Using debating and Socratic Seminars to improve my students’ critical thinking

I’m currently teaching Henry IV: Part 1 to my year 12 Advanced English class for Critical Study of Literature. Like many teachers, I approach this module through the Frames, taken from the Visual Arts syllabus. The four frames are subjective (personal response), cultural (contextual factors that shape the text), structural (close reading and textual analysis), and critical/postmodern (considering a wide range of perspectives of the text). We end this process with what we call Subjective 2.0 – the students going back to their original subjective response to the play and revising it based on their experience of the other three frames. The goal is for them to have an informed, personal response to the text.

Right now my class and I are up to our necks in the critical frame! I’ve used a couple of strategies to help my students engage deeply with a range of interpretations of the play in order to inform their own response. As you can tell from the title of this post, they were debating and Socratic Seminars.


The first thing I did was deliver a presentation on literary theory. This gave students an overview of new criticism, reader response, new historicism, feminism and Marxism. Don’t panic English teachers! I know, and they know, that they will not be writing a series of paragraphs on these in their HSC essay! I marked Mod B Advanced for many years at the Marking Centre, so I know what not to do with this module. My students really were interested in these different lenses that can be adopted when responding to the play, and could all appreciate that even though we hadn’t named them, we had considered them all (to certain degrees) during our close reading of the play. After that presentation, I wrote up on the board the two debates to be held the next lesson, and they chose which theories they wanted to represent. See the image below for my the two debate topics and (ugly) outline of how the debates would be structured.

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I actually didn’t adjudicate the debates myself, I gave that role to a student who has somewhat disengaged from completing class tasks but who I know if very insightful and an excellent judge of arguments. He took his role very seriously, and even came up with some guidelines for the debate and his own scoring system. The class were really surprised with his very effective adjudicating style, and equally surprised by the outcomes of the two debates! I took notes throughout the debates – the kids had so much to say! I’m going to type them up this weekend and pop them up on our class Google Drive.

Socratic Seminars:

Now, a week or two ago someone on Twitter shared a link to the ACSA PDF on Socratic Seminars… I can’t remember who, but thank you! I used this, plus the new rules for Philosothon Communities of Inquiry, to design the Socratic Seminar process for my students. The first thing I did was put my students into teams based on ability (this was determined by assessment marks and my knowledge of each student) and allocated each team an academic reading on Henry IV: Part 1. Students were then asked to read the article (highlight and annotate as they go) and then come up with one inquiry question they wanted to discuss with their team. You can see the name of one of the articles and the student inquiry questions below:

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The process that we used for each Socratic Seminar is outlined below, as modified from the ACSA document and the Philosothon COI structure:

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I guess it’s a testament to my kids, or the culture of our class, but every student read their texts and showed up prepared to discuss it with their peers. I was like BEYOND proud of that fact! Those articles were DAMN HARD and they just did it… not only that, but their responses were STUNNING! Oh, I also forgot to say that each student had to add a five point summary of the article plus their three favourite quotes to a Google Doc in our Team Drive – they did this well too! See one of my student’s summaries below:

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OK, so during the actual Socratic Seminar I assessed the students using a marking criteria that I found online and modified. I’m SO bad cos I can’t remember the original source. I’ll try to track it down, anyway, here is the modified PDF version (SOCRATIC SEMINAR MARKING CRITERIA (1))  if you wanna use it – it includes the teacher rubric, the peer-assessment sheet and the self-assessment sheet. I also had the outer circle students take notes on a collaborative Google Doc, recording the interesting points raised by each student. This was important as it made sure the students not in the dialogue were actively listening, and also provides an excellent source of ideas for extended responses when we prepare for the HSC exam! See below for an example of some of the notes the outer circle took.

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I really enjoyed these learning activities as they allowed me to really see what my students know, and allowed them to share their knowledge with their peers. The focus was 100% on them, which makes a nice change too! The final stage of this activity is the reflection on the critical frame, which will be done in a collaborative document – see below (they’ve not done it yet, but I’m eager to see what they write!):

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I’ll keep you posted, but I have already had a student tell me that he much prefers our study of Henry IV: Part 1 to his study of Macbeth in year 10 as it’s allowed him to appreciate Shakespeare more. That’s a win in my books! ❤

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