Critical Thinking, Socratic Seminars, and the College Classroom

Critical Thinking, Socratic Seminars, and the College Classroom

John D. Long (Lindenwood University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8411-9.ch003
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In many college classrooms, the requirement that students engage in critical thinking is missing. Students have become point gatherers and not thinkers. The Socratic Seminar, derived from the teaching techniques of Socrates, is a proven method to increase the critical thinking in class, and out. This structured discussion is not a debate. This chapter includes a description of, the purpose for, and successful strategies for conducting a Socratic Seminar, based on the researcher's experiences. The use of a foundational reading grounds the discussion on a common reference point. The purpose of the seminar is to improve the quality of discussion by having the students be more precise in their questions and answers. Questioning clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, and breadth of statements forces graduate students to move past the shallow parts of discussion to areas which more fully explore a topic. Graduate level work requires this depth of understanding and this method improves their ability for in-depth discussion.
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Picture a professor standing in front of a classroom. That is easy to do; it happens almost every day of the week. Now picture that same professor asking her class what they think about a topic they were assigned to read about as homework following the last class session. Again, it’s not hard to imagine. Now picture the class looking back blankly at the teacher. This part is easy to picture if you have ever stood in front of a college classroom, because it has probably happened to you as well. The teacher, with rising frustration, rephrases the question and ultimately calls on a student she hopes knows the answer, or simply answers the question herself. Sound familiar?

It was to me as I transitioned to the college classroom as a fulltime professor after serving in public education for 25 years. I knew there was both a need for helping the students develop and demonstrate their critical thinking skills and a method to facilitate both. The method is the Socratic Seminar. This method has risen and fallen in popularity in various classrooms around the globe over the last 2,000 years and is worth the time and effort it takes to develop the skills needed to implement it in a wide variety of college classrooms from the undergraduate to the doctoral level.

Like many college professors, I felt I had been hired because of my subject matter expertise. As a retired K-12 teacher, principal, and superintendent, I felt prepared to share with aspiring teachers and administrators the lessons I had learned in a career of public education in several states. That sharing often involved my explaining the realities of education from my perspective, or lecture, punctuated with case studies demonstrating the veracity of my words, or war stories. My desire to have my students think and demonstrate their thinking was not helped by this teaching method. As Maiorana (1991) said:

Many teachers believe that the purpose of education is to learn facts, ideas, and skills and to learn to think critically. Yet the road followed by most classroom teachers in the delivery of subject matter has been straight, narrow, and unbroken and has emphasized rote learning, not critical thinking. That road began in Sicily around 450 B.C. as the art of rhetoric. It survives to this day in many forms including the classroom lecture. (p. 53)

I take slight solace in knowing I am falling back on a multi millennial old instructional method. I am saddened that the method I chose was the wrong one. Instead, I should have been using an instructional technique of similar vintage: The Socratic Seminar. In this chapter we will briefly explore the origins of the Socratic Seminar, tie it to the widely known Bloom’s taxonomy, discuss in a straightforward manner how this can be implemented in college classrooms to great advantage, and finally discuss why this proven method is not more readily utilized in colleges today.



Socrates as a historical figure dates to his birth in 469 BCE and his death by execution in 399 BCE in Athens (Ahbel-Rappe, 2009). While Socrates was many things, including a philosopher and a teacher, what he was not was a writer. He did not take the time to write his philosophies and beliefs. All of the thoughts attributed to Socrates were written down by others. Some of these writers had actually studied with him, as in the case of Plato. There is speculation that other writers perhaps had never even met him personally (Ahbel-Rappe, 2009). This leaves us with images of a man that may, or may not, be entirely accurate. However, we will press forward with what are the most commonly accepted tenets of his philosophy and leave the arguments about the historical accuracy to another day and venue.

According to Cookson (2009), “Socrates believed that we learn best by asking essential questions and testing tentative answers against reason and fact in a continual and virtuous circle of honest debate” (p. 8). The need for, and importance of, questioning is then held as the central tenet of his philosophical practice. While true, it does not adequately explain the translation of his philosophy into the current classroom. A closer reading of the quote does shed some light on the actual practice, specifically the need for the questioning to be ‘continuous’ and ‘virtuous.’

Key Terms in this Chapter

Academic Honesty: The requirement that a person’s work be their own.

Socratic Method: The use of questioning as the principal force for instruction. Based on the teachings and techniques of Socrates.

Intellectual Capital: The sum total of the thoughts and non-tangible production of a group or country.

Academic Freedom: The ability of faculty members to teach controversial issues or espouse controversial opinions without fear of loss of their job. Not to be confused with the ability to not teach effectively.

Socratic Seminar: Using the Socratic method in a formal structure to discuss issues or solve problems. This typically occurs over at least an hour and involves the use of multiple groups.

Critical Thinking: “ Critical thinking is using reasoned argument to look at fact, story or statement to check if there is an alternative fact, story, or statement” ( Goodman, 2006 ).

Debate: A formal argument guided by specific rules.

Academic Rigor: The concept of the depth of thought required for classwork or assignments, not the amount of work.

Plagiarism: Presenting the work of someone else as your own.

Touchstone Question: The foundational question for a Socratic Seminar. The entire seminar revolves around this one complex question.

Discussion: An informal verbal exchange guided only by interest and a few general guidelines including rules of civility.

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