Literacy ShopTalk

"Prepare self-directed learners to think critically about the messages received and created by media.”

Construction Conversation

Written By: Paula Neidlinger


OVERVIEW OF :  Socratic Method; Harness Method; Shared Inquiry

I.  What is the Socratic Method?

Developed by the Greek philosopher, Socrates, the Socratic Method is a socratesdialogue between teacher and students, instigated by the continual probing questions of the teacher, in a concerted effort to explore the underlying beliefs that shape the students views and opinions.

An extreme version of this technique is employed by the infamous professor, Dr. Kingsfield, portrayed by John Houseman in the 1973 movie, “The Paper Chase.” In order to get at the heart of ethical dilemmas and the principles of moral character, Dr. Kingsfield terrorizes and humiliates his law students by painfully grilling them on the details and implications of legal cases.

Point of Socratic Method-
  • Socratic inquiry is not “teaching” per se. It does not include PowerPoint driven lectures, detailed lesson plans or rote memorization. The teacher is neither “the sage on the stage” nor “the guide on the side.” The students are not passive recipients of knowledge.
  • The Socratic Method involves a shared dialogue between teacher and students. The teacher leads by posing thought-provoking questions. Students actively engage by asking questions of their own. The discussion goes back and forth.
  • The Socratic Method “is better used to demonstrate complexity, difficulty, and uncertainty than to elicit facts about the world.” The aim of the questioning is to probe the underlying beliefs upon which each participant’s statements, arguments and assumptions are built.
  • The classroom environment is characterized by “productive discomfort,” not intimidation. The Socratic professor does not have all the answers and is not merely “testing” the students. The questioning proceeds open-ended with no pre-determined goal.
  • The focus is not on the participants’ statements but on the value system that underpins their beliefs, actions, and decisions. For this reason, any successful challenge to this system comes with high stakes—one might have to examine and change one’s life, but, Socrates is famous for saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
  • “The Socratic teacher is not the opponent in an argument, nor someone who always plays devil’s advocate, saying essentially: ‘If you affirm it, I deny it. If you deny it, I affirm it.’ This happens sometimes, but not as a matter of pedagogical principle.”
The Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) (2003), The Socratic Method. Speaking of Teaching newsletter, Fall 2003, Vol. 13, No.1. Retrieved September 5, 2007 from

*  Socratic seminars are named for their embodiment of Socrates’ belief in the power of asking questions, prize inquiry over information and discussion over debate.   Socratic seminars acknowledge the highly social nature of learning and align with the work of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Friere.

Elfie Israel succinctly defines Socratic seminars and implies their rich benefits for students:

The Socratic seminar is a formal discussion, based on a text, in which the leader asks open-ended questions.  Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, thinking critically for themselves, and articulate their own thoughts and their responses to the thoughts of others.  They learn to work cooperatively and to question intelligently and civilly. (89)

Israel, Elfie.  “Examining Multiple Perspectives in Literature.”  In Inquiry and the Literary Text: Constructing Discussions n the English Classroom.  James Holden and John S. Schmit, eds.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002

*  How do you run a seminar?

  • Choosing a text:  Socratic seminars work best with authentic texts that invite authentic inquiry—an ambiguous and appealing short story, a pair of contrasting primary documents in social studies, or an article on a controversial approach to an ongoing scientific problem.
  • Preparing the students: While students should read carefully and prepare well for every class session, it is usually best to tell students ahead of time when they will be expected to participate in a Socratic seminar. Because seminars ask students to keep focusing back on the text, you may distribute sticky notes for students to use to annotate the text as they read or annotate electronically.
  • Preparing the questions:  Though students may eventually be given responsibility for running the entire session, the teacher usually fills the role of discussion leader as students learn about seminars and questioning.  Generate as many open-ended questions as possible, aiming for questions whose value lies in their exploration, not their answer.  Elfie Israel recommends starting and ending with questions that relate more directly to students’ lives so the entire conversation is rooted in the context of their real experiences.
  • Establishing student expectations:  Because student inquiry and thinking are central to the philosophy of Socratic seminars, it is an authentic move to include students integrally in the establishment of norms for the seminar.  Begin by asking students to differentiate between behaviors that characterize debate (persuasion, prepared rebuttals, clear sides) and those that characterize discussion (inquiry, responses that grow from the thoughts of others, communal spirit).  Ask students to hold themselves accountable for the norms they agree upon.
  • Establishing your role:  Though you may assume leadership through determining which open-ended questions students will explore (at first), the teacher should not see him or herself as a significant participant in the pursuit of those questions.  You may find it useful to limit your intrusions to helpful reminders about procedures (e.g. “Maybe this is a good time to turn our attention back the text?”  “Do we feel ready to explore a different aspect of the text?”).  Resist the urge to correct or redirect, relying instead on other students to respectfully challenge their peers’ interpretations or offer alternative views.
  • Assessing effectiveness: Socratic seminars require assessment that respects the central nature of student-centered inquiry to their success.  The most global measure of success is reflection, both on the part of the teacher and students, on the degree to which text-centered student talk dominated the time and work of the session.  Reflective writing asking students to describe their participation and set their own goals for future seminars can be effective as well.  Understand that, like the seminars themselves, the process of gaining capacity for inquiring into text is more important than “getting it right” at any particular point.

