Quick Tip Tuesday: The basics of Socratic circles

April 7th, 2009

In this week’s Quick Tip, Matt Copeland lays out the basics of Socratic circles. “True classroom discussion, true dialogue, should be an opportunity for students to share their own ideas, build knowledge based on prior information being applied to new situations, test out their own hypotheses and perspectives against those of their peers,” Matt writes in the second chapter of his book, Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School. Socratic circles allow students to arrive at answers that have been constructed through personal experience, critical thought, rhetoric, and discourse.

In the simplest terms, Socratic circles are an in-class discussion that is focused upon a particular piece of text that students have spent time reading and analyzing. However, the nature and process of that discussion differs radically from the typical teacher-led, question-and-answer discussion.

In a Socratic circle, students work cooperatively to construct meaning from what they have read and avoid focusing on a “correct” interpretation of the text. Student understanding emerges as the discussion progresses and is always open to revision. Students base their construction of meaning upon the connections they can make to what they already know and the ideas and opinions that are shared within their group. This cooperative creation then stands as meaning over which students have almost complete ownership. The input and suggestions of the teacher are simply promptings to continue the process of discourse and the search for meaning.

It is important to note that Socratic circles are not a form of classroom debate. “Debate” suggests that students are competing with one another to convince an outsider of the validity of their line of thinking. A Socratic circle has students working collaboratively to construct a common vision of truth and understanding that serves all members of the group equally.

There is no concept of “winning an argument” in a Socratic circle; there is only the search for deeper and more thorough understanding. Similarly, there are strong differences between discussion as a general principle and Socratic dialogue. Discussion seeks to resolve an issue or solve a problem; it begins with a clear goal or outcome in mind such as, “Today we are going to discover the meaning of this poem.” If we think of the typical kinds of questions we ask in a classroom discussion, most have a single, correct answer, or at the very least a preferable answer the teacher is waiting to hear. In my own experience, classroom discussion usually meant one of two things: either wading through several answers until I heard the one I was looking for, or completely exhausting the potential answers students were willing to offer and then spoon-feeding the answer I had been hoping to hear.

Neither of these situations is consistent with Socratic dialogue, which often has no specific goal or outcome in mind. Socratic dialogue is an exploration, a quest for understanding, that has no definite beginning or end. It is an expedition into human experience and understanding that, as background, can then serve students as they approach life and the world they live in. Socratic dialogue is not about answers and solutions; it is about accepting multiple perspectives on a certain topic and reexamining our own experiences and opinions in light of those perspectives. Socratic circles offer a controlled, pedagogical strategy that can bring dialogue into our classrooms, a type of real-world, student-centered learning where the teacher acts only to keep the discussion moving forward, regardless of its direction. As students construct their dialogue and their meaning of the piece of text, they are activating prior knowledge, making connections, and synthesizing new schemata in their quest for understanding. It is the students—not the teacher—who guide and direct the focus of the conversation in a search for meaning, understanding, and knowledge.

The ritualistic structure of a Socratic circle is one that appears complex to participants at first, but ultimately that structure is what provides for the students’ growth and ownership of the conversation. By the end of the very first implementation, students have mastered the basic format of a Socratic circle. This allows them to focus on the content that is being discussed and the validity and power of the questions and thoughts being shared among participants. Such a structure also greatly reduces issues of classroom management, as each and every student is engaged in the conversation and filling a role for the group.

The basic procedure for a Socratic circle is as follows:
1. On the day before a Socratic circle, the teacher hands out a short passage of text.
2. That night at home, students spend time reading, analyzing, and taking notes on the text.
3. During class the next day, students are randomly divided into two concentric circles: an inner circle and an outer circle.
4. The students in the inner circle read the passage aloud and then engage in a discussion of the text for approximately ten minutes, while students in the outer circle silently observe the behavior and performance of the inner circle.
5. After this discussion of the text, the outer circle assesses the inner circle’s performance and gives ten minutes of feedback for the inner circle.
6. Students in the inner and outer circles now exchange roles and positions.
7. The new inner circle holds a ten-minute discussion and then receives ten minutes of feedback from the new outer circle.

There are many variations to the time limits of each aspect of Socratic circles, but maintaining the discussion-feedback-discussion-feedback pattern is essential. Once students have mastered the structure of the Socratic circle itself, modifications can be made according to content, focus, purpose, and so on.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice,Quick Tip Tuesday

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