Socratic Seminar Formations

There are three basic formations for seminars, the main one being a basic circle where all of the participants can see each other. When circle formations are not possible, ovals, squares and other arrangements can still work as long as everyone can engage in personal communication. Facilitators should avoid sitting anywhere that can be perceived as the front or head of the formation, and many teachers actually sit outside of the circle(s) as an observer only. 

Many facilitators have discovered that the ideal number of students for seminar is generally 13-18. Fewer than this range, and there are often not enough opinions and ideas; more than this range and students begin to lose precious speaking time. All things being equal, I personally find that 16 participants is an ideal number, with 22 being the high-end range where I probably wouldn’t change any of my seminar procedures.

Facilitating with a larger numbers of students (more than 22 or so) can be difficult, but there are a number of potential solutions. With fairly large groups in the 23-27 range, I prefer to select up to five students to participate outside of the dialogue as “sociologists.” These students collect data on the process itself, creating dialogue maps, noting participation styles, making notes, tallying logical fallacies, and anything else that may help set individual and group goals. I would rotate these students so that everyone had a turn as observers, but the majority of students would always be a part of the conversation.

For even larger groups (more than 28 or so), the most common solution is to create two concentric circles, an inner and an outer circle, where only the inner circle participants dialogue about the text, while the outer circle observes the process. After a set amount of time, the two groups switch places. In these setups, it is typical to pair the students up so that they each take turns in the inner and outer circle and help each other become better participants and reflective thinkers. This does mean that students have half the speaking time, though everyone will still benefit from listening to both dialogues.

Another possible formation is to have two separate seminars, though this will usually necessitate having a second teacher or facilitator, an experienced former student, a parent volunteer, etc. I have tried bouncing back and forth between two simultaneous seminars, and I find that I cannot truly listen to either conversation or help either group improve. However, I would certainly consider this solution with a group of older, experienced students.

Single Circle Formations


Comments: Limited to about 22 students; arguably best at 12-16. Participants should all be able to see each other. Prepare the students for the dialogue beforehand, for example, by creating procedures for taking turns. The seminar itself begins with an opening question usually asked by the facilitator. Make sure to leave time at the end for reflection in order to improve.

Concentric Circles Formations


Comments: The students in the inner circle mainly converse about and focus on the text; the outer circle participants primarily observing and reflecting on the process. Sometimes variations of this are known as fishbowl discussions. Students in the middle are usually the only ones who are supposed to speak, so this model can be frustrating for many participants who might feel stuck in the outer circle. Hot Seats are sometimes used so that students can move between the circles, but usually teachers flipflop the participants so they spend half the time in each. 

The outer circle’s job is to provide feedback to improve the group's performance. They may, for example, set goals for the group, reflect on data, and may give specific feedback to a partner in the middle. The outer circle participants need specific tasks in order to stay focused.

This formation can handle very large groups, with roughly half the students in the middle and half in the outer circle. Because of switching roles, there is usually considerable less talk time available for the students, though they gain observations and reflections.

For extremely large classes, there is a variation that divides the students into groups using triads. A “pilot” sits in the inner dialogue circle to talk about the text and is advised by two “co-pilots.” The three students act as a team together. Run an inner/outer circle seminar and then every five minutes or so, provide an opportunity for the triad to talk with each other. The pilot then brings the thoughts and ideas back to the inner circle to continue the dialogue. At regular intervals, rotate the pilots and copilots so that every triad member has a chance to be in the inner circle.

Two (or More) Circles

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Comments: Such formations usually require additional facilitators. If the expectations are clear enough, a participant can facilitate another  circle, but this person needs to understand how Socratic Seminars work. Sometimes a great way to separate groups, so that both can be productive—for example, boys in one circle, girls in the other. Many groups can handle themselves after practicing in several Socratic Seminars and once group norms have been established.

Image by Gerd Altmann - Pixabay


concentric circles, English Class, inner circle, outer circle, Socratic Seminar

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