education philosopher

Modifying the Outer Circle’s Role (in Socratic Circles)

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on October 7, 2015

Last week, two faculty observers came into the class in which I am employing Socratic circles. They were there to observe the Socratic process in a more detached way than I can (as I am so close to it in my class.) For those who don’t know, Socratic circles is a method of pedagogy where I divide my class of 30 into two groups of 15 (randomly), One group is the ‘inner circle” and discusses the reading for 20 minutes. The other group is the “outer circle” and has the primary role of listening to the inner circle’s discussion and then critique it, by pointing out good and bad things about the discussion (was there excessive interruption, points that should have been elaborated on, etc).

One problem I’ve been noticing (and the observers picked up on) is that the outer circle gets a bit repetitious. In contrast to the inner circle, whose discussion can take many forms depending on what participants want to bring up, the outer circle’s role is more repetitive: each discussion, they listen to the inner circle and make comments and suggestions about the discussion. I have really good students, so much of the time, there is little to critique and as the class has been quite good at incorporating outer circle feedback, as the inner circle discussions improve, the outer circle has less to say.

Last class, I decided to open up to my students about my feelings that the outer circle is growing redundant. They greed, as I suspected they would. So, in the spirit of Socratic discussion, we spent a good 10+ minutes discussing what to do about it. I first asked them to describe their experience in the outer circle, and as I thought, they suggested that the outer circle’s role was becoming less engaging over time.

What to do? Some students suggested that the presence of a “hot seat” would be good, a seat where outer circle members who really want to “cut into” the inner circle’s discussion and respond with a pressing point can do so. Others vetoed the idea because the thought was that (a) that would be unfair to the inner circle by taking time away from their 20 minutes, and (b) that the risk would be that too many outer circle members would want to interject (which at least tells me that the outer circle is engaged enough to want to interject).

Coincidentally, during one inner circle discussion that day, a few students brought up factual claims that they did not substantiate, and that came into the discussion about what to do with the outer circle. One student suggested that maybe one role the outer circle members could play (as they have laptops and cell phones) is to be “fact checkers”: when factual claims come up in the inner circle, the outer-circle members can look those up while the inner circle keeps talking.

We decided that one thing the outer circle could then do after the inner circle’s discussion is not only to critique the discussion, but bring up findings regarding factual claims made during the inner circle’s discussion. I didn’t say so at the time, but this imparts the message to members of both circles regarding the importance of researching and following up on factual claims.

Another student – thinking aloud to me after the class – brought up the vetoed idea of the hot seat. He suggested that when an outer circle member finds some factual info relevant to the inner circle’s discussion, maybe they could do that with the hot seat. So, if a student knows of a factual body of information that is relevant, or gets a particularly interesting finding in attempts to research claims by members of the inner circle, they could use the hot seat to bring that in for the good of the inner-circle’s discussion.

But how to limit the use of the hot seat so that interjections are concise and few. This student and I came up with a few things. First, we might limit the hot seat to 30 seconds. That would ensure that any interjection is concise. Second, we can be clear to mandate that the hot seat is for clarification and description, not opinion. If you have a factual point to bring in, great, but no opinion. That is for the inner circle. Lastly, students have to walk up to the hot seat and deliberately sit down in it. It sounds like a small point, but previously, we had discussed whether someone could raise their hand to be let into the hot seat. I believe – and the class agreed – that having to deliberately walk up to the hot seat would provide at least a little bit of pause before deciding to use it. In other words, it might ensure that only students who know they have something to add would undertake the effort to (and draw the attention that comes from) walking up to the hot seat (next toe me) and sit down.

So, the new rules for the outer circle are:

a. listen to and critique the inner circle’s dialogue

b. be ‘fact checkers’ for the inner circle, whenever factual claims are brought in

c. utilize the hot seat in the inner circle judiciously to interject strictly factual points that may contribute to the inner circle’s discussion.

We’ll try this next class and see what happens. But true to the Socratic approach, these rules were come up with by a discussion between myself and students. They must own as much of the process as possible, and that means that when problems or dilemmas arise, we try to solve them as a collective. And as usual, we will try this out and debrief about whether it added to the productivity of the process during our next class.

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The Teacher’s Inclination to Lead and Maybe Cutting That Out

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on October 5, 2015

“Can I tell you something and have you promise not to get mad?” asked a student. This was after the Socratic inner circle got done their discussion and this student, a member of the outer circle, was critiquing the inner circle’s dialogue.


“Okay. Well, I think you interjected probably a bit too much in this dialogue.”

As the professor, I am always part of the inner circle’s Socratic dialogues. The discussion is mostly theirs, but from time to time, I like to come into it, moving drifting conversations back on track, tying things back to the reading, and sometimes asking new questions if I think the discussion is hitting a wall.

