Engaging Students in Active and Meaningful Discussions: The Socratic Smackdown Strategy for History Teachers

Socratic Seminars in history class or, even better, Harkness Discussions, can be one of the most exciting things students can do in our classrooms. These seminars allow students to really own their learning and explore history and the world in meaningful ways. But having such discussions can be really challenging.

As a history teacher, it's important to create an environment where your students feel comfortable discussing and exploring the complexities of the past. However, it's not always easy to get students actively involved in discussions.

Because often times students feel particularly nervous and insecure in a discussion circle. Something about the circle tends to really excite some students but terrify some others. Some feel particularly vulnerable during seminars.

how to plan for a socratic smackdown


Enter: The Socratic Smackdown! 

A gamified approach to the Socratic Seminar, this strategy helps make discussions more exciting and engaging for students. The Socratic Smackdown was developed by the Institute of Play in New York City to help students perform better in seminars.

Here's how it works:

  • Students are divided into groups of 3-6 and prepare for a discussion by closely reading a text, annotating, and developing questions.
  • The groups then participate in a timed discussion, during which they earn or lose points based on their participation and ability to demonstrate specific skills, such as adding onto a peer's ideas, disagreeing respectfully, or asking level three questions.
  • After each round, the points are tallied and in the end, a winner is announced.

But the real value of the Socratic Smackdown lies in the reflection and goal-setting that follows. Students should reflect on how well they did, where they improved, and what they could do better next time. These reflections are essential for students to really demonstrate growth over the course of the year. Check out my free post-discussion reflection here.  

However, I do honestly believe a regular seminar or Harkness Discussion is the true gold standard. Gamifying it with a Socratic Smackdown can be fun and help students or classes that are very reluctant to otherwise engage with a discussion and therefore, be very valuable. But, I believe what is most worthwhile about the discussion, the true richness of it, is in the ideas themselves, not in the quest for points or the excitement for it. 

Its in the quest for knowledge. I know how cliche that sounds but, it's true. History is about making sense of the world and thats what a seminar can offer students, so if you can ween students off of Smackdowns and into a more formal seminar, I do think that is for the best.

If you want to take your student-led discussions to the next level, check out my self-paced online course, "Make History Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering." This comprehensive course covers everything from building student confidence, student created question techniques, to setting up Harkness Discussions, Fishbowl discussions, and Philosophical Chairs. Check it out here

Unitl then, try out the Socratic Smackdown to motivate and excite your students and get them exploring history together.

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