Socratic Seminars in the Art Room

Let’s start with this: I’m not an expert on this.  Or even close.  But it is something I do in my class, and it’s something I should probably do more. A lot of these ideas come from Oscar Graybill, a fantastic presenter who was at my school before the beginning of last year.  I have incorporated a lot of his ideas, and changed some things to make them specific to my art classroom.

The What
For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, a Socratic Seminar is a classroom discussion that focuses on big ideas and a involves all students.  It is basically the antithesis of a lecture–instead of transmitting knowledge from teacher to student(s), we are instead sharing our ideas through dialogue.  Not debate, but dialogue.  We are not covering a topic, or focusing on subject matter–we are exploring these things.  We are not looking for right answers, and we are not looking to change anyone’s mind–we want to extend ideas, explore thoughts, and work collectively to think more deeply about those big ideas. Seminars are generally based on a text, and at times, we will use a text; more often, however, I will set up our discussion based on a particular artwork.

The Setup
Students should be set up in a circle; my tables are in a ‘U’ shape, so that works well enough.  The important part is that everyone can see and hear each other, so everyone feels comfortable being a part of the seminar.

I will find an artwork to discuss that either has an ambiguous meaning, or a deep meaning that is worth discussing at length.  Probably my favorite is the Minotaur Etching by Picasso, but it’s tough to go wrong–especially if your kids are used to talking about work.

After selecting the artwork we will discuss, I choose a big idea (from the list of 103 great ideas from Mortimer Adler). This big idea will begin and guide our discussion. And in this idea, we should be looking for 3 things:

Ideas, Issues, and Values–Find some that are worth talking about.
Ambiguity–Your big idea should allow for multiple positions, ideas and opinions.
Accessibility–Choose an idea that is interesting for your students. It really, really helps if you are interested in it as well.  Be curious, and be inquisitive–your students will be as well.

The Process
Using the big idea, I will begin with an opening question.  This question WILL NOT have a right answer–it should reference the artwork (or text) we are using, and have students explore the deeper meaning of the work.  Often times, this is a good spot to use some higher order thinking skills.  For example, asking this: “After looking at the artwork, please rank these pairs of emotions according to their relevance to the work: Courage v. Despair, Love v. Fear, and Respect v. Pity.”

From there, it’s all about simply guiding the discussion. When you run a Socratic Seminar, you are both the leader and a participant.  You will ask the questions that get them talking, and you will talk yourself, but make sure you have these things in mind:

  • Most importantly–Silence is OK! Taking time to think and formulate responses is important.
  • Keep the discussion focused on the art
  • Ask follow-up questions–paraphrase, probe, make students expand their ideas
  • Help clarify if answers or thoughts get bogged down, confused, or vague
  • Involve reluctant students, and move away from those who dominate the discussion

Now, one opening question and a few follow-ups will generally not give you an entire class period of discussion; this is especially true when you are in the first few seminars of the year.  From there, we go to a “How” or “Why” question–anything open-ended that can keep the conversation going strong.  For example, “Why do you think Picasso chose the minotaur for this work? How could that be representative of a bigger idea?”

In addition, I like to use some generic questions if need be.  These would just ask students’ opinions, have them come up with some kind of hypothesis, put themselves in the artist’s shoes, etc., etc.  Anything that you feel is worth discussing probably is worth discussing.  Just put a little bit of thought into the questions you will ask before you get started.

The Reasons
I use Socratic Seminars for a lot of reasons, but it comes down to this–Socratic Seminars do for kids what art does for kids (and I hope we all know why these things are important):

  • Enhances critical thinking skills
  • Builds a sense of community
  • Forces kids to be original with thoughts and ideas
  • Develops communication skills, particularly when talking about art
  • Forces kids to take initiative
  • Develops students’ self-respect

The Difficulties
Socratic Seminars are not something you can jump right into.  It takes time to learn to do them well, and it takes time for students to learn to do them well.  The beauty of it is, though, that you can learn to do them well together.  You can learn to ask better questions, paraphrase, involve kids, draw out reasoning and explanations from them, and encourage discussion.  Students can learn to how, during seminar, to appropriately speak, read, listen, observe, defend opinions, and discuss differences without debate.

As a teacher, you slowly get better at leading and participating.  Students slowly get better with their responsibilities, and in a short amount of time, you will be running successful seminars.

Getting to that point, however, takes A LOT of time–do you really want to give up 12 days of class time to do seminars well? I think it’s worthwhile, obviously, for all the reasons listed above.  I feel like it’s a great way to study art history, especially for my advanced students who have some prior knowledge.

Because of Socratic Seminars, my students are better at analyzing, communicating, thinking, and speaking–all skills that will help them at the next level. Most importantly, I am of the opinion that the critical thinking, original thoughts, and initiative that are developed in these seminars help them become better artists. And that’s what I’m really after.

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1 Comment

  1. Is Teaching AP Studio Art Really Worth It? | The Art of Ed

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