…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?


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

  1. bri dyck

    Regarding your observation on how confident the History 12s are in their communication, as compared to the 9s and 10s: I have also noticed that, but I’m not sure I’m entirely okay with chocking it up to their age difference. The 12’s dialogue was of great quality. I agree. I’m wrestling with how I can push my 9s and 10s to develop more mature, quality discussion. Does it have to just be age that is the predicator? I don’t want to be convinced.

    I’m still rolling these thoughts around, but nevertheless, here they are, sans premeditation.

    At the grade 9 level, it’s the students that value the experience, value the discussion, that engage and bring the quality to the discussion. (Strangely) They’re not always the most “mature” or “confident” students, they don’t even necessarily write or speak with confidence or maturity outside of the SC.

    There are several students that are weak (immature, even) in other aspects of my classroom (I’m thinking particularly of my 9s), but they value the medium of the SC. They’re valuing something that the SC draws out of them? Not too sure what it is, yet. It is because of that, I believe, that they engage in mature, quality discussion, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. What a shock it has been to me to see my “immature,” “unconfident,” grade 9s, taking their own discussion to such levels of maturity and confidence. I didn’t think, at the beginning of the year, that I’d get the depth of response from my 9s that I’m getting. I’ve pushed them harder and they’re learning how to push back into each other.

    Now, I suppose it’s a question of causality. Does maturity (age?) lead to greater appreciation of learning? Or is it the other way around?

    I know!! I’ll mix some grade 12s in WITH my 9s for our next SC. Muahahhahaha!!!! So exciting!! Suddenly January 6th can’t come soon enough!

    1. eduglean Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree, age is only one factor leading to maturity and confidence. A cross section of a grade 9 or 11 class will have some at the top, and some ‘not at the top’… The History 12 bunch though, they are all very driven students, a few standard deviations above the norm. It is not age alone producing maturity; I believe it is academic confidence – they were articulate and clear and purposeful in what they said. Middle school is a tough time of life. Some breeze through it and some get bumped and bruised pretty bad. That is another reason why I love watching your 9s and 10s sharing so openly and vulnerably yet in a care-full environment (safety).
      Appreciation of learning – leads me to think about a student who understands how much there is to learn, and how determined they are to find it. These students know and value the hard work and time it will take to get there (growth mindset) versus others who may believe people either have it or they don’t (fixed mindset).
      More observations are needed on my part for History 12. To be continued in the new year!

  2. CB

    Found myself almost sitting down amongst the circle of students. I wonder what Mrs. D. thinks about her principal taking her initial SC assignment to such a deep level of involvement and critique. Looking forward to your next post.

    1. eduglean Post author

      Hello here, CB. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’m glad to hear you could picture the Socratic Circle taking place. Ha – you could probably ask her what she thinks of it – I referenced her Twitter in part 1 and her email is on our school website. In any event, I know that these SC observations have led to wonderful conversations.
      I can imagine that some classrooms exist as islands – with nobody knowing what is actually taking place and where nobody is truly invited inside. On the other side of this spectrum, Mrs. D has welcomed observers – myself and a few educational assistants – which has always produced great dialogue. Even the students are entering into the discussion.
      Again, thanks for taking the time to comment and to help continue the learning process.
      I meant it when I called this blog eduglean. I have so much to learn – I welcome and invite your thoughts.

    2. bri dyck

      CB – Prior to my job at HCS, I worked with young children with autism. In that job I had meetings biweekly with the child’s parents, behavioural consultants, and other support for the child (OT, Physio, etc). Since being at HCS, I have actually come to miss that dialogue: what’s working, what’s not, rethinking goals, tinkering with ideas and philosophies. Having Paul to dialogue with about what has been happening in my classroom has been a welcome involvement and has only served to encourage and challenge me. I have appreciated his interest. I hope I can always conduct my classroom in a way that invites involvement and critique from others, staff and students. Thanks for your comment 🙂


...I want to eduglean from you...

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s