One common approach to Socratic Seminars is to form an outer circle of students to observe an inner circle of their peers. In this set-up, the inner circle engages in discussion while the outer circle observes and thinks profoundly — or so it goes in our dreams. Reality tells another story. Outer circle students often become restless, distracted, impatient. They might poke each other, whisper amongst themselves, or hold an old-school staring contest with the clock. What they need is a purpose in the form of tasks.
First, though, let’s consider the inner circle. Every Socratic exercise should be open books and open notes. This encourages the inner-circle participants to check up on each other and cite text while arguing a point. Admit it. The words “cite text” combined with “my students” send shivers up your spine. Students can (and will) do it, too!
This inner circle organizer, which can be prepared for homework, encourages students to copy the focus question or topic and then take a stand with an opinion beforehand. The columns are for chief reasons (equivalent to topic sentences in an essay) followed by bullet points of evidence (these can be accompanied with citations to certain pages for reading aloud).
When they are not speaking, inner circle students should be encouraged to take notes for delayed responses to other speakers because a few other voices may separate the note-taker from her chance to speak. This way, when she does re-enter the conversation, she can say something like, “Abby, you said that… but I wonder if you can cite anything to support that claim,” or, “Jim, you made a good point earlier when you said… but I wonder if you could clarify what you meant by that” or, “Hannah, could you elaborate more on what you said about…? You said it in passing and I thought it would be interesting to go a little deeper on that topic.”
In the days leading up to the seminar, teachers will want to model this sort of behavior and this manner of speaking.
For the outer circle, we have a different organizer that can be double-sided so up to six students can be followed in the inner circle. If they wish, teachers can take a greater role by assigning one, three, or six students to follow OR simply by instructing the outer circle to take notes on any three (or six) students whose comments and assertions interest them.
On this form, our outliers will practice their academic thinking by noting who should elaborate more (and on what), who should clarify something (again, specifics noted), who needs to support claims with evidence, and whose ideas should be built-on or challenged.
To execute a Socratic Seminar in this manner, the schedule would have to be divided four ways. This example uses an hour:
- Inner Group #1 discusses topic/question for 15 minutes
- Outer Group #1 gets to enter discussion by posing questions and assertions to inner participants based upon their outer circle tasks notes. This involves both circles and lasts 10 minutes.
- Inner Group #2 assumes the inner circle seats and discusses same or new topic/question for 15 minutes.
- Outer Group #2 gets to enter discussion for the following 10 minutes based on outer circle task sheet notes.
This schedule would leave 10 minutes for final instructions in the beginning of class and for a wrap-up of key points at the end. If your class is shorter, simply divide the class into proportionally-equivalent fourths with a bit of buffer time before and after the seminar.
When the discussion is complete, students can note the key points established and agreed upon where it says “SYNTHESIS” at the bottom of the outer circle’s sheet. This can be completed either at the end of the class or at the halfway point when the first set of inner/outer counterparts have engaged each other.
Is this the way to do a Socratic Seminar? Hardly. When it comes to turning the class over to the students, there are as many variations as there are mosquitoes in May. This is just one.
The keys to success? For one, a class where norms have been established and mutual respect is the rule. And for another, a class where students have had practice with academic conversations — that is, a class that not only walks the walk, but talks the talk of educated people everywhere. These students can engage each other with what Jeffrey Zwiers (author, Academic Conversations) calls the Core Five Speaking Skills: elaborating & clarifying, supporting ideas with reasons, building on or challenging another’s ideas, paraphrasing, and synthesizing conversation points.
Sounds simple, but trust me when I say it takes practice — in many forms and with regularity throughout the year. Give your students the chance to develop with frequent opportunities like this one.
If you need to review them, here are some Socratic Seminar basics.