Deep Listening – Your Next Christmas Gift?

I originally typed this for our Heritage December newsletter, and posted it on our Learning Commons blog. The more I consider dialogue, the more I’m forced to admit my inability to master the art of conversation. Questions are such a key – good questions that open meaning. May this post find you with someone to ‘ask’ this Christmas.

HCS Learning Commons

I enjoy spending time in our campus high school classes.  I swing through as often as I can.  At first, students look at me like, “Ok, who is in trouble?”  But,

I am rarely there for discipline.  I am there for encouragement and support.

I enjoy knowing what is happening in classrooms from the perspective of our students and from the perspective of our staff.

I love seeing how Mr. Goodman brings out a student’s inner-artist; how Miss. Maxwell prepares her grade 8s for the Medieval Feast; how Mr. Dorie runs a class discussion; how Mr. Hayden pushes his students to consider the example of Daniel – a scholar dedicated to God, profound in knowledge among his culture.  I could go on for all our staff – highlighting the meaningful skills and attributes they bring to our Heritage team.

But I would like to take time now to highlight an…

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…socratic circles part 3 – history 12, self-confidence, & ‘talkers’ and ‘quiet kids’

Last week I observed our History 12 class discuss Patriotism using a Socratic Circle (SC).  I was eager to view this group of students because unlike the 9s, 10s, and 11s, the History 12 class is a mix of grade 11 and 12 students.  This was the first true Socratic Circle for this History group as a whole (some of the 11s had participated in Social Studies already).  I was curious if this might produce a different level of engagement or confidence in their sharing and dialogue.  I wondered if a mixed group might be more tentative in a discussion as compared a class that has been together for years.  As a small, single track school, we have the same cohort of kids moving through each grade together.  They get to know each other very well (possibly too well?).  Yet, to be accurate, our grade 11 and 12 students are mixed together in the same Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History, and other various electives together.

Mrs. Dyck gave the History 12s the SC framework and left the students to decide for themselves who would be in the first inner group.  For a moment, students just stared at her, a bit uncomfortable, as though she had not fully done her job in setting up the activity.  Mrs. Dyck, calm as ever, just smiled politely with a face that said, “well, let’s get going.”  Finally, but all at once, about 9 students hopped off their chairs and landed on the floor – ready to get at a discussion.  The mood of the room announced that these were the social kids who were really good at talking

True, they had no troubles talking.  They were off and running.  Lots of great ideas, comments, and thoughts.  At one point in the discussion, a student on the outer circle began adding her thoughts to the discussion.  She only got a few words in before she knew something was very wrong.  Students turned to look at her, as though in horror, because she had ‘dared to speak’ from the outer circle.  She was bummed that she was not able to offer her thoughts and made a quick, innocent face that begged, “what’s the matter?”  But, this student had come to class a few minutes late and had missed the instructions for the Socratic Circle: only students on the inner circle can speak.  But, I was very encouraged by this.  First, this student was engaged to a point of jumping into the discussion.  Second, it was the students themselves who were able, tactfully and gracefully, to explain that she had to wait until next round until she could speak.

At one point a bit of a lull happened.  Then, as though it had been planned, a student piped up with a clarifying question, one that Mrs. Dyck had asked them to answer in this Socratic Circle.  The students carried on from there.  A few minutes later, although the conversation was quick, the topic had strayed a bit from the original path.  Again, the same student offered the group another question offering a new direction.  The final minutes were spent on that second question.

The second round of students self-admitted that they were the ‘shy’ kids.  But, instantly the class responded with encouragement that, although perhaps shy to speak out loud, each student has ideas and opinions and thoughts to contribute.  This was wonderful to hear and see.  What a great environment – one where students are being affirmed in their ideas and not only in their willingness to put their hand up publicly.

Students found the second topic much more difficult because was it had a negative premise: When does Patriotism become a problem?  They still did a good job with the direction, but it was less of a flashy or glamorous topic.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method uses the strategy of questioning to move towards clarity.  So, I observed this second group through the lens of questions.  Only two questions were asked in the first circle, and five were posed in the second.  All five of these questions from round two were asked to clarify what had been said, not to take the discussion a new direction.  I was very impressed.  Students showed, through these questions, that they were seeking higher meaning and clarification as opposed to simply moving on to another topic.  True, all five were the same type – clarifying, but they are on the right path.

