Teaching critical thinking through Socratic seminars

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said, “I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” Guided by this philosophy, he harnessed the power of questioning and dialogue to train his students’ critical thinking skills.

Today, you can improve your students’ critical thinking skills through Socratic seminars. These meaningful discussions use questioning and dialogue to foster critical thinking. Let’s discover more about Socratic seminars and how you can use them to teach critical thinking to your students.

What is critical thinking?

People often associate the word “critical” with negativity. Perhaps your students are critical of the homework you assign them, or your partner is critical of the way you load the dishwasher. However, the true essence of “critical” can be traced back to its Greek root “kritikos,” simply meaning “being able to discern or judge.”

In terms of critical thinking, this means being able to question, analyze, and evaluate information to reach a well-informed judgment. Teaching students to think critically empowers them to make sound decisions, solve complex problems, and adapt to new situations — invaluable skills with lifelong benefits. Thus, educators should strive to improve their students’ critical thinking skills, and Socratic seminars are an ideal starting point!

What are Socratic seminars?

Socratic seminars are structured discussions where students use meaningful dialogue and critical thinking to explore a question, topic, or text. These seminars are designed to create an inclusive space for students to freely exchange ideas and respectfully challenge each other’s thinking.

Students take responsibility for their own learning in Socratic seminars. They lead discussions to build knowledge through collaboration. Educators facilitate this by guiding students through open-ended questions and constructive dialogue to delve into the subject matter.

Why are Socratic seminars good for training critical thinking?

Socratic seminars maximize student interaction and discourse, making them an ideal method for developing students’ critical thinking skills — and the organization of seminars plays a key role in this.

In Socratic seminars, participants sit in a circle, fostering direct communication between them. This encourages everyone to share ideas and perspectives, providing valuable opportunities for students to use their critical thinking skills to engage with diverse viewpoints.

Moreover, with the educator guiding rather than leading the seminar, students must employ independent learning strategies. This requires students to engage their critical thinking skills to justify contributions and make connections between ideas.

Finally, Socratic seminars use accessible yet complex questions, topics, or texts to spark students’ curiosity, which motivates them to actively engage in comprehensive inquiry. Students pose and address thought-provoking questions, with no predetermined answers. This again requires them to apply critical thinking skills to construct their own responses.

How can students improve critical thinking skills through Socratic seminars?

Now that we have established why Socratic seminars are good for training critical thinking, let’s explore the specific critical thinking skills that students learn through Socratic seminars.

Students explore multiple perspectives through collaboration

Collaboration in Socratic seminars facilitates critical thinking. When students collaborate in a Socratic seminar, they learn that there are multiple perspectives on a topic. Exploring the topic from different angles expands students’ knowledge and helps them to reach informed conclusions through critical thinking.

Students analyze, interpret, and evaluate information

Text-based Socratic seminars provide an ideal context for assessing information — a key critical thinking skill. Students could analyze character actions and text structure, interpret a set of data, or evaluate the reliability and credibility of a historical source.

Socratic seminars also offer further opportunities for students to sharpen these skills while engaging with their classmates. Students question each other, then analyze and interpret responses, relating these to their existing knowledge. They evaluate the value of ideas and judge the strength of any supporting evidence.

Students reason through information

Using Socratic seminars to develop students’ reasoning skills is vital for building critical thinking. In seminars, students use reasoning to judge the accuracy of new information they encounter and challenge assumptions and biases.

Strong reasoning also supports students’ communication skills during seminars, enabling them to articulate thoughts, justify ideas, and draw informed conclusions. 

Students synthesize information

Students need strong critical thinking skills to accurately synthesize the range of information they encounter during a Socratic seminar. Through critical thinking, students engage in an ongoing review of new information. They make connections between new concepts and link these ideas to their current knowledge. 

Students can then integrate the most valuable information into their existing schemas, and synthesize it to formulate new contributions to the seminar.

Students reflect on the learning process through metacognition skills

In Socratic seminars, students can practice metacognition by reflecting critically on their own thinking and learning. 

Before the seminar, students can review their prior knowledge on the topic to help them plan their contributions. During the seminar, students can self-evaluate their contributions, focusing on frequency, quality, and strength of reasoning. This helps ensure the success of the session. Finally, at the end of the seminar, students can assess how well they applied their skills, such as critical thinking and active listening, and set goals to achieve in future seminars.

How can Kialo Edu support Socratic seminars?

Educators can find inspiration for their next Socratic seminar in Kialo Edu’s Topic Library. It contains an enormous range of engaging, curriculum-linked discussion topics designed to ignite students’ critical thinking skills, including many based on literary texts

Moreover, you can use Kialo discussions to support students as they engage in the seminar. Let’s explore how students can use Kialo’s argument mapping structure before, during, and after Socratic seminars.

Use Kialo Edu's argument mapping structure to support before, during, or after a Socratic seminar to engage students.

Before the Socratic seminar: Use a Kialo discussion to plan contributions

  • Students can use a Kialo discussion to outline their main ideas before seminars. The branching, argument-mapping structure can show students how their ideas connect, helping them to synthesize information.
  • Multiple students can contribute to the same discussion, facilitating collaborative preparation. Giving students insights into each other’s perspectives helps them formulate targeted and thought-provoking questions.
  • Educators can use students’ outlines for assessment purposes, especially where students make limited contributions during seminars or are absent on the day.

During the Socratic seminar: Use a Kialo discussion to prompt contributions

  • Give students access to their seminar outlines to prompt contributions.
  • If students struggle to retain information, they can refer to their outlines to build on previous discussion points.
  • When using fishbowl or peer coaching strategies in seminars, the Kialo discussion can help student coaches structure their evaluations. Peer evaluators can track whether their partner covered the main points, evaluate their contributions, and update the outline with new ideas.
  • Educators can monitor contributions and give feedback to students directly in the Kialo discussion. They can target feedback to a specific point or argument, making it more meaningful to students.

After the Socratic seminar: Use a Kialo discussion to review key points

  • To review the seminar and embed new learning, students can update their Kialo discussions with new information and respond to any educator or peer feedback.
  • Students can also review their learning by creating a Kialo discussion that summarizes the key points from the seminar.
  • As part of the seminar evaluation process, students can comment or vote on contributions to identify the strongest arguments, as well as those that still need further support or evidence.

Socrates believed that “wisdom begins in wonder.” Socratic seminars have the potential to spark an open-minded curiosity in your students that encourages them to delve more deeply into topics. In doing so, students can develop invaluable critical thinking skills that will benefit them now and in the future.

Why not take time to reflect on how Socratic seminars have improved your students’ critical thinking skills? Share your perspectives with us on our social media or at feedback@kialo-edu.com.

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