Teach Civility and Thoughtfulness


Nothing is more important in this era of

disrespect and misconceptions 


Socratic Seminars as  Genuine Dialogue


“You’re wrong!”

“That is crazy!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

We often hear words like these in our classroom discussions. We intend them to be discussions, but how quickly they turn into debates. Wouldn’t it be great to hear these words instead?

“Wow! That is so interesting because my viewpoint on this is the opposite of yours. Here is what I think.”

“Thanks, but I am a little confused by what you said. Can you please clarify for me what you meant when you said the character is lazy?”

“I wonder what makes you say that?” 

The most civil and thoughtful Socratic Seminars are dialogues and not debates. Unfortunately, in this era of fake news and partisanship, the default communication style is debate.  Even more unfortunate is that our classroom practices often default to debate as well.

We at Socratic Seminars International, in our work across the nation with K-12 public, private, and charter schools, promote Socratic Seminars of dialogue and not debate. While surely there is a place for debate in K-12 curriculum, we don’t believe a Socratic Seminar is the place for debate.

 Why Dialogue?

As a 30-year high school English teacher, I often successfully used debate as a classroom activity. The thinking skills of an effective debater are some of the same thinking skills of a successful writer of persuasive and argumentative papers. My experiences in the classroom, and our experiences at Socratic Seminars International, have convinced us of the value of teaching and modeling all the qualities of dialogue in Socratic Seminars ( See Figure #1 below)

The practice of dialogue teaches and models the attitudes and skills that our students need most to become better critical thinkers and close readers of complex texts. When a student starts learning how to “listen to understand, to make meaning, and to find common ground,” she begins to “enlarge her point of view.” Teaching a student how to “reveal assumptions for examination and reevaluation” is one of the first steps for a student to fully understanding his own ideas as well as those of others. One cannot begin the writing process of a persuasive paper until assumptions of writers and readers are surfaced and addressed. We teachers and adults often state the importance of being open-minded, but then we ask students to take a position without completely understanding the entire issue. Socratic Seminars rich in dialogue ask and encourage students to remain “open-minded.”  The spirit of dialogue is about students learning to “submit one’s best thinking” on the ideas, issues or values in a text “expecting that other people’s reflections will help” them better understand the text and their own ideas.

One of the most powerful results of leading Socratic Seminars of dialogue is when students begin to learn to “temporarily suspend one’s beliefs” about a text and its ideas, issues, or values. This is at the heart of a dialogic attitude. Do we even know what our own beliefs are? Do we know how we arrived at our beliefs? Can we “temporarily suspend” our beliefs about a story, an article, a painting, a video, or an event, so that we can see many different viewpoints or perspectives?  This is one of the biggest challenges for adults in practicing dialogue as well as for students. As we know in all facets of a full life, it is the biggest challenges that we overcome that yield the most meaningful results. This is true of learning to “temporarily (i.e. not forever!) suspend one’s beliefs.”

Once a student learns this vital skill, she is better able to “search for strengths in all positions,” especially positions on first blush that seem at odds with her viewpoint. Students experience the benefit of true collegiality as they each “seeks not to alienate or offend” individuals or group members. The more that dialogue is practiced, the more participants understand and experience “that many people have pieces of the answers,” whether they are an active verbal participant or a reticent participant who only speaks up rarely.

When Socratic Seminars are driven by dialogue, they are planned, formatted, and structured to promote the qualities of dialogue. Dialogue driven seminars always begin with an “open-ended question.” The opposite of a close-ended question which has one single right answer, an open-ended question has multiple, supportable and plausible responses, interpretations, or answers to the question. An Opening Question in a Socratic Seminar is one that the leader is genuinely curious about, has no right answer, is intended to enlarge ideas in and around the text, and encourages participants to go back to the text. At the conclusion of a dialogue-rich Socratic Seminar, it still “remains open-ended.” When the Opening Question is well designed, this means whether it is at the start of the Socratic Seminar or at the end, the Opening Question remains open-ended. Participants leave these seminars with more questions than answers.

Dialogue and Civility

When participants in Socratic Seminars practice dialogue, it brings civility to the forefront. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines Civility as “a. COURTESY; POLITENESS; b. a polite act or expression” (Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary, 1998). When students are intentionally taught the qualities of dialogue, when students are provided regular opportunities in Socratic Seminars to practice dialogue, when students individually and as a group are held accountable to engage in dialogue and not debate, it is remarkable how “civil” they can be. Yes, how “polite” they become as they collectively make meaning of a complex text.

When students are first introduced to the expectations that their Socratic Seminar will be one of dialogue and not debate, do they immediately turn away from their default desire to debate, not always. This is why we at Socratic Seminars International describe it as the practice of Socratic Seminars. It is our experience that “it takes 6-8 Socratic Seminars with reflection on the process before students and the leader start to get it. The ‘it’ being civility and thoughtfulness.” A key component necessary for students to grow in their practice of dialogue is reflection.

While the goal or target is always dialogue, students don’t always hit the target. Leading a reflection activity after each Socratic Seminar where students are provided with prompts to write about how well they did on one or more of the dialogue bullets in Figure 1 encourages them to take ownership for the improvement of future seminars. Rick Stiggins, retired founder and president of the Assessment Training Institute, once suggested that students will hit the targets if the targets are clear to the teacher and made explicitly clear to the students. This is especially true of the practice of dialogue.

