What is a Socratic Seminar? Through Collaboration, Students Find Out

Posted by on May 23, 2013

Being able to collaborate with others is a skill that is important in school, the workplace and life in general.  To assist students in learning how to collaborate more effectively, faculty at the Minnesota School of Business-Brooklyn Center campus are beginning to utilize the Socratic Seminar teaching method, which is one of AVIDs many strategies used in AVID elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. Students learn how to debate without arguing, how to listen, and how to find information within tight time constraints. It is a highly effective learning strategy.

Last Thursday, May 16, students in Ann Deiman-Thornton’s Research and Writing class and Michelle Rivard’s Business Communication class participated in a Socratic Seminar. Both Deiman-Thornton, dean of faculty, and Rivard, AVID liaison, have been eager to use the strategy since earlier in the month when all Brooklyn Center faculty were trained on how to best incorporate the method.  The two decided that the activity would be highly educational (and fun) to combine the classes for the interactive activity; students responded very positively!

AVID, Minnesota School of Business

Students listen attentively to their classmates debating during the Socratic Seminar.

Before the activity began, the 22 students were given a brief article to read that presented opposing viewpoints regarding airport security, specifically the use of scanners on travelers. Students read about potential privacy violations, potential health risks, and overall scanner effectiveness. Students were then told to not form a strong pro or con position but rather think about how they would advise airport security personnel about existing and possible airline security measures.

After reading the article, both classes moved to a different classroom where seven chairs had been arranged in an inner circle known as the “fish bowl.” Six students sat in the fish bowl, and there was an empty seat known as the “hot seat.” Only the students in the fish bowl were allowed to talk and debate the controversial topic, and only one student was allowed to speak at a time.

Behind each chair in the inner circle were two chairs designated for “research assistants.” Each student in the fish bowl had two students behind him/her who conducted research throughout the debate. The research assistants were not allowed to speak but rather communicate with the inner circle via written messages on post it notes. For example, as students in the fish bowl debated the potential health risks of scanning pregnant women, research assistants used their smart phones to seek information from reputable websites to support or disprove what was being discussed. The research assistants were allowed to occupy the hot seat if they had a burning desire to jump into the debate to make one point. The instructors sat off to the side and did not participate or speak.

The Socratic Seminar lasted about 45 minutes. In that time, students discussed financial issues, health issues, privacy issues, and other issues related to the controversial topic surrounding airport scanners.

When the debate was finished, Deiman-Thornton asked her students to compile a list of reputable sources they used to retrieve information during the seminar and what other sources they might use for additional research. They primarily searched library databases and scholarly sources. Rivard asked her students to name soft skills used during a Socratic Seminar that are also critical to use in the business world. Some of the responses included the following:  teamwork, professional discourse, making decisions with incomplete information, persuasion, and critical thinking.

Overall, the Socratic Seminar was a huge success, and the students thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work with each other.

Thank you for your Interest in Minnesota School of Business.