The Crucible: A Socratic Seminar on Human Cruelty and Groupthink

The witch hunts in The Crucible can easily be tied into modern day research group think and events in the news during Socratic Seminar.   Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/20 C/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

The witch hunts in The Crucible can easily be connected to modern day research on groupthink and current events in the news. Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/20 C/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

I’m not the only kid who grew up this way, surrounded by people who used to say that rhyme about sticks and stones, as if broken bones hurt more than the names we got called, and we got called them all. So we grew up believing no one would ever fall in love with us, that we’d be lonely forever,that we’d never meet someone to make us feel like the sun was something they built for us in their toolshed. So broken heartstrings bled the blues, and we tried to empty ourselves so we’d feel nothing. Don’t tell me that hurt less than a broken bone, that an ingrown life is something surgeons can cut away, that there’s no way for it to metastasize; it does.

-“To this day, for the Beautiful and the Bullied” a TEDTalk from Shane Koyczan

The Crucible‘s themes of victimization of outsiders and humanity’s ability to enact terrible cruelty when condoned by the group are universal and timeless.  To capitalize on the richness inherent in these ideas and their relevancy to modern day, Sam Bosse and I planned a Socratic Seminar with the following essential questions:

Essential Question: How can fear, suspicion, and ignorance lead to cruelty and destruction in society?

  • What allows individuals to be cruel to one another?
  • What are some of the effects of this cruelty on the individual?  On society?  Have you seen examples in your own personal experience?
  • From where does prejudice and suspicion come?  What are the effects on the individual who is experiencing prejudice?  The one who is prejudice?  How does prejudice add to the cruelty of society?
  • What role does ignorance play in cruelty, destruction and prejudice in society?
  • What are the causes of mass hysteria?
  • What is groupthink? Describe positive and negative effects of this phenomenon.  How does it impact society?  The individual?
  • How does modern technology affect groupthink in positive and negative ways?
  • What are some modern day examples of a “witch hunt”?  Why do they exist?  How might one be caused?
  • Is human cruelty implicit or is it something that can be overcome in the individual?  Provide examples to support your thinking.
  • What are some methods to alleviate fear and suspicion in society?
  • What are some methods to alleviate human cruelty in society?

To answer these questions and find support, students were given the following list of non-fiction sources to use in addition to evidence from the play.  These resources are also listed in the handout for students at the bottom of this post.  


This is so We” from Psychology Today

  • An articles about how preferences are formed by social phenomenon (ex: music downloads)

The Marathon Bombings: Lessons on Fear, Good and Bad” from Psychology Today

  • An article about the positive and negative effects of fear
  • Discusses some ideas on how fear can be overcome in a society but will always exist

A Brief History of Group Think” from Yale Alumni Magazine

  • An article describing how the term “group think” came to exist and some examples of it in history
  • Describes possible ways “group think” can be avoided
  • First part is good on its own, but it also has a collection of academics views of “group think” at the end of the article that could be broken into separate pieces

Bad to the Bone: Are Humans Naturally Aggressive” from Psychology Today

  • An article analyzing whether violence has a psychological and physiological basis

The Evils of Yes Men and Group Think” from CNN News

  • This article describes the problems caused in corporations when leadership does not seek truth over flattery

Prejudice Can Cause Depression” from the Association of Psychological Science

  • This article describes the link between depression and hate for self and others
  • It is really interesting and addresses deep-seated connections between self-loathing and prejudice of others

What Causes Prejudice Against Immigrants and How Can it be Tamed” from Scientific American

  • This article defines prejudice and its causes; it explains how “foreign” can equal threat, and it addresses options for how to alleviate prejudice in society

Europe’s Roma Face Witch Hunt After Reports of Child Snatching” from Time Magazine

  • This article outlines a modern day witch hunt based upon race through examining the plight of the Roma in Europe (from 2013)

Peter King’s Modern Day Witch Hunt” from The Washington Post

  • This article describes a very modern and applicable use of the term “witch hunt” in American society against Muslim people


To this day, for the Beautful and the Bullied” a TEDTalk from Shane Koyczan

  • A man talks about how he came to be a bully.  It is a very personal take on the article on the effects of “prejudice” on the individual, as he experienced bullying growing up because of his weight.

The Wisdom of Crowds” from PBS

  • This video explains how crowds can accurately estimate information to come up with correct answers whereas one individual is unlikely to be able to come to the same conclusion

The Code- The Wisdom of the Crowd” from BBC

  • This video has the same information as the one above, but has a different tone.

The Power and Danger of Online Crowds” a TEDTalk from James Surowiecki (16 min.)

  • This video explores the blogosphere as a form of “collective intelligence” and also addresses potential problems
  • It provides some examples about how groups think more effectively than individuals.

Although students had already participated in a Socratic seminar earlier in the year, we used the Students Coaching Students model, which was new to them.  To this end, they answered the following question through a quick write and then shared via class discussion:

In what way can communicating with others (particularly peers) promote your personal growth?  What are some of the types (modes) of communication that are most valuable? 

They then watched a video on the Teaching Channel showing the new model.  Students were given a list of questions to note differences in the roles and types of sources from what they had experienced in the past (See this video for the example).

Before the seminar, each student had to choose three non-fiction sources to read in preparation.  They took notes over the sources using a “summary sheet” created by Melissa Larisch (see the bottom of the post to download).  In addition, students were given the half-time feedback sheet and a list of advanced transitions to use during the seminar (also at the bottom of this post).

During the first day of the seminar, Bosse and I facilitated together.  We were both very pleased with the use of textual evidence and students’ overall engagement in the discussion.  In addition, the richness of the ideas presented reflected deep thinking from students.  Overall, I have found this method of Socratic seminar to be a very dynamic, student-centered approach.

Here are resources to use for the seminar:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: