Monday, August 1, 2016

Socratic Seminars in the Math Classroom?  Why Not!!!

At the begging of  last school  year, I set a goal  to implement Socratic Seminars into my classes.  Colleagues and students kept asking “how do you do  Socratic Seminars in Math???”  I  told them I was n ot sure, but I  was going to find a way.  I had taught many students over  the years that had loved these seminars in their social studies and English classes, and I was dead set on figuring out how to do this.  Implementing Socratic Seminars into my classroom was a something I wanted to use to further student-led mathematical discussion in the classroom.  

I started by observing a colleague in the English department, Jordan Kohanim.   Jordan and I  had taught together for about 10 years at two different schools, and she was and is one of the most creative and engaging teachers I  have ever known.  I know this not only from the standpoint of working with her, but also because she had taught my son in high school and impassioned him to join and participate in debate.  Upon observing one  of her Socratic seminars, I was fascinated at the process, and immediately my wheels started turning.  I knew I could implement this discussion process into math; I just wanted to find the right opportunity with content.

Well, then late fall in the school year happened, and I lost sight of my goal for a few months.  Second semester gave me more energy to start thinking about it again.  I decided the right audience for launch was my Accelerated GeometryB/Advanced Algebra  courses, which consisted of 9th and 10th grade level students.    Students started their geometry units in their previous honors course, and they finished the rest of the geometry last year with me.  In this process, Georgia students often times end up taking their state test in Geometry well after they are finished with the content; this was the case with our students.    Because students needed to review the geometry content before taking the state test last May, I thought this would also be a great way to “spruce up” review of previously learned topics in a way that embedded several concepts into problem solving tasks.  I also felt implementing with previously learned content would help to develop the process of the seminars into mathematics.

In planning the seminars, I  chose 2 students who I have heard talking about Socratic seminars in other classes and seemed excited about doing them.  I met with them after school and brainstormed ideas with them including what they felt would be improved methods to maximize student engagement; basically, their wish list from having experienced Socratic seminars in  other classes.  Their ideas were monumental in my planning process and  helped the implementation of Socratics in our classroom to  go smoothly and result in great conversations.

How I Structured the Seminars:
Socratic Seminars typically have these types of structures in the classroom with 2-3 circles for participation; I like to call them tiers.  This is similar to the set-up in  my classroom.

Our seminars were set up in 3 tiers with 2 tiers involved in “discussion of the math”.  I have a video of it, but was not able to get it transferred to google photo archive in time for the first Blaugust! 
I decided also to implement 2 more separate roles that I thought would work well with a math Socratic Seminar. (Scribe and Computador)

                Tier 1:  This group is the oral discussion group.  Members of  this group are allowed 
                             to have  their Geometry interactive notebooks  only for reference and no writing 
                             utensils.   There is a lead person designated to this group who leads out discussion
                             and manages the flow of the mathematical conversations taking place.  The group 
                             leaders were nominated and voted on the day before the seminar.

                Tier 2:  This group is the written discussion group.  Members of this group have
                             white boards to share mathematical ideas with the discussion circle and may 
                             also reference their geometry notebooks.   They may only write and share ideas
                             via  marker and white board.   The white boards are held up in order to share 
                             mathematical ideas for the discussion group to  integrate into  the mathematical 

                Tier 3:  Each member of this group is assigned to one member of the discussion group.
                            The  members in this group record the details of mathematical ideas shared by a 
                            specifically assigned discussion member.   Members of  this group quote other 
                            members and indicate whether or not the shared ideas contribute  to the problem 
                            solving process.   Their biggest job is checking for relevance in the mathematics 
                            being discussed.

                Computador:  One  student is assigned to  the front of the room with a calculator. 
                                       This is the only student  with a calculator and doing calculations  as 
                                       requested by the discussion group.  The  computador is also  recording 
                                       answers on the hard copy of  the problem worksheet.  The                                                                      computador may collaborate verbally only with the scribe.

