Tag Archives: Education

…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?

…field trips, retreats, & overnighters: the heart of camping…

Think back to one of the most meaningful conversations or thoughts you’ve had.  Take a minute to picture where you were, what was happening, who was there, what other events had led up to that moment/situation/conversation?  Were you at home, at work, at play, by yourself, with someone else?  Did you go into that event expecting to have that meaningful moment, or did it just happen organically?

Well, it’s the night before our Grade 7-8 year-end retreat…an overnighter to Pines Bible Camp near Grand Forks, BC.  Don’t get me wrong…I’m sure it’s a great place…but the destination is not the goal.  The destination might be a goal…or an implicit goal.  But then again, we I bet we could take our kids almost anywhere and we would have a powerful time.

No, the real goal – the explicit goal – the paramount reason for taking two days off school, for asking so much more of our staff than a simple 9-5 job, for giving kids another chance to meet with God in a powerful way – is having 34 continuous hours with our staff & students.  These 34 hours will seem much longer than 34 x 60 = 2040 minutes.  I guarantee it.  I am so confident because of the beauty of camping, because of the simplicity of getting on a bus for an old-fashioned adventure, because of the renewing & eye-opening opportunity that exists when we step away from our well-known/safe/familiar/comfortable day-to-day life and take a peek at something new.

For the past many retreats I have spent the night before getting ready to share – getting ready to speak – trying to finish start (see my recent post on Planning) my talks.  Speaking at camps is a serious art form.  But, I’ll save that for a future post.  No, this retreat I am so pleased to say that our HCS Chaplain, Josiah Bitgood (Facebook, Twitter, Blog), will be leading the talks.  So, rather than getting a good sleep the night before (and really, why pack?)…I’ve got a post on my mind…trying to articulate why retreats & camping play the role they do in our lives of our students.

It should be noted here that student retreats were existent long before I came to Heritage and will continue to exist long after I’m gone.  My first experience with meaningful camping was as a boy at summer camp – rustic rural Christian kids camp and also jock sports camp.  Either way, it was a great time of personal development, of building friendships, and of eating white break with half-inch think butter and sugar (at the Bible camp, not the sports one…).  Seriously…truly amazing.

Camping has been a central piece of my family experience as well.  As a young boy, my father and I spent time each summer travelling to Yoho National Park.  I’m not sure what was better – the hiking or the car rides…memorizing one entire album while being quizzed on the Capitals of our Canadian Provinces and my 10×10 times-tables.  Again, like above, it wasn’t the destination…it was something else…

English: YLlogo

English: YLlogo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After I graduated from high school I spent time working with Young Life, a Christian youth organization, who’s modo is, “loving kids in their world, encouraging them to know Jesus Christ.”  I never experienced Young Life as a kid – only as a volunteer leader and staff person.  [As a side note: As a teacher and principal, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think back to my days with Young Life.]  Young Life’s philosophy is quite simple – as stated by its founder, Jim Rayburn,

“It’s a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel.”

So, in a nutshell, Young Life is the craziest fun you will ever experience…but…it’s not the fun that keeps kids coming back (destination)…it’s something more…

Young Life boiled its system (although I hate calling it that…perhaps pedagogy would be better here…) into “The 4 Cs”: Campaigners, Contact Work, Club, Camp.  One of the best articulations of this can be found right here by former Young Life staff person Bob Perkins: No Banana Splits (PDF).  For the record, the name of this document is a caution to youth workers everywhere that your weekly events cannot be bigger and better each week.  This is a cycle that can never be maintained.  Events (what Young Life calls Club) must draw kids because of something more/extra/deeper than the circus-show of dazzling prizes/events/swag etc.

So what is this extra missing ingredient?  What is the value-added experience beyond raffling off cars and having pizza parties each week?  What are the components that will keep kids (or should I say all humans) engaged/safe/empowered/encouraged/known?

Relationship.  (I’ve tried three times with three different strategies to add 20 lines of space before this word…not wanting to give away the answer until you had scrolled down…#sigh)

This is what makes camp so amazing:

  • quality time with peers who accept you and role models who celebrate you
  • moments away from our hustle-and-bustle of daily life…our daily life full of our instant-on / instant-stimulus / instant-response gadgets & mind-frames
  • basic human needs: food/shelter/warmth…camp is a great neutralizer…[my old Young Life boss used to say, “there’s just something humbling and safe-building when you wake up beside someone who has toothpaste all over the side of their mouth…]
  • there’s nothing quite like a fire, ocean, star, mountain, sunset/rise, cow & calf moose to force us all to ponder the magnitude of our universe & the infinitude of our role in it…and to consider the basic question of origins & purpose

Camp is about connecting with things around us – nature, comrades, or even ourselves if we venture alone.  Camp is about being put in situations that might never happen ‘in real life’.  Camp is about building relationships.

