7th Graders Explore Big Questions With Socratic Seminar
Middle schoolers often ask what they “need to know.” Hoping to get a good grade, they want to zero in on the answer as quickly as possible. This stunts curiosity and prohibits real intellectual understanding of universal concepts tied to their study. In our 7th grade classrooms, Mr. Daryl Walsh teaches his students to ask the types of questions for which there are no simple answers as they explore the human condition with S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.”
What is Socratic Seminar?
Socratic seminar is a class book discussion in which students are responsible for leading the dialogue. Typically, one student kicks off the conversation with an open-ended question. The rest of the class uses examples from the text to respond, asking more questions as the conversation develops. In this student-led exercise, the teacher participates, but only to clarify or redirect as needed. Students aren't striving to earn points — the entire class receives the same grade based on how well the group functions during the seminar.
Thinking About the Big Questions
At the beginning of the unit, Mr. Walsh presents two essential questions, “What does it mean to be a human being?” and “How do stereotypes limit human potential?” The class discusses what humans need to thrive and how stereotypes are formed and perpetuated. As they dive into the book, Mr. Walsh encourages his students to connect what they are reading to these bigger ideas. The goal is not to answer these questions. It’s to recognize what literature can teach us about ourselves and the world around us.
Digging Into the Text
Socratic discussion only works when students really understand the text. In the weeks leading up to the seminar, Mr. Walsh gives the class a list of points from each chapter. Students choose from that list and take detailed notes on whichever points resonate with them. They share these notes as a class and decide which themes to explore together. The element of choice gives students a sense of ownership and creates a learning experience that is unique for every class.
The classes take an “empathy test” on the first six chapters. This assessment measures the degree of insight with which students respond. It isn’t enough for them to repeat back examples from the book; they must consider how it relates to those higher-level questions.
Mr. Walsh also talks about how word choice can bring the story to life. Using a word like “doggedly” to describe how a character repeatedly asks a question communicates a sense of earnest resolution in a way that other words cannot. His students write a diction paragraph in which they choose three words from a chapter and describe how those particular words reveal more about the characters and events within. This attention to nuances in writing style helps students think more critically about character and plot development.
At the beginning of the Socratic session, Mr. Walsh gives each student a simple rubric with expectations for the conversation including:
Everyone should make at least one meaningful comment
Follow up on each other’s comments
Mention specific things from the book
Avoid talking over each other
Try to make insightful comments that cut to the heart of the matter
Mr. Walsh then tells the class that he will “disappear” and only jump in to help explain or redirect if they get stuck. The class falls silent. Several minutes pass as they look at one another and think about what to say. One student begins with, “Johnny and Dally needed family because they both had abusive parents. Maybe if they had loving parents, their stories would have ended differently. Why?” And the conversation flows from there.There was a current of energy in the room as they talked about acceptance, family, friendship, stereotypes, ethics, and more. It was remarkable to see these young students lead an organic discussion involving such a wide range of complicated ideas. They demonstrated mastery of the text, but more importantly, explored those big essential questions with confidence, compassion and insight. These 7th graders weren't looking for “the answer.” They were learning to ask better questions.
"The big takeaway is that learning for its own sake is worthwhile and should not always be tied to a graded outcome. It's important to be able to just think about and explore ideas. We cover a lot of the mechanics of language and that is important, but I want to push them intellectually at the same time." — Mr. Daryl Walsh