After Three Classes with Socratic Pedagogy
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.