A Student’s Perspective

Mrs. Dyck and I were chatting about the History 12 SC and the student who had asked the two questions in round 1 was nearby.  I asked her to come over and I asked her if she could explain what led her to ask those questions to the group.  She didn’t fully understand what I meant saying, “what do you mean?” (notice that her question forced me to dig deeper into my desired goal).  So, I said I wanted her to think back and try remember what she was thinking or feeling before jumping in with those two questions.  She said that she just felt like these were the questions that Mrs. Dyck had asked us to discuss, and that she felt the group had drifted away from them.  So, she was trying to keep the discussion on track.

The three of us continued for a long while dissecting the SC – its goals, techniques, and difficulties.  The student added some great feedback and at the end we all thanked each other for having a great chat.


One overarching observation I had from watching the History 12 group is just how confident they all were in their ideas and even in their delivery when compared to the 9s and 10s.  I mean sure, they are grade 11 and 12, so they are more mature.  But, I mean their depth and academic confidence was profound.  Yes, History 12 is a university-bound academic elective.  But, I was just really impressed with the quality of dialogue happening.

Class Self-Critique

After the SC was complete, there was a comment about the size of the second round’s inner circle – it was almost twice as big as the first group.  This was mostly due to only 9 students instigating into the first group.  But, although 9 students was just less than half the class at the beginning of the period, another 5 students came to class late, making group 2 very large.  Students also commented about the composition of the groups – they re-critiqued the ‘socialites’ and the ‘quiet people’.  Some said they liked this distribution, while others said that they would prefer a mix in each group next time.  Then, a few students pointed out that the separated groups might be best because it would allow the ‘talkers’ to fight for voice, and the ‘quiet kids’ to not feel pressured by the ‘talkers’.  I’m not sure what I enjoyed more, the SC or the class self-critique:

They aren’t just talking about the topic; they are also talking about the tool.

As I finish up this post I am reminded of my wife’s step-mother.  A retired school teacher, she always has interesting and meaningful stories to share, and I constantly glean life experience and perspective from her.  She often asks how school is going and we speak in depth about pedagogy, student development, and the school system.  She speaks from a great wealth of knowledge and experience – experience from life in the classroom and knowledge from her two Master’s degrees.  In speaking about her degrees, she says that, “they haven’t made me any smarter.  Now I’m just able to ask better questions.”

Next Post

My next post will look at questions in a deeper way:  types of questions and reasons for asking questions.  It will also try to identify the meaningful action words taking place within the Socratic Circle, and to consider how a student might take these meaningful action words into other areas of their lives.

Socratic Circles are pushing our students…no, all of us – myself included – to commit more fully to dialogue.  This begins with a commitment to asking questions and a commitment to intently listening to the answers of those questions.  Questions move us towards clarity.  My homework before my next post is to re-read Covey’s Habit 5: first seek to understand, then to be understood.

Do you have any homework?

…socratic circles part 2 – student comments, asking questions, & ‘I think’…

The past few weeks I have had the pleasure of observing Socratic Circles (SC) in our high school.  This post is a reflection based on the grade 9’s SC related to the environment and natural resources and the 10’s SC related to technology based on Sherry Turkle’s (@STurkle) Ted talk “Connected, but alone?”.  My next post will highlight the SC I viewed in History 12 based on the topic of Patriotism.

[ Note: If you are wanting more information on Socratic Circles, I will direct you to my previous post.  A large portion of it was written by the teacher using Socratic Circles in our high school.  Also, a quick web search produced this .pdf.  It offers a nice description, format, and suggestions on how to lead a Socratic Circle. ]

I viewed Turkle’s 20-minute Ted Talk the night before so I could better appreciate, listen, and observe the process.  Although this post is more about the process & power of Socratic Circles, I would like to point out a few of the grade 10 student comments regarding technology’s influence on our culture:

  • …often when my family is at home we text each other instead of talking face-to-face…
  • …my sister is 12, and she’s on her 3rd cell phone…can you believe that?!!…
  • …a few months ago our friend group was together and we all purposely hid each other’s cell phones so we couldn’t be on them.  Really, we don’t need to be checking how many Instagram likes we’ve had in the past 8 minutes…  It was our best hang out in a long time.  We actually talked, laughed…why don’t we do that more?…
  • …tech is not all bad – it has helped so many people.  But, we must use self-control – we need to learn…it’s how we use it that matters…
  • …why are we scared of solitude?…
  • …if I’m on the computer for 12 hours or knitting for 12 hours – what’s the difference?…

Thanks grade 10s – you guys had many great points.  Lots to follow-up on.

So, why am I on such a Socratic Circle kick?  I wonder if in our Social Media culture – full of connectedness, instant information, text-communication, and digital popularity, we could be losing our ability to listen?  Students in Mrs. Dyck’s classes are learning to truly listen, reflect, and respond.

