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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

The Differentiating Tool of Choice
Sharon Pettey-Taylor

As educators, we are constantly discovering new information about our students’ varied learning styles. To accommodate this widening range of diversity, many of us have become active proponents of differentiated instruction.

Initially, differentiated instruction may appear to be a re-labeling of the essential components of planning, executing, and assessing our existing teacher-created curriculum (pre-assessments, k-w-l charts, performance tasks, graphic organizers, journal entries, portfolios, group investigations, videos, field trips, etc.). But on closer examination, there are many differentiating tools which can be used, according to the Professional Teaching Standards, that “ . . . make the complexity and depth of subject matter understandable to all students; [and] ask questions or facilitate discussion to clarify or extend students’ thinking.” One such highly-recommended tool that enables students to think more critically is participation in a Socratic seminar.

You may ask, “What is a Socratic seminar?” Well, it has been described as a method seeking to understand information by creating a dialogue in class with regard to a specific text. The participants seek deeper meaning of complex ideas within the text through thoughtful reflection rather than memorizing bits and pieces of information.

Let’s refer to Socrates, the classical Greek philosopher, who developed a theory of knowledge through the practice of disciplined conversation, a process called dialectic. To determine the validity of an opinion, the question and answer dialogue examines ideas logically. Socrates was known to feign ignorance about a topic to coax the truth out of the other person or draw out that person’s fullest possible knowledge.

Although it may seem similar to a debate, there are differences. In a debate two opposing sides try to prove each other wrong; in a dialogue, one listens to enlarge and possibly change a participant’s viewpoint. In a debate one listens to find flaws, differences, and counter arguments; in a dialogue the participants collaborate toward shared understanding. A debate assumes a single right answer that demands a conclusion; a dialogue searches for common ground and remains open.

The Socratic seminar is characterized by exploring viewpoints more broadly and examining our own work without defensiveness. It allows us to see someone who approaches a problem differently as a colleague rather than as an adversary.

Other distinct advantages include teaching leadership skills, promoting a climate of respect and fairness in the classroom, accepting differing points of view and varied background experiences. (See, “Effective Environment, PTS”)

Additionally, seminar texts are selected based on their richness in ideas, issues, values, and the ability to stimulate an extended dialogue. Readings are taken from literature, history, science, math, health, philosophy, works of art, and music. Important questions are raised in which there are no right or wrong answers. Very often at the end of the seminar, participants may leave with more questions than they initially brought with them.

Based on a chosen text, a seminar is conducted as follows:

Student groups choose or are assigned a reading. The groups then convene in a circle to discuss an essential question developed from the reading (likened to a “fishbowl” discussion group).

  • It opens with a question posed by the leader or participants, which has no right answer. Such a question should spark thoughtful exploration. Referring to the text, participants will speculate, evaluate, and clarify their positions.
  • The leader actively engages the participants in exploring the text. For this reason, he/she is well-acquainted in the anticipated distinctions of the text, facilitating non-traditional insights and unexpected interpretations.
  • Participants study the text in advance, listen attentively to each other, share ideas and respond to questions; the more thoroughly the students engage with the material and each other, the higher quality of the seminar.
  • Guidelines for participants in the seminar are provided regarding expectations of proper conduct and outlook. For example, it is acceptable to “pass” when asked to contribute. The goal is to understand ideas reflected in the text, not to learn a new subject. If a participant is not prepared, he or she should not participate.
  • Participants do not need to raise their hands; they stick to the point under discussion; avoid inappropriate language and hostile exchanges; and ask for help to clear up confusion.

Following are some self-reflective questions that are sure to prompt positive and constructive participation in the seminar.

  • Do you see any gaps in my reasoning?
  • How does it sound to you?
  • Do you have different data?
  • Do you have different conclusions?
  • How did you arrive at that view?
  • Are you taking into account another position that I have not considered?

Students then debrief both their content and discussion processes.  

So there we have it! When we become more creative about “differentiating” our teaching strategies, implementing multiple approaches to new learning, we make subject matter more meaningful.

It is also our firm belief that the quality of differentiated instruction, in any subject area and/or grade level, has always been and will always be primarily dependent on the imagination and creativity of the classroom teacher.

Kindly Note:

Engaging and Supporting All Students in Learning; Creating and Maintaining an Effective Environment For Student Learning. The Professional Teaching Standards, New Teacher Center at The University of California, Santa Cruz, 2004.

Heacox, Diane Ed.D. Differentiating Instruction – How to Reach and Teach All Learners, Grades 3-12, Free Spirit Publishing, 2002.


Do you have a comment, question, or suggestion about this article? E-mail Sharon.


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