Socratic Seminars are the result of the work of Mortimer Adler, Director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago. Adler published The Paideia Proposal (1982) and Paideia Problems and Possibilities (1983) in which he argued that education should be rooted in three goals: the acquisition of knowledge, the development of intellectual skills, and the enlarged understanding of ideas and values. The first goal can be accomplished through textbooks and didactic teaching in the content areas. The second goal can be developed through coaching, exercises, and supervised practice. The third goal can be achieved through Socratic Questioning and Active Participation using books (not textbooks), other works of art, or involvement in artistic activities (Paideia Proposal 23). The seminar begins with a teacher's question but is entirely different from the Socratic questioning style which many teachers already employ.
Teaching by discussion imposes still other requirements. For older children, it calls for more than a fifty-minute class period. It calls for a room in which the participants in the discussion sit around a table instead of in rows. The teacher is one of the participants, not the principal performer standing up in front of the group.
The teacher's role in discussion is to keep it going along fruitful lines - by moderating, guiding, correcting, leading, and arguing like one more student! The teacher is first among equals. All must have the sense that they are participating as equals, as is the case in a genuine conversation. (Paideia Proposal 54)
The seminar is more than a common classroom discussion in that it is focused on a textbook, painting, poem, film clip, scientific hypothesis, etc. The Socratic Seminar is also a performance assessment, and as such, it begins with outcomes. Numerous critical thinking skills are addressed through the seminar method including analysis of text, synthesis of ideas, evaluation of concepts, and inferential reasoning. Of course, speaking and listening skills are developed as well. Socratic Seminars also include a written dimension. Students can write about the ideas presented or evaluate the quality of the seminar itself (participation, quality of comments, insights, new ideas). These activities can be used by all disciplines as teachers engage in discussing and evaluating concepts and texts in all content areas be they musical scores, paintings, mathematical theorems, or scientific experiments.