I know they are learning because (no offence to our students) they are not doing the Socratic Circles very well.  I have observed 5 class discussions using this tool and I have yet to see a true discussion.  It appears to be a discussion…because students are speaking one-at-a-time…and because they are all politely waiting their turn to speak.  But, when they do speak, instead of reflecting and building on the previous statement, they offer a new idea to consider.  Although this contains the mechanics of order, this is not true dialogue.

Socratic Circles are very difficult.  Our students are finding them difficult because they must listen, reflect, and respond to move the original topic further.  They cannot simply jump in with a new direction.  They must listen deeply to be able to build clarity and understanding.  It is called a Socratic Circle because the underlying tool moving the dialogue forward is simply this:

Asking Questions

Student Chat

After the grade 10 activity, a student found me at break, asking, “Mr. Kelly, what did you think of our discussion?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, encouraging him to be a bit more specific.

“Well,” the student continued, “I mean what did you like it?”

“Well, I could answer this on three levels,” I said to him with a smile.  “First, there’s the content of the Ted talk itself.  Second, there’s what was said in the discussion.  And third, there’s the mechanics of how the Socratic Circle process went.  Which do you wanna’ chat about?”

He smiled back at me with a not-so-sure-I-know-what-you-mean kind of smile.  I winked at him and asked him what a Socratic Circle was intended to do.  He said he wasn’t sure.

I asked him what the Socratic Method is all about.  He said he wasn’t sure.

So, I told him that when he would come back to me and tell me what either of these two things meant I would be happy to tell him how much I liked the class’ Socratic Circle.

…I’m still waiting for him…

As I reflect on this quick exchange with this student, I come away with the following thought:  Does someone have to understand the background and purposes of an activity to fully engage in that activity, or, can someone participate without knowing the true purpose?  I mean, is the bigger picture needed, or are the in-the-moment details enough to engage participants?  The students participated in the activity.  As they reflected on their own time, many of them critiqued it as, ‘good’.  But, the true goal of the Socratic Circle is to ask questions to produce clarity.  In this regard, the students really missed the boat.

“I” think

Many of the students begin their turn speaking with, “I…”.  Unfortunately, this is not, “I agree,” or, “I don’t understand.  Could you please give an example?”  What it is is this: “I think that…”.  It is taking the dialogue in a new direction – a direction that may be separated from the previous speaker’s train of thought.

Now, I’ve always heard the idiom, “Careful what you wish for…”.  In this stream, now that this “I think” statement is on my radar, I am catching myself doing it all the time.  Here is an example:  30 minutes after the grade 10 Socratic Circle I was in a School Based Team, or IEP, meeting for a Special Ed student.  I found myself a few times waiting for someone else to finish talking so I could offer my thoughts…not really listening fully to what they were saying to even trying to say.  Even worse, I even cut in on people a few times mid-sentence…ouch.  I’m no expert at this stuff.  So much to learn, so many areas to grow, so many people to help sharpen me.

In my next post – Socratic Circles part 3 – I will critique the SC I viewed in the History 12 class.  I will offer reflection on the successes and challenges that students are experiencing as they explore this new discussion tool.  In part 4, I will try answer these questions that has been percolating in my mind since first observing a Socratic Circle:

Why do kids enjoy these so much?

What attributes/skills/factors make the Socratic Circles so powerful?

How can we help our students bring these elements into other areas of their lives?

I’d like to finish with a quote from a book that I highly recommend: The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer.  He writes,

“The power of our mentors is not necessarily in the models of good teaching they gave us, models that may turn out to have little to do with who we are as teachers.  Their power is in their capacity to awaken a truth within us, a truth we can reclaim years later.” (p.22)

Could the Socratic Circle be an activity that is awakening a truth within our students?  Could it be offering an avenue, creating an environment, opening a window to meaningful exchange and meaningful dialogue?  Could it be one little piece of high school that students deeply remember?

See you in part 3.

…socratic circles part 1 – learning to listen, reflect, and respond…

As a small school we live and die by our staff.  Like a sample of data, the smaller the sample set, the more sensitive that data is.  So, for us as a school, great staff is the key to positive student experiences.  This year we have been so fortunate to add Mrs. Dyck to our team.  She teaches high school Humanities.  One of the things she has contributed to our school is the Socratic Circle.

Today I observed this Socratic Circle taking pace in Social Studies 9.  I am intrigued by this process and by the result it generates in its participants.  Today was my third time observing.

I am trying to figure it out.

