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Beyond Socratic Seminars: Engaging Methods to Elicit Accountable Talk


Across the disciplines, student engagement and participation is the apex of the teaching mountain professors climb. To be sure one has the equipment to invite students into academic dialogue, proper tools, such as the Socratic seminar, are necessary. The National Paedeia Center, which strives to provide inspiration to all learners, defined the ages-old methodology as, “collaborative, intellectual dialogue facilitated by open-ended questions about a text.” Professors facilitate these student-centered discussions by posing questions, remaining silent, and accounting for meaningful participation.

Socratic Style

Effective seminars consist of three chunks: pre-, during, and post-seminar, in which all students can participate. In the pre-seminar, instructors pepper the discussion with literal questions about the text to garner a sense of the students’ understanding. During the seminar, professors ask interpretative questions about the text to highlight the different readings students may have within a class. In the post-seminar, evaluative questions help students to relate the information gleaned from the discussion to the larger context. However, some pedagogues fear overreliance on one strategy. So, dive into the Fishbowl and make Craniums Connect: these practices offer creative variations on the typical Socratic seminar.

Dive in! Finding Flow in the Fishbowl

Contrary to the name, the only thing to be saturated during the discussion will be students’ minds. The student population is halved and arranged in concentric circles: the outer circle pens questions about the topic and passes them to their peers in the inner circle. Those in this circle speak responses to the questions from their peers. The inner circle participants talk freely and engage with/encourage one another to answer the interrogatives. While the inner circle postulates, the outer circle note takes and scribes questions that arise from the talk. Some instructors keep one hot seat open for those in the outer circle with ‘burning’ ideas that they must share. When another student’s mind ignites, that student can politely tap the shoulder of the person in the hot seat and replace the person. At the discussion’s end, outer circle students share their notes and summarize the conversation.

In this author’s English Language Learners class, students participate in the Fishbowl to discuss learner-focused teaching and strategies of learning. Students, at the point in their educations, have observed basic education classrooms and are comfortable talking about learner strategies. Students draw on their own experiences as learners, as well as what they have seen, and the text read for class. Students in the center anticipate questions from the personal to what they have observed to textual relations. The outer ring of students acquires theoretical strategies (from the text) and practical strategies (from lived experiences). Many students in the education program find the Fishbowl particularly helpful with this lesson to build their toolbox of teaching strategies.

Craniums Connect

No injuries should result with this strategy’s employment. Students divide into groups and are given numbers within the groups. The instructor poses a question and orders craniums to connect (students talk about the question and note responses). While students develop ideas, the professor monitors the collaborative groups, and then, asks certain numbers to respond to the question in a whole group discussion. This is repeated until all teacher-generated questions have been addressed. All students participate in both the small and large group discussions.

In this author’s Secondary English Methods I course, students connect their craniums to discuss a multiple intelligences approach for language arts instruction. Questions are posed about how to address the needs of students’ multiple intelligences. Cases are offered to students concerning a certain intelligence (e.g., Geoff exhibits traits of a naturalistic intelligence: what type of project could future English teachers design to help Geoff to further understand Benjy’s section of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury), students are given time to ‘connect,’ and then, asked by number to respond to the question.

Savoring the View

When conducted properly, these strategies offer professors a delightful vista from which to gaze: students are engaged in academic dialogue, formative assessment can be rendered, and new ideas and perspectives arise from class discussions. From this peak of the mountain, Fishbowl and Craniums Connect amplify an orthodox method to be resoundingly fresh.


National Paideia Center. (2013). Paideia Active Learning. Retrieved from

By Katie Monsour. Secondary English Education Supervisor at University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown.

(photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/marcwathieu/2979581445/)



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