Quick Tip Tuesday: Effective Socratic Circles

August 3rd, 2010

“Effective Socratic circles do not happen overnight,” writes Matt Copeland in his book Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School. To prepare for Socratic Circle instruction, teachers need to consider three key areas: classroom climate, the teacher’s role, and teaching students to prepare for high quality dialogue. In this week’s Quick Tip, Matt shares how he sets the climate in his classroom for effective dialogue.

If one had the ability to look down upon a Socratic circle in my classroom from above, he or she would see two concentric circles. The inner circle of students would be facing inward and seated upon the floor, each with a writing utensil and a copy of the selected piece of text being used as a springboard for discussion. The outer circle of students, also facing inward, would be seated in desks directly outside the inner circle, almost literally hanging on every word of the inner circle. One would quickly realize that the only conversation taking place is among the members of the inner circle and that outer-circle members are busy observing and jotting down notes about the inner circle’s performance, all without saying
a word. One would also notice the teacher sitting outside the inner circle, contributing questions or basic information only to keep the inner circle’s discussion moving smoothly along.

After several minutes had gone by, the observer would notice the teacher stopping the inner circle’s conversation and asking them to remain quiet while the teacher led the outer circle in a conversation to provide feedback on the inner circle’s performance. One would see students in the outer circle looking at their notes and commenting on the strengths of the inner circle and offering suggestions for improvement. What might surprise the observer is that the comments of the outer circle would be
focused not on the content of the inner circle but rather on the behavior the members of the inner circle exhibited during their conversation. After several minutes the two circles would switch places and the process would be repeated.

The classroom environment is perhaps the element most crucial to Socratic circle success, both in terms of the physical environment and in terms of the emotional climate. Socratic circles approach reading, discussion, and learning in a way that is unfamiliar to many students. The physical layout of the room and the emotional climate established by the teacher greatly affect a student’s willingness to try something new.

The process of mutual inquiry asks that participants take risks by sharing ideas and opinions regardless of their known “truth.” Students, like all human beings, are sometimes uncomfortable and unsure of themselves when sharing information about which they are uncertain. The fears of being proved wrong, being judged, and/or being scoffed at are very real. The effective Socratic circle leader accommodates and lessens these fears in the classroom. One of the clear necessities is seating students in a circle so that they all can see each other when they are in discussion. Neat, straight rows of desks will not be conducive to an open, free-flowing dialogue. Because students are asking questions of each other and sharing personal ideas and opinions based on a selection of text, eye contact and nonverbal engagement in the conversation are essential. This engagement makes students more confident and comfortable, which makes them more likely to take risks in sharing their ideas.

Ultimately, having students be able to see and interact with one another builds cohesion, a necessary component in the collaborative construction of new learning. I also have my inner and outer circles sitting on different planes of the classroom. I always have my inner circle sitting on the floor and my outer circle sitting in chairs directly behind them. This allows the outer circle to almost literally look over the shoulders of the students sitting in the inner circle. Because the outer circle is responsible for watching the behavior of the conversation taking place, they need to be able to clearly watch and
observe not only the discussion but also the physical and nonverbal interactions among students. The tiered circles in my classroom help the inner and outer circles see more clearly not only the members of their own circle, but the members of the other circle as well. This helps students see how beneficial one circle can be for the other. Because they can see and interact with one another, there is an enhanced amount of teamwork and cooperation between the circles; both know they are engaged in a cooperative
endeavor.

I have also found that altering the lighting in my classroom helps to improve students’ comfort level. Because large banks of overhead fluorescent lights seem to transform a classroom discussion into something that feels more like a police station interrogation, I fill my classroom with alternative lighting (such as floor lamps or strings of holiday lights hung from the ceilings) on days we hold Socratic circles. The change in lighting relaxes and calms students and makes them more open to the exchange of ideas and dialogue. One of the side benefits to this practice is that they respond very quickly to the lighting change. They know instantly what the order of business is for the day, and they move into Socratic circle mode more quickly, more fully, and with more enthusiasm.

Like the effects of classroom lighting, the importance of the emotional climate of the classroom cannot be underestimated. Sharing personal reactions, connections, and interpretations of ideas and concepts
can be difficult for people of any age. For this to occur, students must feel safe, comfortable, and confident with themselves and with one another.

Before Socratic circles are even introduced, teachers should take the time to engage students in multiple classroom climate activities. The value and benefit of knowing one another’s names, interests, and personalities is immense. We simply cannot work cooperatively with people we feel no connection with, especially in a Socratic circle setting, where each individual is expected to contribute to group understanding.

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