The Beast That Was the Socratic Seminar

Guest Post by Tess Mueggenborg

The first time I heard of a Socratic Seminar, I was in early high school.  My history teacher gave us a copy of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” arranged the desks in a circle, and instructed us to start talking.  It didn’t go well.  Perhaps if we’d had time to read the text before class, or if the teacher had explained what an “allegory” is, or explained the rearrangement of the room, or provided any instructions or expectations, we might have had a chance.  But none of those things happened–so the class flustered, floundered, and flopped.  Not a positive first exposure.

Fast-forward two years, and I’m in AP Literature.  In the midst of studying poetry, muddling through Donne’s sonnets and Keats’s odes (anyone else ever have a nightmare about “Batter My Heart Into A Grecian Urn”?), I walked in on a Wednesday to find an ominous circle of desks.  The instructions were vague and only marginally more helpful than the first go-around:  just talk about the poems, there will be no “moderator” so just jump into the conversation. . .and this is for a grade.

Strike two for the Socratic Seminar.

One more jump forward:  I’m in college, taking a class on Plato.  If you’ve read anything by Plato, you know that to read Plato is to read Socrates. . .and I finally made the connections between Socrates, this thing called the “Socratic Method,” and the beast that was the “Socratic Seminar.”

I figured it out:  the purpose of a Socratic Seminar is to ask questions.

Questions and discuss lead to learning.  If you ever get any answers out of a Socratic Seminar, great; but answers are not the goal, and not the signs of a “successful” seminar.  It’s not about demonstrating what you know:  it’s about declaring what you don’t know and traipsing through the tall grass together.  In that first Socratic Seminar, I should have broken the deafening silence by asking a simple question:  anybody know what “allegory” means?

In the next few guest posts, I’ll explain more about the Socratic Method and the Socratic Seminar, including:

  • the basics – what a Socratic Seminar is, and what it isn’t
  • the Socratic Seminar in the classroom (and not just an AP English classroom!) – including set-up and assessment
  • tips and tricks for managing the Seminar with real students (ie – how to find balance with the verbose students and the reluctant speakers)

Have any specific questions you want answered about Socratic Seminars?  Email me:

“Professor” Tess Mueggenborg teaches English (and anything else with which her students need help) at RL Turner High School.  Her academic passions lie in comparative language and literature.  The Professor lives in Dallas with her husband, Jeff. Tess’ on Twitter @profmueggenborg

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2 thoughts on “The Beast That Was the Socratic Seminar

  1. Jennifer April 2, 2013 at 5:45 am Reply

    I’m excited to hear more about Socratic Seminar! I use Harkness discussion, and I’m interested to see the similarities and differences.



  2. shannonjoe April 1, 2013 at 10:07 pm Reply

    Can’t wait to read more about the socratic seminars. So different than the direct instruction we are used to. 🙂



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