And she was right. I did interject too much. I even remember at one point inadvertently cutting off a student who was about to say something in response to another student.

This is, in some sense, how teachers are. When we are in more “traditional” classrooms and we ask a question to which an answer or raised hand doesn’t come immediately, awkwardness sets in. Even if 10 seconds go by, we often feel like we, as teachers, have a duty to fill the silence.  (more…)

Can Interest Be Created? A Few Philosophical Reflections

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on October 3, 2015

Recently, I wrote a blog post on the interest development theory of human motivation. This theory is particularly interesting, because it puts most of its stress on the role interest plays in creating and sustaining motivation. But it does not seem to be a well-known theory (especially compared to the much more popular self-determination theory). One possible reason for that may be that when teachers, coaches, and others learn about theories of motivation, there is a belief that one should focus on factors you (the teacher or coach) can affect, like how much autonomy you give students, or what kind of incentives you use. By contrast, many people believe that interest in fixed: you either have it or you don’t; since it can’t be created, people may fear that focusing on interest as a motivator means that you focus on something you can’t affect in students.

Proponents of interest development theory seem to want to change that. Some, like Hidi and Renninger, suggest that interest can actually be affected by teachers, and that it isn’t as simple as “students have it or they don’t.” They suggest the “have it or you don’t” misconceptions “owe their origin to vocational interest research that shows the stability of existing interests.” In other words, some studies show that if John is interested in pastel painting this year, it is almost certain that he retains an interest next year and does not suddenly “switch” his interest to jazz drumming. But, as they point out, these studies don’t track how interests were either created or discovered.

Another contributor to the “you have it or you don’t” idea is that many studies show that “both the affective and cognitive components of interest have biological roots.” When we think biology, we think “fixed.” But other studies show that “interest is the outcome of an interaction between a person and a particular content.” That means that the potential for interest may be in the person, but the development of interest is contextual and often depends on factors outside the person.

So can interest be created, or is it fixed? When one develops an interest, was that interest created or was it discovered?  (more…)

Interest Development Theory In Brief

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on October 1, 2015

In a course I teach on theories of learning and motivation (and how assessment relates to each), I have my students go over several theories of human motivation – from  expectancy value theory to the currently popular self-determination theory. A recent discussion with a colleague who specializes in academic motivation, Dr. Jessica Chittum, who told me about a theory I’d never heard of before: interest development theory. It is a theory that, unlike others, puts the idea that interest is a determining factor of motivation seriously. Interestingly, its proponents also seem to suggest that interest is something malleable, rather than fixed – that interest can be created.

After further research, I decided I want to give my class some info on the theory. Only problem is that unlike some other seemingly more publicized/established theories of motivation, there doesn’t seem to exist a good accessible summary. So, I wrote one. I am no expert on theories of motivation, but hopefully, this will help people who are searching for some information on the interest development theory of motivation. 


There are many theories about what motivates people and what motivation consists of. But few of those theories put the concept of interest at their center. That seems odd, because when we think about what motivates us, what it takes to motivate us will look different depending on our interest level in that thing. Motivating you to pay attention to your favorite hobby probably involves different techniques than motivating you to pay attention to a fantastically boring lecture. Why? Well, because when we have interest, it somehow makes doing a thing easier and more rewarding.

What is interest? The common dictionary definition is that interest is the state of wanting to focus on something, a sort of impulse to attend to something rather than another. And that is sort of how theorists – like psychologist William James – have described it:

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind- without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos (Principles of Psychology).

There are two different conceptions of interest. Individual interest is a person’s enduring preference for certain topics, subject areas, or activities. Situational interest is a less enduring interest that is brought about by situational stimuli. (more…)

After Three Classes with Socratic Pedagogy

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on September 3, 2015

By now, I have had three class sessions run entirely in the format of Socratic Circles. I waited to write a journal entry until I had at least a few classes under my belt with this method, so that I could “get used’ to the method before writing about it in practice for the first time.

So far, so good! During the first session, I had my class watch two short excerpts of other groups (a high school science and college level philosophy group respectively) doing Socratic sessions, and we did a whole-class discussion where students analyzed what made these filmed sessions successful. Then we got into groups to try it ourselves. I have to confess that I was extremely nervous, largely because one just can’t tell in advance how Socratic pedagogy will go, depending as it does on the willingness and preparedness of the students. For our first reading, I tried to choose something (John Holt’s essay “Schools are Bad Places for Kids”) that had a fairly direct but potentially controversial argument. Each group discussed for 15 minutes (which is a bit shorter than the typical 20 minutes), mostly because I had no idea whether discussion would peter out quickly or not.

