Socratic Seminar and Shared Inquiry

The Socratic Seminar / Shared Inquiry in Action

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When exploring any type of text with a Socratic Seminar (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) it is important to ask interpretive questions that develop understanding and further lines of questions for depth. Interpretive questions are effective both with well planned discussions and in spontaneous situations. Interpretive questions stimulate comprehension, oral language, and written language.

Types of Questions

  • Factual – A factual question has only one correct answer.
  • Interpretive – An interpretive question has more than one answer that can be supported with evidence from the text. Interpretive questions keep discussions going and require the reader to refer back to the text.
  • Evaluative – An evaluative question asks the reader to decide if s/he agree with the writer’s ideas or point of view. The answer to an evaluative question depends on the reader’s prior knowledge, experience, and opinions.

Writing Interpretive Questions

Interpretive questions are open-ended, text-based questions having multiple responses that are based on evidence from the text. Unlike a factual question that’s looking for a specific fact, a closed end response, an interpretive question is open-ended that usually requires a more in-depth response that is supported with evidence from the text.

Questions to Interpret the Text:  Identify aspects of the text that are open to multiple interpretations. For this question, you’ll want to focus on the ideas, characters or plot in the text as opposed to the author’s methods.

Questions to Analyze the Author’s Methods:  Identify anything unique, interesting, or unconventional about the author’s writing style, use of language, grammar, word choice, structure, etc. Another consideration in designing a question to analyze the author’s methods is to think about students’ own writing. What about this text might be helpful to students’ own writing? Is there something this published author does that students might try in their own writing?

Testing the Questions

  • There should be genuine doubt about the answer(s) to the question. If a question is open to different possible answers, students will be more willing to share their thoughts.
  • You should have genuine interest in the question. Students will ‘read’ your interest (or lack of) in the question and story.
  • The question should stimulate discussion. The question should create an interest in revisiting the text for evidence.
  • The question should be clear. The participants should easily understand the question.
  • The question should be specific. The question should fit the story and not generic to any story.
  • Use the text. When you are constructing questions, use key words and phrase directly from the text.

The Socratic Seminar in Action:  Leading a Discussion

Here are the basic ground rules for leading a discussion:

  • Participants must have read or heard (read aloud) the text.
  • Discussion is focused on the selection everyone has read or heard.
  • Opinions should be supported with evidence from the text.
  • Leaders only ask questions – they do not answer them – as the facilitator.
  • For a discussion based on interpretive questions to be successful, student interest needs to be encouraged and valued.

Preparing Questions

To create effective questions and questioning techniques it is very important to develop and test the questions prior to discussing the story with the class. To facilitate quality questions it is beneficial to take notes when initially reading the text. Writing interpretive questions provides a template of the types of notes to help develop quality questions. After writing questions from your notes, have another person read the text and try the questions out on them. This will provide an opportunity to test the testing the question criteria.

Interpretive questions are an important part of all discussions. It is important to learn how to use the text vocabulary within the questions. An example is the book, Where the Wild Things Are. If you are asking about the Wild Things then phrase the question ‘Why did the Wild Things… ?’, not ‘Why did the monsters… ?’ as using monsters is your view, and open to interpretation with evidence from the text.

Students Create the Questions

  • To create effective questions for a shared discussion (Socratic Seminar), and create buy-in from the students, have the students develop the questions. One method of doing this is:
  • Before reading based on an image from the book have the students do The Questioning for Inquiry Collaboratively to develop ideas for questions. This can be repeated after reading each chapter or a portion of the book.
  • The students write questions they have down on small individual papers (e.g. the size of a sticky note) while in small groups of 3-5 students. They should write 3-6 questions each.
  • The students in each small group then sort the questions to categorize them by similarities. See the section in this guide on Inductive Reasoning and Inductive Mapping.
  • The students come up with a top level question for each category. They refine the top level questions by using phrases from the text.

The top level questions are used by the students for the Socratic Seminar (Shared Inquiry).

Seating Arrangement
The seating is best in a circle. A couple of examples are below.

Notes by the Facilitator to Map the Discussion
The Facilitator creates a diagram of all students part of the Socratic Seminar, writes notes next to each student on their responses and lines / arrows show students building / responding to one another. Arrows are used to show direction, and different types of lines can be used as a notation of types of connections. 

The facilitator’s notes help the facilitator guide the inquiry building upon the student’s sharing.

Students creating ‘Powerful Questions’ on social justice, then inductively categorizing the questions.
Educators inductively categorizing questions.