So, this is another thing I absolutely love about my school.  We spend 2.5 days the first week back from summer at Morning Star Bible Camp on a high school retreat – what a way to come back after the summer break!  We take 2 more days in February for our high school mid-winter retreat.  And, our grade 7 and 8 (next year’s middle school) classes get two days now enjoying each other’s company and growing together.  I trust that these two days will be powerful.  Yet, I am reminded often, this is not an equation.  You cannot simply add ‘time off school’ + ‘out-of-town over night trip’ + ‘cookies galore’ = ‘amazingly powerful time’.  Also, I don’t want to set up too high of an expectation – amazingly powerful time – because any time away as a group this time of year will be great.

Food for thought: Have you had some positive (or negative) camping experiences?  What have been some of your meaningful ones and what contributed to making them so?

…pro-d & prep-time – take-a-way 2 from #21stedu – part 3…

When was the last time you had an hour of no-questions-asked time at work to get to the list of things you never get to?  Or to start working on a task that’s been on the back-burner all year?  Or were given paid release time to ‘play’ on or with anything that had to do, ever-so-slightly, with your job?  Well, Google-Time does just that – they give their employees 20% of their time to work on para-work items.  This blog explains it well.

Along the same line as Google-Time, in his most recent book, Drive, one of my favourite authours, Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) unpacks the idea of the FedEx Day which was invented by the folks at the Australian software company Atlassian.  There, FedEx Days gave employees permission to work on any project they wanted to, as long as it wasn’t part of their regular job.  The only condition: they had to show what they’ve created to their colleagues 24 hours later.

“But isn’t that very expensive?  Having to hire one extra person for every four employed? Or giving up productivity for these non-work days?”  Yes, but the results say that Google’s employees are just that much more productive in their regular 80% time, and, they have generated some pretty amazing ideas during that 20% time.  Now, I am not proposing 20% time for educators – I only use this as an example to question the amount of time (often the result of how much we appreciate/value/commit to something – time & money) we provide our staff with preparation & release time.

My last post shared my #1 take-a-way from the Vancouver Symposium of 21st Century Christian Education as being Planning.  Today I share my #2 – Professional Development & Teacher Preparation/Release Time.

One of the largest issues that struck me at this year’s symposium was the vast amount of change that is making its way into schools & classrooms – specifically technological options and tools.  In building from my first take-a-way where I realize & admit my responsibility to grow & communicate vision & planning, I must make sure the plans I have for my school include appropriate processing/play/exploration/training time for my staff.

Dr. Barrett Mosbacker, Superintendent of Briarwood Christian Schools, made the comment that any new technology in his schools is sure to be in the hands of teachers for 6-14 months before it makes its way into the classroom.  Wow.  I’ve heard that statement from him twice in the past 2 months and both times it put me back in my seat with goosebumps.

On one hand, I hear his desire to make sure the implementation of new technology goes well.  He was clear that technology is a tool that enhances instruction & learning – not replaces it.  On the other hand, I would hope a policy like that doesn’t get in the way of a great innovative or user-friendly technology that could see itself adopted quickly with strong impact.  For this last point, I trust the leadership and staff at Briarwood to make appropriate decisions regarding curricular implementation & introduction.

Because change is so rampant with new tools popping up daily, in terms of prep-time and pro-d I must re-evaluate:

  • the time (minutes) & method (purposefulness & activity) of the prep/release & pro-d time Heritage provides our staff
  • individual & collaborative time provided
  • implicit & explicit goals & expectations that are communicated
  • the process in which pro-d is chosen & delivered/created/explored
This week I had the pleasure of spending a large amount of time in two classrooms for the evaluation of two teachers.  It was a pleasure to see them work with their kids.  After spending 80 minutes in their room I also had an hour-long sit-down with them individually to go through the notes I generated.  Since these were both experienced teachers it was very much a peer-to-peer process full of great dialogue & encouragement with a bit of food-for-thought.  One teacher, though, said this time together was the best pro-d he’d experienced since his pre-service time.  That was a flag for me.  Although I was glad to hear that this time was meaningful, it made me realize the opportunity & responsibility I have to be doing a similar activity in all my classrooms with all my teachers.  The simplicity of having another set of eyes in the classroom with the intention of “what would you like me to look for today?” can lead to such meaningful dialogue about purposeful teaching for that group for that course.
When was the last time you had a peer in your work-space providing observation, feedback, and discussion?  Was this helpful or not?  What would be meaningful pro-d for you right now?