 II.  Harness Method

Stevenson School – The Harkness Method from Stevenson School on Vimeo.

Harkness Table

Originally developed in 1930 by oil magnate and philanthropist Edward Harkness, a large, oval table was intended to be the centerpiece of any classroom that employs the Harkness method of teaching. The Harkness teaching method allows students to sit with their classmates and teacher around the table and discuss any and all subjects, from mathematics to history, often in great detail. As a result, individual opinions are formed, raised, rejected, and revised in Stevenson’s classrooms, where the teacher’s main responsibilities are to support each student as they gain confidence with critical thinking while keeping the group on task.

Imagine being a student and walking into your classroom. Last night, you read a section of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”. One of your impassioned classmates states, “Long John Silver is annoying! He thinks he’s so cool but he’s not! Does anyone else not like him? He pretends to be cool with the other pirates but behind their back he’s so deceitful towards them!” You and your classmates are trying to decide. Someone jumps in and says, “I like him, he’s feisty! Check out what he says on page 213…” But you don’t think so. You point out his constant betrayals of other characters found throughout the story. Students’ ideas fly around the table. No one is left out of this discussion. Everyone speaks his or her mind, yet you each explore what is known about Long John Silver and question one another’s assumptions. You have time to think, question and critically consider the story’s content while discovering and confirming your own ideas. Suddenly, you’re seeing the big picture. Learning just became exciting.

Instead of a math book with an endless number of identical problems and the answers in the back of the book, Stevenson teachers can design problems that will challenge students to thoughtfully consider equations as well as their solutions. In history class, students are asked to share what “the facts” mean and why they are important. In English class, teachers want to know which books students have already read, and which ones they want to read. Stevenson’s students are inspired to go to school because they are comfortable challenging themselves with the unknown. The collective quest for more understanding is what makes class at Stevenson’s Carmel Campus captivating and keeps everyone immersed in learning.

For additional information about the Carmel Campus, visit the following link:

 *  See hand-out of Constructive Conversation Prompt and Response Starters used in a Harkness Seminar.

*  Activity:  Practice Harkness/Socratic Circle– Click on link- copy


III.  Shared Inquiry

Shared Inquiry- Journey of the Mind

Shared Inquiry requires students to perform three basic tasks, which promotes richer thinking through reading, discussion, and writing.  These three tasks include: re-reading, questioning, and collaboration.  Although all types of questions are encouraged within Shared Inquiry, interpretive questioning propels discussion, as there is always more than one answer, which can be supported with evidence from the text.  Interpretive questions drive Share Inquiry discussion, as students are encouraged to generate their own ideas, cite evidence to support those ideas, and respond to each other through extended questioning based on their own curiosity.

Shared Inquiry Discussions foster:

1.  Close Reading– Before discussion, students read the selection twice, examining the text more closely the second time.  Students are encouraged to annotate as they respond to the text with questions such as, “What surprised you?”….. and “What did you find interesting?  Once discussion begins, students are required to cite and explain details in support of their ideas.

2.  Collaboration-  Initially, I guided the students in discussion by posing questions based on the text.  As the process has evolved during the past two weeks, students are now creating their own focus questions based on the text and their own curiosities.  Additionally, students are challenging opposing ideas constructively through text-based evidence.

3.  Reflective and Critical Thinking-  Shared Inquiry is a process, which begins with a problem and moves to a solution through reflective and critical thinking.  Students must compare and contrast opposing texts and judge whether the evidence provided is substantive.  In addition, students are able to consider all ideas that have been brought to the table and interpret the evidence through their own logic and thinking.  At the conclusion of the process, students explore and document their ideas, thinking, and evidence through the writing process.

Review:  Shared Inquiry Sequence

*  pre-reading

*  first reading

*  sharing questions

*  vocabulary

*  second reading

*  shared inquiry discussion

*  writing and curriculum connections


*  Shared Inquiry- The Great Books Foundation

Sample Activity:  Boar Out There  – Open the Google Doc – copy

We will follow the Five Guidelines of Shared Inquiry:

1.  Read the story twice before participating

2.  Discuss only the story everyone has read

3.  Support your ideas with evidence from the story

4.  Listen to other participants and respond to them directly

5.  Expect the leader to only ask questions

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