From the title, it doesn't take a genius to know where this form of discussion originates. Socrates used question based teaching as a mode for promoting higher level learning. What's good for the Greeks is good me.
The basis behind the concept of a Socratic Seminar is to create student led conversation. The meaning of a topic is analyzed, understood and retained due to direct individual involvement. Teachers, in a Socratic Seminar, must allow the process and it's participants to carry the activity.
Here's how I managed a Socratic Seminar. Arrange student/s seats in a circle(s) facing one another. Obviously the size of your class can alter the dynamic/s of this structure. This is why I needed to be a bit innovative; my class sizes are typically around thirty or more. Due to numbers I structured the seating in two circles (see diagram). A smaller circle, known as the Ring of Fire, and a larger circle around it, called the Outer Ring. In the center of both rings is one chair titled the Hot Seat. The implementation of the discussion occurs after some background work.
A few basic ground rules must be established prior to starting the Socratic Seminar. First of all, and most importantly - only one person speaks at a time. The individual in the Hot Seat is the only person allowed to speak. Second; there is to be no comments, clapping, hoots or side-bar conversations by others; this isn't the Oprah Show. In the Socratic Seminar process, as previously written, this is a student centered activity but your role as the teacher is to be vigilant about maintaing these two ground rules. This is not a debate; although at times it can "feel debate-ish" the intent is to allow individuals to express, question and analyze material together in an orderly and well managed format.
Start with a five minute discussion by ONLY the students in the Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire students during this time must participate once but are limited to three visits to the Hot Seat. Inform students prior to participation that when they sit in the "chair" or Hot Seat they are to inform the class of their stance on the topic, use one proof and then explain. While discussion is taking place the students in the Outer Ring are to keep track of the comments and take notes. Advise the Outer Ring that as they listen to and view the smaller discussion they should be formulating and writing down additional ideas, proofs and/or comments that have not yet been presented. Once the five minute Ring of Fire discussion time ends open the discussion to the Outer Ring.
Make sure that it is well known that the Outer Ring now has PRIORITY over the Ring of Fire to acquire the Hot Seat. At this time the Outer Ring students should have accumulated some ideas and/or proofs to add to the discussion that have not yet been discussed.
Lastly, here's a couple of helpful hints that I have found to be useful when conducting the Socratic Seminar. There will be moments of silence; eery moments with no one going to the Hot Seat; students will be looking around at each, and at you. Allow this to occur; do not be worrisome about the silence; the lesson isn't bombing. Students will inevitably get nervous about the "stoppage" and someone will step-up and get in the Hot Seat. There is a back-up plan to this moment if it happens and no student steps up. Allow students to have a 1-2 minute interlude to discuss the topic with others then go back at it. Typically, this gets students motivated to speak.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to this lesson plan is educator fear to try something new. Don't fear it; embrace it. Students love to express themselves, especially in an enviorment that is conducive to it. Once you conduct a Socratic Seminar students will ask when are we doing this again - You can bank it.
Other Resources and Links:
Read Write Think by Scott Filkins from NCTE
The Socratic Seminar by Mr. Matthew Herbert on YouTube
Socratic Seminar Lesson Plan by NWABR