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A Socratic seminar is a type of formal group discussion based on the learning and teaching methods employed by Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher often credited with founding Western philosophy. While most classes are based on lectures intended to directly transmit information from teacher to student, a Socratic seminar is based more on inquiry and discussion. Socrates held the idea that it is more effective to help students think for themselves than it is to simply give them information. A Socratic seminar is, therefore, intended to be a discussion of a specific topic among all of those present rather than a situation in which one teacher gives information to students.
In most cases, a Socratic seminar is focused on the discussion of a text, such as a book or essay. All participants in the seminar read the text beforehand and come to the seminar prepared to discuss their thoughts on the topic. Such seminars often take place in a classroom setting, so a teacher is often present to lead the discussion. This leadership, however, is not meant to be in the form of a lecture — the teacher's responsibility is only to guide the discussion to important topics and to ensure that those engaged in the discussion are being fair to each other. Some teachers give their students discussion questions before the Socratic seminar to help guide and focus the discussion.
The purpose of a Socratic seminar is not simply to make sure that students understand the literal aspects of a given text. Many texts in literature and philosophy address highly complex issues that a simple understanding of the words on the page does not fully address. The texts used in a Socratic seminar are to be used only as a foundation for group discussion of the issues presented. Discussion of those issues, particularly when there is controversy, requires intensive reasoning and critical thinking skills. Frequent participation in such seminars greatly helps students develop reasoning skills that can be helpful in many different parts of one's life.
Some topics, such as philosophy, sociology, and literature, are more compatible with the idea of a Socratic seminar than others, such as chemistry and mathematics. The sciences in particular require students to learn a great deal of information that could not easily be obtained through discussion. Many of the topics in the humanities, on the other hand, are based primarily in human reason and in elements of shared human experience. Accordingly, discussion among a group of people with different opinions and experiences can lead to very interesting and insightful views on the topics addressed.
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