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.
“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…)
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.
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…)
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…)