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…)