It certainly did not. I started off with a very broad question to get things rolling – “Is John Holt exaggerating when he says that schools are bad places for kids? Did his argument prove his rather extreme position?” – and it took only a few seconds for discussion to get going. And once it went, it really didn’t stop. Afterwards, I told another professor that I felt high (and I wasn’t exaggerating).

The second and third sessions with this group were a little trickier, because we literally read the hardest piece we’d read all year, a piece by a sociologist of education that is written for other academics. (I’ve wanted to find a more general-audience=-friendly version of his argument, but can”t.) I’d taught using this reading before, and figured that maybe it’d be easier for them to make sense of the article as a group. That seems to be what happened.

We broke the 40 or so page reading into two days at 20 or so pages each. The first day of discussion was a bit more awkward than the first, and that probably had to do with the difficulty of the text. The first day felt – and the students in the outer-circle concurred – like discussion meandered a bit, to things ostensibly related to the text, but not completely related (or where the connection was not made explicitly). I tried to guide things back when I could, and there were some students who did a good job of tying the text in. But I do confess that after this class session, I wondered whether students were really getting the heart of the author’s argument. Maybe I’d have to steer the discussion a bit more the next day, which I didn’t want to do, but decided to prepare for.

Well, it turns out that I didn’t have to after all. It didn’t take too long in the second day’s discussion for some students to stumble very directly onto the point of the article. In response to another student comment, a student said something like “Well, I think that’s the point of the article, that…” The only thing I did after that was, after a few more comments had passed, to let the students know that I think that was indeed the point of the article, after which conversation promptly picked up where it left off.

And when I think about the times I have taught with this article in other classes, where students mostly read individually and wrote some sort of response piece, I do believe that this group and the circumlocutive route they took toward the understanding of the article left them maybe with a stronger understanding of the article. In other words, one huge benefit of this Socratic approach seems to be that students read and develop an understanding individually, and then use others’ understandings (which they gain through conversation) to test, deepen, question, and sometimes reformulate their understanding of the text. I think it also allows students to see others struggling to understand (and coming to understand) the same text they are. It is fun to see them collaborating like this, and it seems fun for them too.

But it can’t be all roses, right? Well, there are a few things that I am struggling with and may need to work on. First, the outer circle – the group that watches the inner circle’s argument and critiques it – often struggles to fill the 10 minute space allotted for them after the inner circle’s performance. I need to find some ways for the outer circle not to become monotonous, and I must confess to not being entirely comfortable with the idea of an outer circle yet.

Second, while it may have been a good thing to break the difficult reading into two chunks for two days, some students told me that that may have had the bad consequence of leaving the second inner circle on day 2 with little to talk about that hadn’t already been brought up before. I think those students are probably right. All groups did well, but I could see that last of the four inner circles (over those two days) struggle to find things about the text they could delve into that hadn’t been done before.

Finally, I really am finding it hard not to interject “too much.” Especially when discussion – as it sometimes naturally does – get a bit off of the text, I have to really ask myself whether I should wait and see if it comes back on its own (and, it usually does) or to cut in and risk stifling things by pulling it back. I usually have opted for the former, and generally, it seems successful. But my teacherly instinct really still is to know where I want the discussion to go and pull it there. I think anyone who uses this method in class will have, and will have to fight, this urge.

Anyhow, so far so good and so fun.

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First Day of Socratic Seminar Coming Up

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on August 26, 2015

The first class in which I will use Socratic seminars is coming up in a matter of hours. I am both excited and nervous about it. From what I’ve learned about Socratic seminar, though, it seems like that is natural, largely because when one allows the students to control the dialogue, the result is always going to be unpredictable. That means, of course, that I can’t really know in advance how well this is going to work, but the unpredictability is also quite exciting, and I think it will add a lot of freshness to the class.

Of course, I know it isn’t all left up to chance. Here are some things I have done and am doing to try and scaffold Socratic discussion for students. I am betting that only a few of the students have done classroom discussion this way; by a show of hands last class, only two had, and they don’t’ recall much about it (so it may have been early in their learning career). Therefore, there are things I am putting in place to try and support discussion during the critical first few weeks.  (more…)

It’s Not About Me. (Well, the post is, but what happens in class isn’t)

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on August 25, 2015

Yesterday and today, I taught my Fall semester classes for the first time. And in keeping with my desire to record my experience (for my reflection and your um, entertainment), here’s something these “first classes” have made me realize: I have a really tough time not centering my courses around me. This will take some work

Here’s some background. For the first day of my classes, I like to start right off with activity – no reading the syllabus at ’em. So, all three face-to-face courses (despite being different courses) followed the same format. They got into randomly assigned groups of six and took turns telling stories about their most memorable classroom experience. While one told a 3 minute story, the others would use post-it notes to write down one or two words the story made them think about. Once everyone had told their story and written post-its about the other stories, they worked in groups to organize the group’s words into categories (for one class, each class had to come up with two metaphors for what school is that they can use to organize their words. The other had to organize by whether the words fell into learning, motivation, or assessment.)

