Ready…Set…Talk

Many teachers use Socratic seminars as a way to promote discussion. But when they are graded, some students are placed at an unfair disadvantage.

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photo by D. Crickets

The circular desk arrangement, common to the Socratic seminar, aims to provoke student discussion free of teacher intervention.

Alyssa Bruce, Copy Editor

Walking into a classroom and seeing the desks arranged in a circle may not seem menacing at all, but for some students, it can cause their hearts to drop, as it can be a sign that there will be a Socratic seminar taking place that period. 

Socratic seminars are essentially graded discussions. The teacher may ask one question to begin the activity, at which point they usually remain quiet for the remainder of the seminar. Students then answer the question and continue the debate as it plays out. However, there is no hand-raising; instead, the discussion proceeds by whoever speaks first and the loudest. Grades are typically based upon how often a student talks.

Yet several problems arise when Socratic seminars are graded. In my experience, they do not create genuinely productive discussion among students, and the results in the gradebook are often unfair. 

The main issue lies within the premise that teachers do not interfere with the discussion. There is no maximum number of times that a student can speak, which results in some students taking up the majority of the speaking time. Teachers rarely correct such students, even when it is clear to everyone in the room that some students haven’t gotten a single word in.

For students who struggle with anxiety, Socratic seminars may be their worst fear.”

Because hand-raising is forbidden during Socratic seminars, the discussion rarely proceeds in a fair order. Instead, whoever speaks the loudest and talks over others is able to receive a better grade. I have seen many instances where a quieter student attempts to bring up a point but is overtaken by a louder student. It is hard not to see how those who are less vocal are not put at a disadvantage and may end up receiving a grade that does not reflect their intellectual involvement in the topic. They were listening and attempting to speak, but they were not able to contribute as often as they would have liked to.

Additionally, many classes are too big for a quality discussion to occur. It is unrealistic to expect that a class of 30 kids will be able to have each student speak three times within a 40-minute period — yet each student’s grade depends on it.

For students who struggle with anxiety — which, according to the National Institutes of Health, accounts for one out of every three teenagers — Socratic seminars may be their worst fear. The face-to-face setting and the pressure to speak may cause them to freeze, unable to gather their thoughts or to even speak. Being graded on speaking puts those students at a major disadvantage, due to something that they cannot control.

I know that I feel much more comfortable speaking in such discussions when I have a point that I am ready to make and am already aware of what I am going to say. However, all too often, once I take the time to gather my thoughts and put together a point that I am proud of, the student before me says the same thing that I was planning on sharing, forcing me to scramble to come up with an additional point. 

It would seem that Socratic seminars teach students to think quickly, but that is not exactly true. There are few, if any, circumstances in real life where we will be evaluated on how many times we speak. And even if quick thinking is viewed as a valuable skill for life after high school, Socratic seminars are hardly the way to teach it, as they merely incentivize students to say whatever comes to their mind, simply to get a good grade.

It is unrealistic to expect that a class of 30 kids will be able to have each student speak three times within a 40-minute period.”

Nevertheless, one simple improvement to the way seminars are conducted can make the process much fairer. There should be a maximum number of times that a student can speak, and after every student has satisfied the requirement, the limit should be removed. Teachers should announce when students have reached the limit, in order to allow other students the chance to speak.

An additional adjustment is to have students raise their hands instead of speaking simply when they want to. This practice would establish a clear and fair order of who will talk when, eliminating the issue of students talking over one another. 

Socratic seminars initially have much appeal. Open discussion among students without any teacher interference sounds innovative and beneficial. But there are numerous flaws underneath the surface.  It is simply not fair to grade such discussions without making necessary modifications to ensure fairness for all students.