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:
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.
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.