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.
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?