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 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.
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.”
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?