So, there is a lot of me resetting the online timer, walking around the room, and standing there. I’d interact with students and listen to stories being told, but mostly, the students ran the show. And I know that is how it should be. But here’s the thing: I noticed myself getting awfully fidgety during those  three minute (and eight minute at the end) segments.

I think one reason I felt fidgety – like I should be DOING something – is that subconsciously, I have picked up the message about teaching and learning that most of us do: good teaching means the teacher is doing something at all times, and maybe ideally, is the central focus of what goes on in the classroom. But when your class period is designed in a way where students can move and do themselves – and  where you don’t have to be the Sun in the room around whom student-planets must orbit – the teacher (well, at least me) will be left  with the awkward feeling that at that moment, he should be doing more.  (more…)

On what Intelligence Is, or At Least What It Isn’t

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on August 22, 2015

Today, I watched a really intriguing Intelligence Squared Debate on the motion of “Smart Technology is Making us Dumb.” For the affirmative, Nicholas Carr and Andrew Keen argued; for the negative, Steven Weinberger and Genevieve Bell. For my part, I agreed the most with Genevieve Bell, whose main point was that there is a lot more to the story than whether it IS making us smart or stupid, mostly because there are a lot of smart technologies and a lot of ways we can use those technologies. I agreed least with Andrew Keen, whose conservative persective seemed to be that if we can find even a few ways “we” are using technology in ways he thinks aren’t substantive (twitter seems his favorite example), then that settles the matter.

But one thing I noticed is that the debate really hinges on what we mean by ‘smart,” “dumb” and for that matter, “intelligence.” Carr seemed to tie these things to short-term memory and attention; Weinberger seemed to argue that all intelligence requires is having access to information.Here is a comment I wrote below the debate that may be interesting to share here. (And, of course, check out the debate to form your own conclusions.)

Warning: since you are reading this on a blog, Keen may accuse you of being stupider for it.


My Socratic Adventure – Why I’m Going Socratic

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on August 19, 2015

In less than a week, I jump in with both feet. As a college professor who loves teaching, I try to vary up my pedagoy every year or so to keep things fresh. This summer, I’ve done a lot of research on Socratic pedagogy and the more I’ve read (and talked with those who’ve used it) the more I like what I heard. So, in less than 1 week, when the Fall semester starts, I will be taking the plunge and running one of my classes in almost its full entirety Socratically. So that I can track (and let others in on) my experiences, I am going to blog about my experience doing this throughout the semester (and maybe the upcoming school year)

What is Socratic pedagogy? Well, in brief, it is running the class in a highly discussion driven way. While I generally keep lecture to a minimum anyway, this semester, I will do as little lecturing as possible. The course will be centered around texts I have students read, and my role will largely be confined to crafting discussion questions that we can have conversations about in class. But even beyond that, it won’t resemble the traditional “discussions” we see in most classrooms, where the teacher stands at the front of the room and calls on students, who do their best to craft answers to the discussion questions that the professor/teacher wants to hear. Socratic pedagogy generally demands that the students face each other during discussion and talk to each other rather than the teacher, while the teacher either sits and discusses with the students, or stands outside the discussion, occasionally jumping in to move conversation forward. Quite literally, Socratic pedagogy is about as student led as things can get.

So, why am I so excited to try this? There are a few reasons. (more…)

James Harrison and Not Earning Trophies for Participation

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on August 18, 2015

Recently, Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison made headlines by returning two participation trophies given to his children – student athletes. In so doing, a lot of internet praise has accrued to Harrison. Here was his original Instagram post explaining his decision:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

The only way
I can describe my thoughts on this is that they are mixed. I’m definitely not as sure about Harrison’s decision as some seem to be. So let me explain a bit of why I am having trouble.

First, the whole message seems to be that these prizes were unearned. I’m not sure about that. A prize is earned when you meet the criterion/a for the prize. And in this case, that is James Harrisonexactly what the student athletes did. The prize was for anyone who showed up, the students showed up, so they met the criterion for the prize. Harrison (and others) may disagree that there should be a prize for showing up, ot that showing up shouldn’t be sufficient to earn a prize. But that is a different argument altogether than saying that the prize was unearned.  (more…)


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