                          Scribe:   One  student is assigned to front of the room to  draw on the projected 
                                        image of the hard copy of the problem as requested by the discussion group. 
                                       They  may also write clarifying points made by the discussion group.  
                                       In the video, the students are asking the scribe to label parts of the figure
                                       to make discussion easier.  The scribe does not contribute to the
                                       discussion group rather, they provide visual clarity to the problem being                                                discussed.
The  Process

All tiers  of  students are given a paper copy of  the problem to be discussed.  Tiers 1 and 2 have a hard copy of the discussion problem, and they reference their geometry interactive notebooks to be thinking of the process of solving.  Tier 3  students  must read  the problem  in order to  follow along with the ideas that the discussion  member they are  assigned to  shares.   They must know  if  their assigned person is producing valid and quality mathematical ideas that contribute to the problem solving.  5 minutes are given for students to study the problem before discussion begins.

After 5 minutes, the leader of the discussion group starts the discussion of the problem and invites the discussion by other members in the discussion group.  Each member of the discussion group is expected to talk but not over-dominate the conversations to prohibit other members sharing ideas.  Members of Tier  3 are crossing out a  letter of the word GEOMETRY  every time their assigned person talks as well as quoting their responses.

After all parts of the muti-task problem are completed and  recorded by the computador, the seminar is closed.  I collect the evaluation sheets from Tier 3, and ask the group to clean up materials for the next class. 

The Preparation

Since second semester began, the students had been reviewing geometry remotely through keeping  an interactive geometry notebook of notes and  assignments distributed by our Accel Geometry PLC.   This notebook was  intended  for  use in the seminars, to prepare for their Milestones EOC, and to keep in the future for SAT  and ACT preparation in  coming years.   The students have also been working on review problems since we returned from spring  break as well as constructions of geometric figures in the computer lab that  went into their geometry notebooks.  They were busy!

I designed the first seating chart (they never saw this of course) into the following categories:  strong-skills/dominant, strong-skills/quiet, proficient-skills/dominant, proficient-skills/quiet,  developing-skills/dominant, and developing-skills/quiet.  This helped me to really think about what students  really talk versus students I need to  prompt more at all levels.  I  then drew from this list to  integrate even amounts of each of those six  classifications into each  of  the 3 tiers for the first seminar.   Because we did 3 Socratic Seminars before the EOC, each student was able to rotate to each role by the time we were done. 


This was one of the most amazing things I have done in my classroom!  I was amazed at all of the conceptual understanding  and connections  that were encompassed by the discussions in the seminars.  The students truly worked together to problem solve and did a great job of listening to others contributions and integrating them  into the process needed to solve the task.  The first tier also utilized the white board contributions of the 2nd tier and even referenced their  class mates by name to give them credit.  From discussing things like unit conversions, special right triangles versus regular triangles, and which measurement  to us for each situation, I loved that the seminars provided a  way for the  students to  pull the  geometry concepts together to make sense of how they a used in out in the world rather  than just in textbooks and  review materials.  The problem I have uploaded here involves a barn and a silo, and there were also great conversations about the materials for a barn and whether or not the silo is ever completely filled to the top.   I was so intrigued by the curiosity they showed in the problem-solving process, and it is something I will continue to do in my classroom this year.

On next blog I will discuss how a more informal Socratic seminar developed in my support class after the geometry seminars in the other classes.  This was equally amazing in a different way.  I will also talk about ideas for building and improving on the seminars for this year.


  1. Wow! Thank you so much for writing up your process. I've done something very informal, but similar and also have visited Humanities classes for inspiration. I'm excited to try out the three tiers and also the idea of a scribe at the board. Great suggestions! Thank you1

    1. You are welcome and thanks for reading! My. Next blog will talk about my informal Socratic from my support class-I will send it to you.

  2. WOW! Love the idea of Socratic Seminar in math class ... but never figured out how to pull it off. I look forward to more posts!

  3. I have to echo Jasmine and Beth - WOW! I've done Socratic Seminars with my AVID classes, but never figured out how to pull them off in math. Thank you so much for the detailed write-up!

  4. Thank you Beth and Druin for reading and the great feedback. I truly loved doing the socratics and cannot wait to keep using them this year. Next post coming soon:)