After my second observation I asked Mrs. D to send me a quick blurb about Socratic Circles. The following is what she wrote:

Socratic Circles are based on the ideas of the Greek philosopher Socrates who believed that we must question everything.  In a Socratic Circle, the class is split into two groups and the chairs and desks are formed into two circles, one small circle of chairs surrounded by a larger circle of desks.  One group of students sits in the inner circle on the chairs and the other group of students sits on the desks surrounding the students in the middle.

SS9 Socratic Circle

The group in the inner circle is given a topic or series of questions to discuss and they have a specific amount of time in which to discuss the topic.  I typically give groups 10 minutes to discuss, but I have assigned longer periods of time.  As a teacher I don’t interject at any point in the discussion, but instead the discussion period is entirely left to the students own initiatives.  The first few times a class is doing a Socratic Circle, I will give them the occasional prod or bit of direction, but once they have the hang of it, they are expected to initiate their own ideas to discuss and direct their own topic.

Once the group in the middle has finished discussing, the group on the outside will give the group in the middle meaningful feedback on how their discussion went.  The group on the outside doesn’t discuss the ideas themselves, but rather how the group discussed: Did one person talk the entire time?  Were some quieter students never given an opportunity to share?  Did they get off topic?  Were they redundant?  Once all the students on the outside have given feedback to their peers, I as the teacher will also give the group some additional feedback.  The two groups then switch so the group on the outside has a chance to discuss and the group on the inside an opportunity to listen and critique.

Initially, group discussions are clumsy, disorganized, and can be unproductive.  Students struggle with awkward silences, too many students sharing at once, and the discussions often lack depth or substance.  Frequently, the students haven’t learned how to respond to the ideas of someone else as opposed to just sharing their individual perspective as an entity unto itself.  

However, it often doesn’t take too many “failed” discussions for students to realize the value in listening attentively to their peers before they formulate their response.  They learn how to stay on topic and keep each other on topic.  Leader figures in the class are presented with the challenge to facilitate rather than simply spout their ideas off for the full 10 minutes.  Quieter, more contemplative students are encouraged by their peers to share their perspectives.

Teenagers are skilled users of text messaging and are versed in sharing their ideas through digital and social media.  But one thing they can’t do well anymore is have a sustained, face-to-face conversation involving eye contact and continuous attention on the person they are conversing with.  The ability to take themselves, the world, and each other seriously is a challenge for many high school students.  I have found that the Socratic Circle is the most effective way of not only helping students develop their understanding of course content, but, more importantly, giving them communication tools they need to express those ideas.  It is always exciting for me to watch as a class finally reaches the point where they are able to discuss their ideas with deliberation and intention, responding with empathy and curiosity to each other.  It becomes evident in the manner in which they speak that they have realized that they are doing something important, something sacred.  They have realized that their ideas and, just as importantly, the way that they communicate those ideas, are of incredible value. 

Her 9s have done many Socratic Circles, but tomorrow she will do this with her 10s who have not done as many.  I plan on observing tomorrow also.  In my next post I will offer some of my observations from both the Gr9 and Gr10 discussions, and from my reflection with her post-Socratic Circle.  Should you wish to contact Mrs. D regarding Socratic Circles, or anything Humanities related, you can find her here: (@BriDyck).

For further dialogue: Have you been a part of meaningful discussions?  What led to them?  How were they ‘produced’?  Or, have you been a part of un-/non-meaningful discussions?  Why was that the case?

Social Media and Parenting

Great post here from Pippa Davies (@pippadavies & her personal blog), our Heritage Christian Learning Commons lead Cybrarian. I too saw The Fifth Estate’s program on CBC and knew I wanted to share and comment on it. Pippa, you beat me to it – so I’m just echoing your thoughts.
I did lead 3 chapels on the Amanda Todd tragedy last year. I remember it being a very sobering few weeks for our students and for our school. Again, this is why I feel led to echo and share what Pippa has written.
I trust you will enjoy her words as much as I did. Paul


HCS Learning Commons


facebook (Photo credit: sitmonkeysupreme)

This past week I  watched a very sad indictment of the “Sextortion of Amanda Todd” being aired on CBC The Fifth Estate, to commemorate the anniversary of Amanda’s death.  I was horrified to hear how twelve and thirteen year old teens are sharing lewd images of themselves on group blogging and webcam sites.  I was even more than horrified to see how online predators could take advantage of such students,  and blackmail them into sharing more revealing images.  This tragedy exemplifies some insidious dangers inherent with image sharing sites,  such as SnapChat and Instagram, and with private chat rooms.   Media literacy is not the topic on display, and images provoke more than just fear, or isolation, they can provoke students to suicide.

This brought to mind many ways as parents we need to be involved in our students’ “online time”?


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