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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