Socratic Seminars in Science
Teachers entering the classroom this year were met with many uncertainties that went along with teaching in a global pandemic. Perhaps one of the most important questions that many at Mount Vernon had was how will teachers and students make deep, meaningful connections with one another without being in a completely face-to-face setting? One teaching strategy, the Socratic seminar, stood out from others in that it allowed for students to build connections with one another while getting and using the content in order to be successful in their classes. The Socratic seminar strategy utilizes group discussion-based lessons to allow students to explore topics beyond lectures and expand their critical thinking skills. This strategy allows students to build upon research skills, process their own and others’ ideas, articulate responses, and most importantly build relationships with their peers through discussions.
Socratic seminars are especially helpful due to being adaptable to almost any given situation, including a hybrid in-person and online situation. Socratic seminars can vary in length or how they are run, but generally follow a similar format and could last from a few days to an entire week. At the beginning of the week, students come together in a large group setting, in-person and/or online, to learn the very basics of a new topic or get more information relevant to the topic being discussed. More often than not, these large group settings would be used to introduce the context of the topic and the parameters of the discussion. Once students understand the context of the topic, they are then able to break off into smaller groups or individually to complete research on the given topic and meet individually with the teacher. The teacher in this case would act as more of a facilitator to discuss research progress and help students outline where they would like to drive their discussion with their peers. After allowing students to complete their research, if there is a common misconception within the groups or if there is prevalent information uncovered that the entire class would benefit from, students would meet again as a whole, gain the information, and set off on their own again. This learning cycle could continue as long or as short as needed, and when the students are ready, a culminating discussion could take place.
Although Socratic seminars have been mainly used in humanities courses in the past, they have become increasingly common in science courses as well. At Mount Vernon, one particular science course that this has worked well in is Evolution, the Story of Life. During this course, which consisted of juniors and seniors, students used individual and group research opportunities to explore numerous evolution-related topics including: the history of the theories of evolution by comparing Darwin and Lamarck and how they relate to modern views of evolution; the process of natural selection as the basis for evolution; what evidence has led to our understanding of how life has evolved and what new evidence is changing our view of the relatedness of organisms; and how evolution and natural selection are tied into the biodiversity that is found in the variety of ecosystems on Earth today. Using Socratic seminars worked well in this class because it allowed students to learn the basics about evolution as a group, research evolution on their own, and then come together with their peers in order to discuss the topic from their various perspectives.
Students completed and fully participated in this course in a variety of different ways. In line with Mount Vernon’s hybrid model, students participated in the course entirely online, entirely in-person, or a combination of in-person and online learning depending on the situation. Regardless of the participation format used, students were able to get the content that they needed in order to get their thinking started by listening to a short, teacher-led large group lecture that was also streamed to students at home through Zoom. At the end of each large group session, students were reminded that they would be completing a Socractic seminar, and they would be reminded of the general topic that they would be discussing with their peers. Once each large group meeting was finished, students were given the option to either work individually or in groups to further their research and understanding about the given topic, which in this course were all related to evolution.
For online students or those who chose to work with a student not physically present, the physically present student would join the class Zoom call and be put in a breakout room with their chosen virtual partner or group. This allowed for the students at home to create relationships with those that were attending school in-person, and also allowed the teacher to interact with the students that were virtual in a more personal setting. This cycle continued over 3-4 class periods depending on the topic given, and each class period concluded with the group coming back together to debrief as a class and talk about some of the research that was done during the work period. Once students had enough time to thoughtfully research a topic, they could then begin their meaningful dialogue with their peers to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
Having students participating in the class in a variety of different ways initially posed a problem when it came to the culminating discussions of the Socratic seminar. The virtually-attending students in the class did not feel like they were as connected in the discussion as those that were physically present. In order to work around this problem, class discussions were completed online through Zoom for both in-person and virtually-attending students on fully virtual days or hybrid situation days. Having students complete these seminars online also allowed the teacher to be more or less outside of the conversation and observe what students knew while still asking the occasional probing question. Another positive to completing the culminating discussions online was the ability to record each of the discussions so that students could rewatch them and learn from the information that their peers shared in the discussion and build on it for the next discussion.
Overall, employing this teaching strategy worked well for the students of this class as it not only allowed students to interact with one another in the classroom during a pandemic, but it also allowed students at home to have meaningful discussions and interact with their peers. Socratic seminars also allowed for assessment to take place on a competency-based level because students were able to demonstrate what they learned by showing how they could formulate their ideas in a less traditional way. Lastly, recording each Socratic seminar also allowed students to go back and reassess how they responded to their peers and self-critique, which was an important learning tool as it allowed students to better develop their thoughts and ideas. The completion of the module using the Somatic seminar strategy resulted in more confident students that better understood how to analyze, speak on, and find common ground on a given topic with their peers.