The Socratic Seminar

Marine Corps University’s Vision Statement reads: “To further the excellence of our Corps through an educational institution that facilitates the continuing development of leaders, knowledgeable in the art and science of war, adept at critical and creative thinking, and possessing sound judgment and reasoned decision-making skills.”

I’m not going to tell you how to develop Marine leaders or cultivate sound military judgment. I can speak competently on developing critical and creative thinking skills. What is critical thinking? According to the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

Translation: using analytically (or professionally) rigorous standards to pull ideas apart, test them, and put them back together again in ways that better inform decision-making. It’s not sharing your opinions or beliefs; it’s providing evidence and reason to evaluate and strengthen an argument.

Why is critical and creative thinking important? It’s at the heart of what it means to problem solve, innovate, and adapt. Luckily, 99.9% of your students (and you) have been thinking critically and creatively your entire professional lives:

US Marines In Helmand Province Try To Cool Off
(My water’s hot!
Here, stick it in this smelly sock and get it wet.)

(This smartness seems pretty self-explanatory.)

The trick is to take the practical problem solving approaches they (and you) have used in the Fleet and translate them in a more purely intellectual environment.

This is the purpose of the Socratic Seminar. To quote shamelessly from elsewhere:

Socrates believed that all the answers to all human questions and problems reside within us. Unfortunately, as human beings we are often unaware of the answers and solutions we possess. Socrates was convinced that the surest way to discover those answers and attain reliable knowledge was through the practice of disciplined conversation. He called this method the dialectic.[1]

Some of how we teach is directive (faculty lecturing with students listening and taking notes). Some of it is hands-on learning (through practical applications and planning exercises). Seminar is neither — though you may have moments where you lecture (briefly) on a point to ensure everyone’s baseline knowledge is at the necessary level or where the group conducts a brief prac app to engage a specific point.

Seminar is where your students critically evaluate the material from lectures and readings. It shifts their brains from ‘receive mode’ into ‘engage mode’, helps expose and challenge unexamined (potentially false) assumptions, and develops students’ ability to reach their own conclusions — credibly — on different subjects.

To make the standard distinction between training, which prepares us for the known, and education, which prepares us for the unknown, seminar is education. Clearly, you have to know doctrine in order to critique it, but you don’t actually know doctrine until you’ve critiqued it. Memorizing doctrine (or Clausewitz, or the National Security Strategy) is great. Still, that’s nothing more than a cheap parlor trick unless our students understand the significance and appropriate application of each in a changing environment. We develop that ability through discussion in seminar.

So, what should you expect from a Socratic Seminar?

First, don’t kid yourself. Your class will not go like this (though it is a good illustration of the commitment to critical thinking that underlies the Socratic Method). Some days it will feel more like this. It happens. I’d say aim for somewhere in between.

Second, it really shouldn’t go like this either. The Socratic Method is about studying and engaging reading and ideas in order to better develop our understanding of a subject. It is not about scoring points and making people look stupid. (And for goodness sake, don’t hit your students.) You set the tone and the standard for your seminar. It’s up to you to enforce that line between critiquing arguments and criticizing people.

Some pointers:

  1. The Socratic Seminar is leading from behind. I know that can have a bad connotation, but in seminar, it’s a good thing. Your responsibility is to help your students step up and take responsibility for their collective learning. If you’re always talking and / or controlling the conversation, they don’t get to. The best seminars are those where the students are able to identify the core issues themselves, challenge each others’ assumptions back and forth, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, all without you saying a word. If your students can really chew on issues (rigorously) for 5 or 10 (or 30) minutes without you interjecting, you’re doing it right.
  2. The Socratic Seminar is a lot harder than you think it is. Seriously. You don’t just show up and ask your students “So what did you think of the readings?” You might start a seminar by asking students why they were assigned the readings for a particular seminar, since this forces them to think about what core issues the readings engaged, how those core issues relate to the day’s topic, and what significance those issues and topic have to them at their level of professional development. Preparing for an effective seminar can easily take more time than preparing for a lecture. You control every minute of a lecture; you lead every minute of a seminar. Quick tip: Backwards plan for seminar. What do you want your students to know by the time they walk out? (This should be an analytical, not a factual point.) To get your students to this destination, ask yourself: What facts do the students need to know to get there? What concepts do they need to understand? What theories or approaches do they need to be familiar with? In a two-hour seminar, I’d spend no more than 15-20 minutes on facts (most of this should come in readings or lecture; just focus on those facts that are really important). I’d devote up to an hour on a concept or theory, depending on its significance. I’d also devote a good 30 minutes to evaluating the take-home.
  3. The Socratic Seminar takes time to develop. I wouldn’t be surprised if your students won’t shut up the first day of class. I would be surprised they all were able to engage in thoughtful, precise, and intellectually rigorous discussion of concepts and readings. Step One in creating an effective seminar is just to get folks talking. Step Two is to get them to say something useful. From Day One let them know through the sorts of thoughtful, precise, and intellectually rigorous questions you ask them that you expect them to read and think before they show up for class. Then let them all get their yahoos out, size each other up, and get down to business. Keep that standard (thoughtful, precise, grounded in readings and lecture, rigorous) and it won’t be long before your students take over. Just remember, you won’t get them talking rigorously if you don’t get them talking. You can raise the intellectual bar as students grow more confident in their abilities and each other. You should raise the bar as the year progresses, since your students should be capable of doing more over time.
  4. The Socratic Seminar operates at many levels. In seminar, you are constantly evaluating (a) whether the group as a whole is making appropriate progress toward that endpoint you identified in your backwards planning; (b) whether today’s discussion connects sufficiently to relevant previous discussions (vice hanging out disconnected from the rest of the curriculum) and sufficiently prepares students for future discussions (vice ignoring a key idea or concept they’ll need later in the year); (c) whether the individual students are prepared, engaged, and getting it; and (d) whether the group is operating effectively as a whole without any one or two students dominating or derailing the conversation. It’s exhausting. Don’t gaffe it off.
  5. The Socratic Seminar takes many forms. Seminar can literally be you and your students sitting around a table for a period of time discussing the topic of the day. That’s fun for a while, but it can get a little stale in time. To shake things up, you can designate different students to lead seminar on different days, so they get to learn how to prepare for and run seminar. This is great practice for them to lead future PMEs of their own, just make sure you prepare them sufficiently first. You can create discussion boards on Blackboard and have students respond to the issues for consideration and post their own questions prior to seminar. This is great for your introverts and international officers who may have trouble jumping into the conversation in seminar. It also gets students’ brains in gear so they’ve already started seminar before you ever get in the room. You can incorporate video or other forms of media into your seminar and have students critique and evaluate new ideas on the spot (again, your bar will be lower for this earlier in the year). There are lots of variations on the theme of motivating thoughtful, precise, and intellectually rigorous discussion. Have fun.

I started with the MCU Vision Statement and I’ll end there too. Our job is “To further the excellence of our Corps through an educational institution that facilitates the continuing development of leaders, knowledgeable in the art and science of war, adept at critical and creative thinking, and possessing sound judgment and reasoned decision-making skills.” Our job is not to give our students answers. It is to teach them how to find the answers themselves. The Socratic Seminar is one of the primary ways we do that.

Rebecca J. Johnson

[1] I don’t love the Socratic Circle format myself, but there could be situations where it fits your seminar. Still, the basic ideas here concerning the purpose and approach to a structured conversation are solid, as is the description of your role in that conversation.


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