the opportunity to express themselves, reflecting on what they already know, connecting what they know with what they are learning, and analyzing why they think the way they do. 
  • Students learn best when they have opportunities to be social, engaging in lively discussions not necessarily debates, but through dialogues with peers and teachers.
  • When students are taught how to analyze text by asking and answering questions thoughtfully and thoroughly as they read, they learn how to think for themselves and internalize the skill of finding evidence to support responses.  
  • When students are exposed to a variety of meaningful, relevant written and non written texts, they learn there are multiple perspectives for every topic. 
  • When students learn how to think, not what to think, they can express and support their values and beliefs with evidence, and learn to listen and respect others' beliefs, values, knowledge and logic as well.               
For some reason, these beliefs didn't quite stick in American education for awhile, and it wasn't until the 1980s, when philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler wrote The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto that more educators began to learn more about the Socratic or Paideia Seminar as the strategy is also called, from the Greek Paideia, meaning education or upbringing of a child. If this philosophy enabled students to not only practice reading, writing, speaking, listening, but also provided an opportunity for social participation in dialogues with peers and the teacher as coach, why did more teachers not implement this pedagogically sound strategy in the past? If it worked for Socrates, how could it fail?  The answers are varied and complicated, but here's mainly why:
  • Some teachers are often scared to turn control of the classroom over to students, which is one of the Paideia principles. 
  • Some teachers often think low achieving students can't possibly have anything thought-provoking to say.
  • Some teachers often think discussing the answers takes precedence over pondering how questions presuppose other questions.  
  • Some teachers often don't respond to student questions with further questions. They may think the teacher must simply give the answer.
  • Some teachers don't know how to stimulate thinking by teaching students to generate original questions. 
However, all of these fears can be put to rest when teachers begin to trust how the Paideia principles are rooted in the fact that all human beings have a natural desire to learn, and we all seek knowledge under the right conditions. The most difficult task falls in the teacher's hands to create inspirational conditions motivating students to want to learn. Teachers who take the time to find meaningful and relevant text can succeed in reaching even the most difficult student because the innate thirst for knowledge and expression will always prevail over apathy. Fortunately, more and more educators have recognized the error of their ways in ignoring the potential of Socratic discussions, and are successfully leading intelligent conversations supported by various technologies.

Socrates would definitely smile if he saw how our technology enhances the Socratic Seminar to the Nth degree. Discussions are no longer confined to the four walls of a classroom. With synchronous and asynchronous web tools, Socratic Seminars become ongoing global conversations extending well beyond the school day. Technology has also made it easy for our shy students, our ELLs, and any student facing academic challenges to participate as actively as the most advanced.

Socratic seminars encourage students to internalize the art of divergent thinking as they analyze print or non print text. The technique motivates students to engage in discussions, not debates, through open-ended questions that have no "right answers" but can be answered effectively if the student proves his/her point with textual evidence.  

Please visit this Livebinder filled with resources for carrying out Socratic Seminars in your class.

Tech Tools Enhancing Socratic Seminar Experience. 

Annotation/Bookmarking Tools
Before students engage in a Socratic discussion, they must closely read or watch a text, annotate, take notes about the text, generate original questions, or answer the teacher's questions, recording these task on paper, sticky notes or index cards. In the 21st century class, the following bookmarking tools make it easy for students to read, take notes, annotate, record and share their textual evidence to support their responses.

1.) helps students understand how to properly find relevant content, underline/highlight that content, and then remember it. has add-on tools for a variety of browsers,  so students can collect specific content while browsing the web and then add it to the My Library Cloud in the server to be accessed again and again. When students find information they need, they can digitally highlight the text, add an interactive sticky note with their comments, or questions, and save it to My Library Cloud for future use.  Students can also bookmark a page and organize pages by tags. They can label a page mark to read later if they want the teacher to approve the relevancy of the text first, and even archive a page so it's there forever.'s facilitates active e-reading because of the annotation feature using e-sticky notes as well as the capture feature which lets students capture an image of a particular section of text, then use shapes, arrows or text for students to annotate. lets students revisit their highlighted content using their computer, I-Pad or smart phone, and share their selected content with others for collaborative projects.

2.) students to highlight and share evidence for their arguments via Twitter and Facebook. A class can have a Socratic discussion enhanced by Twitter.  For example, the teacher opens the class Twitter page on the smartboard to see the class Twitter stream. makes it easy for students to revisit corroborative content they highlighted, click share via Twitter, and voila the entire class now has full view of the highlighted content. also gives you the option to organize content through tagging, so students can easily find, highlight and tag their textual evidence prior to a discussion and easily access it when needed by searching the tags. 

3.)  also helps students to highlight, annotate on virtual sticky notes, and share evidence to support their responses in a Socratic discussion. The site needs no registration, but like, if students do register, they can save their content on the site to access later. also allows sharing via Twitter or Facebook. Again, teachers can show the real time streaming of comments and content highlighted by students to enhance the seminar experience.  

Back channeling in a Socratic Seminar-  During a Socratic Seminar, only one student should speak at a time. While students listen to each speaker, anyone of these tech tools allows students to write their comments and response for the questions posed by the seminar's facilitator, and respond to whatever each speaker says. Students can add their notes, links for textual evidence, and general thoughts about the discussion as they listen to each speaker. The teacher will also have a record of every student's thoughts as they listen to the discussion. 

Twitter                Hootcourse          Twebevent
Facebook            Micromobs          Collaborize Classroom
Socrative            Elluminate
Edmodo              Neatchat

Enhance your Socratic Seminar with a Guest. Invite parents, authors, administrators, another class in another state, or country, community partners and experts in the field to join a Socratic Seminar. 

Asynchronous tools to extend discussions beyond the school day.   On some occasions one class period may not be enough to have a thorough discussion of a topic. The best Socratic Seminars are the ones where students raise more and more relevant questions exploring a topic thoroughly.  Why not use one of these asynchronous tools to continue the conversation at home or to invite a guest to add his/her thoughts. Capitalize on students' excitement to discuss a topic by posing all of the questions which may have gone unanswered due to time constraints. 
Blogger              Wallwisher             Edmodo                                 Facebook
Voicethread        Wikis                     Collaborize Classroom         Twitter
Voxopop             Google Docs          Elluminate                             Box


Please share how you have used synchronous or asynchronous tech tools to support Socratic Seminars in your class. When our students have opportunities to engage in intelligent dialogue with their peers and teachers on a variety of subjects, they acquire the lifelong skill of divergent thinking which is at the core of our democracy. 

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