Can you speak socratic?

Add this to a list of nerd burger facts about me. I did debating. In high school. I’m a debater. Picture me in an over-sized blazer with a high school logo standing in front of my fellow debaters. True stamp of a nerd burger right there.

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I did debating not because I’m great at arguing. In fact I’m pretty hopeless. When there is conflict I’m generally the one agreeing with both sides and saying things like “let’s just agree to disagree.” In debating terms I’m a first speaker, I state my opinion and do the facts. And please, never, ever, ever make me rebuttal. I can’t argue to save myself (or my team).

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To this day I don’t quite know what made me participate in debating in high school. Was it the limelight, the wild nights out at other schools on school nights, the palm cards or the judgement of the adjudicators? Who knows. But I know this at least, it taught me a lot about conversations.

Decades later, I was listening to the Year 6 class I was teaching “discuss” a topic and I realised something was wrong. I noticed I wasn’t listening to a conversation. I was listening to “turn taking”. Each student would take their turn to talk and share their opinion. But they weren’t talking to each other. They each said what they wanted to say and didn’t let the comments of others affect their message in any way. They were talking in parallel. They were all being a first speaker.

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And here is the kicker… That’s not a discussion, it’s not a debate and it is definitely not a conversation. Conversations are not parallel they intersect each other, they loop around, forwards and backwards, they are messy and nonlinear. But above all of that discussions should challenge opinions.

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To achieve this type of conversation I went to a strategy I had learnt while on one of my very first teaching placements…Socratic circles.


Socratic circles (also known as Socratic seminars) are a strategy that I have seen mostly written about in senior years and beyond. I was once told they are used in university courses. But I have used them with 8 year olds! Socratic circles are a brilliant strategy for the development of oral language skills and so much more! They develop critical thinking, comprehension, listening, responding, evaluating and giving feedback. I just love them!

They are so great that I don’t want to just tell you a story about them…I want to help you use them in your class.

Who is ready to encourage their class to argue more?

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So, in a nutshell this is how to run a Socratic circle.

1. Prepare

Firstly you will need to choose a topic for discussion. This can be based on any stimulus or any type of text. It could be an article, movie, picture, poem, event… it can be anything. I like to choose something topical and then find texts that portray different opinions on the topic. In the past I have used the logging debate as a good (easy) first topic. I show both sides of the argument. a video of those who work in the logging industry and who feel called to this type of work. I also show the opinion of activists who are fighting to save forests. For this to be effective and allow student to develop their own views on a topic I aim to not reveal my opinion. I think as teachers it is hard not to share our bias with our students and by choosing two opposing views I can ensure my opinion on the matter is not dictating the text.

2. Explore

Allow students to watch, listen, read and understand the texts. During this time I never prompt students to take notes. Occasionally, I have had students who choose to and I feel that if it is their choice that’s fine. But lets not force all students to interpret texts through note taking. sometimes viewing them is all they need.

3. Organise

Give the students UNINTERRUPTED writing time to organised their thoughts and form opinions. I usually give about 15- 20 minutes for this. For this use a thinking structure, such as a Y-chart. You can use any type of structure for this though, positives and negatives, clouds of wonder, thinking wheel. Whatever you choose ensure that your students leave space on their page for feedback on the discussion. Often the student’s work books look a bit like this:

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I have provided brief explanations as to what each part is for in the above image. But basically the Y-chart allows the students to reflect on the text they have viewed/read/listened to. Depending on the grade this might look different. It might be more of a visual response in younger years or a simpler version. But I try to include the three parts as they are reflective of the persuasive techniques pathos (emotions), ethos (ethics) and logos (logic). Emotions or pathos is displayed in “I feel”. An element of ethos or ethics often comes through when students consider different views in “I wonder” . Additionally, logos or the logic of the argument is represented in “I think” as this is often full of facts.

4. Sort the students

While the students are writing you will need to split the group into two. This is so you have two circles or groups for each discussion, an outside and an inside circle. I have split the group in a number of ways, by getting students to choose a straw or placing one of two colour counters on the student’s desk. However, my favourite way to split the group is stamping each student’s “Y chart” page with one of two stamps as they are working on it. This way I get to check in with each student as they are constructing their opinions and arguments.

Once the students have completed their writing time it is time to…

5. Run the first Socratic circle! Get excited!

For this you will need two circles. One on the outside and one inside. The inside circle are facing each other and the outside circle is facing in. A bit like this

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With younger grades I often mark the circles on the floor with chalk so that students know where to sit.

Now comes the fun part! The talking! And the responding! The inside circle will discuss while the outside circle listen and make notes about the discussion. Remind the inside circle to share their ideas that they have been writing down and encourage them to respond to each other. Sometimes writing some sentence starters on the board can help with these responses. I like giving students three ways to respond to begin with:

  • I would like to respond to ____
  • I disagree with ___ because___
  • I agree with ___ because___

I usually use a “talking tool” such as a soft toy or ball for this so that students have a physical reminder of who is speaking. I explain to the students that they can choose how to run the circle. They can choose to pass the talking tool around the circle first or raise their hands when they want to speak. It is important to stress that it should be an INCLUSIVE discussion…this means that if people are sitting back and not sharing their ideas or getting involved… include them! Ask their opinions…no wallflowers in this discussion!

Remind the outside circle that they will also be busy during the discussion. Explain that they will need to write positive and constructive feedback and will be called on to share this at the end of the discussion time. Ensure that they understand this feedback should be about the speaking, listening and responding skills of the inside circle participants. The actual arguments (or if you like the people) are not what the feedback should be about. You, as the teacher, will also be on the outside so take this opportunity to model feedback note taking on a whiteboard or large sheet of paper. This gives the outside circle lots of ideas on what is appropriate feedback.

Let the discussion go for a maximum of 10 minutes. If it starts to die down stop the discussion.

6. Give Feedback!

Get that talking tool to the outside circle next and pass that baby round so that everyone can share what they noticed about the discussion. I ask students to pick one positive and one constructive piece of feedback to share…this is gold! Peer feedback! Especially when the students have picked up similar positives or negatives in the discussion. Make sure you give some feedback too.

6. Swap roles and run the second Socratic circle.

Now for the magic. Have the outside circle become the inside discussion circle and the inner circle move to the outside and become the listeners. I have always found that the second discussion is a lot more rich. And why wouldn’t it be? These students have just noticed what makes a great discussion and what makes it not so great. They have even given feedback…to their peers! Now they can act on this knowledge. After the second discussion allow the outside circle to give feedback.
And that is Socratic circles! In a nutshell…well a rather big nutshell…maybe more or a coconut shell?

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For some more info on Socratic circles take a look at:

Copeland, M. (2005). Socratic circles: Fostering critical and creative thinking in middle and high school. Stenhouse Publishers.

Byrne, G. (2011). Using Socratic circles to develop critical thinking skills. Practically Primary, 16(2), 13-16.


Feature Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mel_in_japan/

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