…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.


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

  1. bri dyck

    Another meaningful, reflective post, Paul. Thanks for taking the time to pull apart the “medium” of Socratic Circles here on your blog. I look forward to further posts. It is difficult for me as a teacher to ask questions rather than give answers. When I reflect on the “great teachers” in my life, they were always quick to ask questions and often gave few answers. Hmm…reminds me of a particular rabbi. 😉 Since beginning my teaching career a few months ago (hahaha!), I have been wresting with this idea. Asking questions feels riskier. Am I a teacher who asks the right questions? Do I ask any questions?

    1. eduglean Post author

      Hi Bri, thanks for the read and comment.
      Speaking of questions, it seems like you’re asking questions as you ponder questions. And because you are debating these things internally, you are asking yourself these questions. Self-questioning. Self-reflecting. Really, this is the process of self-critique.
      I’ve heard it said that elite athletes exist above their semi-pro counterparts by their ability to self-critique and self-analyze. Not only does the professional know what questions to ask, but they can also ask themselves these questions within the activity – in the moment. A very powerful place to be. Ronald A. Heifetz develops the metaphor of, “Getting on the Balcony”. Imagine someone on a dance floor. Then they step above to the balcony to observe the dance in action. Then they return to the dance, dancing with more knowledge and a greater sense of the system at work. This idea is from my favourite leadership book. Perhaps there’s a future post there somewhere…
      Anyway, back to your Socratic Circles – I understand that you made a slight change to the format of today’s Socratic Circle. What was the change? How did it go?

  2. bri dyck

    I like that metaphor of a dance floor and balcony. The stretch is, as you mentioned, the ability or awareness to ask the questions in the moment. Although, it’s a skill worth developing 😉 As far as the SS9’s Socratic Circle today, I had the outer circle pose questions to the inner circle instead of giving feedback. In my discussions with you, this idea that you suggested seemed like a great way to have the kids thinking about questions, but not feeling the pressure of the moment in the inner circle. It went superbly. The depth of the questions exceeded my expectations and when I posed the question, “You know what would be even more awesome?” One of the students burst in with the response, “If we asked these questions while we were in the discussion!” — Haha! I love ’em! Putting a twist on the Socratic Circles yesterday gave the kids a new level of awareness. I believe this awareness begins with them realizing, “Hey, I actually have questions that I’d like to ask.” I’m excited for the 9’s next SC. 🙂 Thx, Paul!

    1. eduglean Post author

      …I really like your term ‘new level of awareness’ to describe your students growing in their SCs. This is precisely what I am trying to figure out for part 4 of this Socratic Circle set of posts – I mean – I’m trying to explore and define what skills these kids are learning through the SC, and if/how they can transfer them into other areas.
      “Awareness” – I’ve caught myself so many times in the past two weeks…just before I blurt out a sentence that will change the direction of a conversation. Really, this new awareness for me acts as a conversation filter – checking through a series of questions that I ask myself before I jump into ‘my’ next topic… Hmm…awareness…I’m brewing on that…
      I’m really impressed that you were open and willing to try something new with your SC. Like eating the same meal at a good restaurant, you could have kept the SC the same. But, you risked and tried something new…and it sounds like it paid off.
      Many layers to this, but you have just modelled to your students a risk/reward (change) system. This sounds funny to type here, but I’m proud of you 😉 I mean, you took a suggestion, critiqued your SC tool, decided to try a change, and then re-critiqued. Sounds like the growth process. The more I read about Pro-D, the more the literature speaks of mature teachers needing to be responsible for their own development. You have certainly modelled that here.
      One more quick thing – look at the process of your ‘ah-ha’ moment for your 9s. At the end of the activity you could have told them your conclusion: These questions should be used inside the circle. But, you posed a question to them, one that opened the space for them to consider the conclusion themselves individually. Significant difference here. I believe this to be the difference between ‘being given’ an answer and ‘finding out’ an answer. This generating/formulating an answer in your own mind is what leads to the ‘new level of awareness’ that you mentioned above.
      …hmm – how often do we just ‘give’ our students the answers/information? Is it because of time? Planning? I suppose this is where PBL advocates chirp in…

  3. bri dyck

    Thanks for the encouragement, Paul. 🙂 I am excited by the process, the discussion of what education means. I get a “buzz” off of conversations with you and others about what education is, not necessarily the means, but the ends. What is the point? Why am I doing this? What is the end goal?

    I think part of the reason that I so love using SC’s in my classes is because for me, personally, I am more excited by the discussion around a topic, than achieving the answer. I want students to be excited about the pursuit of understanding, not just the answer itself. I want them to value the process, the wrestle of learning. So far, SC’s are one of the best mediums I have found to promote this wrestle. “Finding out the answer” is the fun part (for me, anyways)! Too often I, as the teacher, am the one doing all the discovering, having all the fun. Haha! Working on it…. 😉

    1. eduglean Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Bri, and for continuing the discussion here. Your comment makes me wonder if the learning process gets missed, or covered, by the ‘answer’? I mean, the summative product (answer, essay, presentation) could be the same for two students. But, one student may have done a pile more work and therefore learned a pile more through the process. Another may have already even known the content before the assignment was given. Is the mark the same for both students? In most cases I’ll bet it is. But, who has learned more?
      Another question is this: do our kids ‘enjoy’ learning? Or do they just want to know the answers? Hmm…I’ve had a new perspective on that this year as I’ve moved closer to Mastery in my Math classrooms. I have a Math Master post a few posts back…and still a few more to come.
      Finally, you say you are discovering – I wonder if, after all your learning this year, you would introduce/use/facilitate the Socratic Circles the same way next year as you did this year? The 9s would be a new bunch…any differences you’d try?
      Keep up the great work, Bri. Always a pleasure to spend time in your classroom.


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