Socratic Seminar in Math class #NCTM13

Below is a recap that should be live on soon. But I thought I should host it myself while I’m at it. Enjoy!

Socratic Seminar in Math: Development of Math Reasoning Collaboratively from Ryan M. Higgins

Ryan M. Higgins presented a markedly different methodology to scaffold discussions in a mathematics class. Although Socratic seminars are traditionally used in other domains, Higgins discussed how this method of engaging the class can develop “mathematical connections” and create “authentic assessments” as well as help students obtain procedural knowledge.

Structuring the room

Higgins emphasized the importance of the physical arrangement of the classroom. Since students are the primary speakers, they need to see each other. She advised seating students in circles, fishbowls (to enable students to still refer to the board), or concentric circles. If you look at the handouts, there is no seat designated for the teacher, further emphasizing the teacher as observer rather than participant.


A Socratic seminar can be very different from a traditional classroom environment. Because so much of her class is discussion-based, Higgins had to set very clear guidelines for students to have these conversations. Students were trained to agree or disagree with others’ statements, not with the person as a way of maintaining respect and the safety of the classroom. Once conversations began, students were limited to speaking twice, until everyone had spoken at least once. Students were also asked to structure their contributions in the form of statement –questions, such as “I understand that you are trying to find the area of a triangle, can you explain why you are adding the side lengths?”.

Typically, she had a student track who had and had not spoken on the board so everyone could see – keeping accountability of all, and furthering agency of the students as a whole.

Teacher’s Role

In typical Socratic fashion, Higgins explained that during class the teacher’s role is to primarily prepare and observe. Most of the work of the teacher is done beforehand – trying to come up with challenging problems/situations and developing potential probing questions. During class, she noted that she tried to avoid answering students’ questions. Higgins emphasized not asking low level questions of students in initial problems, as the conversation will be over too quickly.

Other takeaways

Higgins shared some resources such as the NAEP site and the UT Dana Center for interesting tasks. Socratic seminar can be very empowering and engaging for students, but talks like these always leave me slightly wanting. They usually serve as a source of introduction rather than advancement. Rarely do speakers like Higgins show concrete examples of what the class looks like or how interactions flow (no doubt due to IRB and privacy issues). While I understand the restrictions, they highlight the hypothetical rather than the practical. I didn’t leave her talk understanding what she meant by “authentic assessments”. But I definitely feel that the structure and intention behind her use of Socratic seminar is something I would like to take back to my class.

Attached below are her presentation materials.

181_Higgins_Socratic Seminar Handout

181_Higgins_Socratic Seminar


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