5 tips to improve Socratic seminars in PDHPE

critical inquiry discussion group work pdhpe socratic seminar Jun 04, 2023

Socratic seminars are a fantastic teaching strategy to use in PDHPE. They enable students to go deeper with their learning and develop each of the facets of understanding. The goal of such as seminar is for all the students to gain a deeper understanding, it is not a debate where someone needs to convince the other.

If you are unfamiliar with these seminars and want to learn more check out last week's article on how to use them in PDHPE. Here are 5 tips to help your lesson be a success.

1. Use sentence starters

Often students are unsure how they should start their statements or questions in group discussions and can shy away from participation. Providing them with sentence starters can really help empower these students to contribute more to the seminars. A few examples of sentence starters that could be shared with students include:

  • I understood it differently…
  • I agree and…
  • Can you provide an example of …
  • Is there a good reason for…
  • How do you think that could have been prevented?
  • Would that still happen if…?
  • If I understand you correctly then…
  •  hadn’t thought about it like that, can you explain how it would work in this situation…?
  • Could you clarify that for me to help me understand?
  • Can you tell me more about…
  • … happened because…
  • What is similar to…?
  • Can you think of a reason why this is different to…?
  • Thanks, you just provided some good reasons why it might work, I have a few reasons why I think it will not work…
  • Would that still happen if…?

2. Use technology

Given the size of our PDHPE classes, it can be helpful to use a fishbowl method for the Socratic seminar. This method has an inner circle who participate in the conversation while others on the outside circle observe and take notes. Technology can be a huge help in shifting this outer circle from just taking notes to also engaging in the discussion.

  1. Firstly, leveraging technology such as backchannelchat.com or a Google group forum can allow the outer circle to participate in the conversation but do so in written form. These discussions could even be put up on a projector for everyone to see, but beware of how this can distract those who are in the main circle of discussion.
  2. Another tool is Equity Maps, which allows you to track the equity of contribution during group discussions such as Socratic Seminars. This app could be used by the outer circle to help monitor the discussion and can provide useful data, especially if you are doing the seminar as a form of assessment.

3. Set the culture

Possibly one of the most important things to get right with any group discussion, but especially a Socratic Seminar is to create a culture of respect. I feel like as PDHPE teachers we already do this well, especially when we are looking at topics that have a large variety of perspectives. However, students need to understand what is expected of them before, during, and after the seminar and be equipped to be able to disagree with others' thoughts while not disrespecting the other person or making them feel that their contribution was not worthwhile. This can be done by creating a set of “safe discussion” criteria that becomes part of the feedback on the session and can be used by an outer circle to help protect each other. 

By providing sentence starters we can also help our students to acknowledge and confirm others' contributions before disagreeing or probing further to gain a better understanding of their position. Training and demonstrating discussion control are also important. Making sure the person running the discussion, whether it is you or a student, is strong enough to stand up and say something when the discussion becomes personal, or when contributions are being discarded without consideration will also help to ensure that the discussion works well.

Personally, I find reminding the students regularly before, during, and after the seminar, that the goal is not to be right or prove someone wrong, but instead to deepen understanding helps to minimise these issues and keep the conversation focused on the learning.

4. Encourage writing as preparation

Often students, even when they come prepared, are not prepared in relation to how they might phrase what they want to say or more often, how they will respond to objections or different understandings from their own. Providing some reflection time during the seminar can be helpful, especially if we encourage the students during this time to write out a few points that they would like to contribute.

Allowing students to write before they speak will ensure the conversation remains focused on the topic and help everyone to stick to the goal of developing their understanding. It will also enable students to communicate more clearly and concisely which will increase their confidence when speaking and ensure a greater depth of their discussion.

5. Keep the goal visible

I mentioned the goal of a Socratic Seminar under point number 3 “To Deepen Understanding”. It is important this goal is constantly the focus of everything said during the seminar. I begin by stating the goal, and remember to make this specific to the understanding being sought, for example, the goal might be “To deepen your understanding of the principles of social justice” or "To develop an empathic understanding of others' perspectives on sexual behaviour." Then remind students that everything they say should be moving the group towards this goal. Differing opinions are welcome and enhance understanding. The point is not to refute all other perspectives, but to understand them and see any evidence for them. 

I then put the goal up on a screen or on the board and put a scale underneath it. Periodically, ask the discussion leader to refer back to the goal and move the group along the scale as they further develop their understanding.

Finally, the goal should be at the centre of any rubrics or criteria used to evaluate, reflect upon or assess the seminar. 


What tips do you have for using Socratic seminars or something similar?


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