English seminars are more ‘traumatic’ than ‘Socratic’

November 13, 2014 — by Fiona Sequeira and Kelly Xiao

In all of our English classes thus far, we have endured graded Socratic seminars. 

By definition a Socratic seminar is a discussion in which participants offer and discuss opinions and ideas. The method originated with the Greek philosopher Socrates as he sought to question, explain and possibly resolve difficult issues.

And then, of course, there is the school version of the Socratic seminar. Students sit either in a large circle or concentric circles and debate questions such as “Is Hamlet a coward?” while the teacher observes and awards points based on students’ contributions.

In this set-up, the “analyzing” is more of an aggressive verbal performance (complete with textbook and journal props!) dialed to impress.  As for the “offering of thoughtful ideas,” it is often more of a race to see who can say “I think” the fastest after the last speaker’s final word.   

In all of our English classes thus far, we have endured graded Socratic seminars. In theory, analyzing text through the Socratic method is an enticing prospect. But in practice? Well, it gets pretty frustrating sitting with our heads propped on elbows and cringing at how disgusted Socrates would be at the lack of listening and productive discussion.

The problem arises largely because of the graded nature of Socratics. Many students force their contributions, doling out phrases they believe teachers like to hear rather than formulating original, probing insights about the topic at hand. They ramble on and on, talking in circles and losing sight of their original purpose.

Then factor in participation points. The phrase invariably sends shudders down the backs of high school students. When the Socratic seminar is tainted with these, true listening becomes a moot point among grade-anxious students.

For an activity so centered on productive discussion, Socratic seminars are surprisingly good at dulling students’ auditory abilities. Students would rather rehearse their next point and wait, tensed, for a break in the discussion so that they can jump in and seize the limelight. By then, those students are usually only half-comprehending the current speaker’s words. In this sense, it is not listening, but simply waiting for one’s turn to spout.

Other times, people regurgitate previous information. Thanks to the forced participation system, most of points brought up are carefully rehearsed, nonsensical, repetitive and just plain ridiculous.

Often, in a self-facilitated discussion, students may spend far too long on a specific detail or small aside rather than addressing the larger thematic picture. While every so often we might gain insight from a Socratic seminar, they too often leave us feeling a bit impatient and even confused, as one meaningful contribution is followed by 10 disjointed ones.

Adding to the disjointed nature of the sessions, students often hastily change topics simply because they themselves have nothing to say on the subject. This usually arises in the form of “so let’s move on to the next question” and silences the others who may have been planning to share some original contributions about the previous subject. The desperation to secure a good grade ends up limiting students’ desire to hear everything their other classmates have to offer.

Besides, what about those students who are inherently better listeners rather than speakers? Some students would rather hear the opinions of others than just their own voices. These students came to the Socratic seminar to learn, and that can’t be done easily while nervously thinking about what to say next.

One alternative is for teachers to use the more traditional format: Raise your hand and participate when you want to without fear of getting a poor grade. It would be better to offer thoughtful content or to just to leave your hand down when you would be better off listening.

That’s our two cents. With some common-sense reforms, Socratic seminars might become something even Socrates would recognize and approve of. 

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