Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Explanation of The Socratic Seminar

I don't know why I assumed all of you would know what I was talking about, or maybe I thought I'd explained it to a greater degree than I actually did.

First off, to answer Kenny's question, I go to a public school, so none of my classes are online.

The day before a seminar (or earlier), we're given Pre-Seminar questions to answer. My longest one was 10 pages of tiny margins and text crammed into every available space via tables on Romeo and Juliet. The Lord of the Flies one wasn't as intense, but the answers must be detailed and full of support.
In our seminars, the desks are arranged in two circles- the Inner Circle and the Outer Circle. The teacher divides the class into two groups, usually hand-picked for maximum effect. The people on the Inner Circle are the only people allowed to talk. The teacher will pose a question drawn from the Pre-Seminar, and the students take it from there. We're graded on whether or not we speak the required 3 times, how insightful we are, and whether or not we support our opinions using quotes from the book. Meanwhile, the Outer Circle folks are listening and filling out a worksheet based on what is being discussed.
In my current English class, but not in the one I was in last year, there is a Hot Seat on the Inner Circle. In this case, it was the remains of a wheely chair- a Wheely Stool. Anyone from the Outer Circle is allowed to sit on this stool, share one comment, and then they must leave.
Halfway through, the Circles swap, the teacher poses another question geared toward a different aspect of the Pre-Seminar (which is annoying for those on the Outer Circle who wanted to talk about that), and the rest of the class period is spent in discussion. (Except for when there's a line for the Hot Seat and the Inner Circle people don't want to say much anyway.)

Examples from this past Pre-Seminar (some spoilers, if you care):

  • "What is the most important symbol in the entire book? What does Simon's bower represent? Provide a list of all of the beasts within the novel. Are the beast, the Lord of the Flies, and the parachutist connected?"
  • "Many of the characters are allegories for greater concepts. Explore some examples. (Research the origins of names, famous people with similar names, etc.)
  • "Think of what the author might be trying to tell us about human nature and society. Is the island a microcosm of the world at large? Consider both the physical aspects of the island itself and the mental/emotional aspects of its young inhabitants. Was the author successful at this? Is it complete or lacking in certain important characteristics? Trace one theme throughout the novel and discuss what the author is attempting to tell the reader."
  • "If the boys had not been rescued, what would have been their fate? What kind of government did the boys adapt at the end of the novel? Is the author making a social critique of different government systems?"
  • "What if girls had been on the island? How would things have been different? Please look deeper than the obvious 'relationship' answer. What would have been different if only girls had crashed on the island?"
  • "Do you think the ending is a good ending? Why or why not? How would you change it?"

I hope that clears it up a bit. If you want my answers to any of those questions, say so in a comment and I'll post them as soon as I get my pre-seminar back.

"Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why." - Bernard Baruch

There's a quote in honor of Socrates, for whom our types of seminars are named. It was he who said "The unexamined life is not worth living," and while I think that's a bit harsh, I mostly agree.


  1. I HATE Socrates! The man's whole shtick was based on saying that he knows everything because he knows nothing and so he's going to go around and tear people apart for the heck of it. He also made the argument that, even though he was convicted of something he didn't do, he wouldn't escape because he had enjoyed the benefits of the state while he was alive he had to submit to the law of the state even tough he felt it was wrong. But, here is the problem though. He said that while in jail. Jail is a benefit that the state provides, in that the accused criminal is given shelter and food while await trail. So, by his logic, anyone arrested for anything must submit to the penalty of the law. So, if you go to saudi arabia and are are arrested, tried and ordered to be flogged and thrown in prison because you are gay, you can't, morally, try and escape,

    I must admit that these opinions were formed when I took a philosophy which I absolutely hated and clashed with the teach basically every week. So, on should take my hatred for socrates with a grain of salt

  2. Thank you far explaining the system. It sounds really wonderful, since I prefer discussion based, or Socratic, teaching. I do admit that the ban of silence upon the outer circle would frustrate me to no end at times, I much prefer to be able to make my input when I think I have some, and be silent otherwise.

    Now, to defend my main man Socrates. My understanding of his philosophy is not that he thought he knew everything, but that he felt he understood things better than most by recognizing how little he actually knew. I must admit I find this an admirable stance, as Hume would later go on and show, most logical arguments about "real world" conditions are based on hidden, undependable, assumptions, so it is hardly surprising that Socrates could demolish people who claimed that they knew something "with certainty." In regards to his death, Socrates was a loyal Athenian, so part of his acceptance of death was out of respect for the law, but I think part was that he lacked desire to live elsewhere. Sorry that you didn't find philosophy as miraculous as it ought to be!


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