It takes time and practice for students to completely believe that the Opening Question provided at the start of each Socratic Seminar is truly an “open-ended question;” a question of which the leader/teacher does not have one right answer for which he or she is looking. Since Socratic Seminars reflect the guidelines of Common Core State Standards and use complex texts, this can initially be so challenging to K-12 students that they are hesitant to speak up in the first seminars. Their hesitation is added to because of the expectation that they say something “thoughtful” as well. In students’ minds, they are thinking something like, “Wow, Mr. Graybill wants us to share our thoughts about a complex text. To me that just means a reading that is hard. On top of a reading that is hard, I am supposed to say something smart, and say it aloud in front of my peers. I think I will just listen.”

Dialogue and Thoughtfulness

Being thoughtful is a skill that must be practiced. The more students participate in dialogue-focused Socratic Seminars, the more thoughtful they become. Using dialogue to engage students in collective meaning making of complex texts is a fertile environment to teach both civility and thoughtfulness. So many of the text exemplars provided in Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards are readings that match our suggestions in The Elements of a Socratic Seminar of choosing texts for their richness in ideas, issues, and values. Whether it be Ann Petry’s Harriett Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, or the United States Preamble and First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, or the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, or The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, or even one of Aesop’s Fables, students are immediately challenged to become critical readers, intent listeners, and clear speakers as they join forces with their peers to make collective meaning.

Taking a complex text and using an Opening Question that is open-ended immediately provokes students of all ages to stop and think. There is no one right answer. The question does not ask them to take one side and argue and debate. It asks them to stop, think, ponder, and wonder. Hence, it encourages them to dialogue. Once students start to share their initial thoughts, their differing viewpoints, and their emerging opinions, Socratic Seminars become authentic conversations where students are joined by their leader, as a co-participant, who models wonder, curiosity, and thoughtfulness.

It is our belief and experience at Socratic Seminars International that the role of the leader is to be in the circle, with the students, as he or she models wonder, curiosity, and thoughtfulness. Seeing is believing. Student learn civility and thoughtfulness from the model of a civil and thoughtful teacher. Yes, a leader can dominate a seminar as some students can, but the best Socratic Seminar leaders learn to maintain the healthy balance between being a leader and a co-participant.

When leaders make the decision to not be in the seminar, the leader changes the activity from a true Socratic Seminar to a student-led discussion. A student led-discussion can be a valuable experience for students, but they do not provide the all-important modeling of civility and thoughtfulness that a polite, curiosity, and, most importantly, thoughtful adult brings to the seminar.

Thoughtfulness can be evoked by a leader who uses one or more of the Habits of Mind ( See Figure #2 below). These are not the Habits of Mind of Art Costa, but these come from the early compiled work of Dennis Gray, an original member of the Paideia Group. These kinds of questions are ones that experienced leaders know when to ask to take thinking to deeper levels. Whether it is an AP Literature and Language class at the high school level or an elementary classroom, students seldom push each other to go to deeper levels of thought.  Students are most comfortable sharing their opinions and experiences and stopping there. A thoughtful leader asks students to build stronger explanations and interpretations, to reason with evidence, to make connections in and out of the text, and to consider different viewpoints and perspectives. Doing so mixed with true wonder and curiosity:

“I wonder where else we might see her point in the text? “

“I am so curious to hear more evidence for Maria’s interpretation.”

“Thanks Thu for sharing your opinion, but I am intrigued how you arrived at your opinion. Please share your thinking.”

At the heart of great leadership of Socratic Seminars is the ability to listen very closely to the contributions of students. Doing so provides comfort and confidence to students to take risks and think divergently. As we look outside of our classrooms at many of our online and television news outlets, we are confronted with words of disrespect and misconceptions. We must teach our students to communicate civilly and thoughtfully. Making sure that true dialogue is at the heart of our Socratic Seminars is a big step in that direction.


Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (10th ed.). (1999). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated


  • Dialogue is collaborative: multiple sides work toward shared understanding.
    Debate is oppositional: two opposing sides try to prove each other wrong.
  • In dialogue, one listens to understand, to make meaning, and to find common ground.
    In debate, one listens to find flaws, to spot differences, and to counter arguments.
  • Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant’s point of view.
    Debate affirms a participant’s point of view.
  • Dialogue reveals assumptions for examination and reevaluation.
    Debate defends assumptions as truth.
  • Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude: openness to being wrong and an openness to change.
    Debate creates a close-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
  • In dialogue, one submits one’s best thinking, expecting that other people’s  reflections will help improve it rather than threaten it.
    In debate, one submits one’s best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.
  • Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one’s beliefs.
    Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one’s beliefs.
  • In dialogue, one searches for strengths in all positions.
    In debate, one searches for weaknesses in the other position.
  • Dialogue respects all the other participants and seeks not to alienate or offend.
    Debate rebuts contrary positions and may belittle or deprecate other participants.
  • Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of answers and that cooperation can lead to a greater understanding.
    Debate assumes a single right answer that somebody already has.
  • Dialogue remains open-ended.
    Debate demands a conclusion.

Source: A Guide for Training Study Circle Facilitators, 2nd Edition, by Sarah L. Campbell, p. 63. Pomfret, CT: Study Circle Resource Center, 1998

Habits of Mind Figure #2

Thoughtfulness = Tools of Thought Used HABITUALLY

What is it I think I know?

How do I know what I know?

How do I know that I know?

What is the evidence?

Whose viewpoint is this?

How is it connected to other things?

How else may it be connected?

What difference does it make?

What if…?

So What?

Source: Composite of habits of minds suggested by Paideia Group and compiled by Dennis Gray. Used with permission