Some resources for a Socratic Seminar

I have used the Socratic Seminar method to increase students’ talk time and reduce the amount of time that I talk. In researching the Socratic Seminar, I have found that there are many ways to ‘skin this cat’. I don’t think there is any single ‘right’ way, as long as the students talk through a difficult question or text themselves and respect certain ground rules of discussion.

The more you do this activity with your students, the better everyone will get at it and the more powerful it becomes. The feedback from my students was really positive and I found it an excellent way to get them to think through their own and each other’s points of view.

The principle of the Socratic Seminar goes by other names too: Socratic Circle, Fish Bowl Discussion and The Leaderless Discussion (by Ron Ritchhart).

Below are some resources I have used, and some of the instructions I wrote on the white board.

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  1. By Russel Tarr, great for History teachers: http://www.classtools.net/blog/using-the-socratic-seminar-to-improve-classroom-discussion/
  2. http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/socratic-seminars-30600.html
  3. Facing History has many great teaching strategies. https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/socratic-seminar
  4. https://www.nwabr.org/sites/default/files/SocSem.pdf

Description of the Socratic Seminar process

This is description written by one of my colleagues who uses this process frequently:

Here are the sheets: Socratic Seminar Leader sheet and Socratic Seminar Observation Checklist

You could nominate one student facilitator per group (paired up with the other group) who have the leader sheet. Their job is to help the group to generate ideas, explore specific points in more detail, paraphrase back to the person, allow clarifying questions, include everyone in the discussion, ask for more elaboration, summarise the key points of the group for a point before moving on to the next point, etc…

  • Give everyone a number, 1 or 2.
  • Have a stimulus text and question or each group (a separate one for each group keeps it more interesting – each participant gets stimulus 1 or 2) – 5-10 mins individual reading / note-making
  • Then ask a 1 to find a 2 – create feedback partners. Have them go over the observation checklist and discuss the elements together and ask clarifying questions (building trust). This is also a good opportunity to discuss the ‘art of conversation’ eg. Listening skills just as important as speaking…what do we mean by ‘interruption’ etc.
  • Group 1 sits in the inner circle, Group 2 on the outer where they can see their partner.
  • 10 minutes for group 1 (group 2 observe on their checklist). The facilitator needs to draw together the main points of agreement / clarification / contention at the end – summarise the understandings/insights.
  • 2 mins feedback.
  • 10 mins group 2 (group 1 observe on their checklist) The facilitator needs to draw together the main points of agreement / clarification / contention at the end – summarise the understandings/insights.
  • 2 mins feedback.
  • Whole Group discussion: everyone brings their chair to the front.
  • Discuss the conversation skills first – skill did people find most challenging? Etc… Deepen the discussion of the ‘art of conversation’
  • Then, whole group discussion on the key ideas / understandings – drawing together.
  • Reflection: students write their ‘takeaways’.

Instructions I wrote on the white board

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Other discourse routines

By Ron Ritchhart, 2011. Cultures of Thinking

The following routines/protocols can be useful in fostering discussion and promoting discourse:

Structures for small groups and pair work:

• Think-Pair-Share. Simple structure in which students are ask to think individually about an issue or topic, pair with a partner, and share their thinking.

• Micro Lab Protocol. Small group (3 or 4) structure to encourage equal participation from all. Each person gets 2 min. uninterrupted airtime followed by 20 sec. of silence. After all have shared their initial thoughts/reactions there is an open discussion period for the group of 5-15 min.

• Chalk Talk. A conversation on paper around a key question or idea that warrants exploration.

Questioning strategies/techniques:

• What makes you say that? Question to ask in follow up to a students’ response that will push him/her to give evidence or reasons.

• Reflective Toss. Pattern of discourse in which the teacher strives to first catch students’ meaning and then tosses back a follow-up question that will prompt students to elaborate or expand on his/her initial response and take it further.

Discussing a text
• Leaderless Discussion. Structure for small group discussion in which everyone shares responsibility for moving the group’s discussion forward. Group members prepare questions in advance that will encourage group discussion and then must listen to and encourage one another to speak.

• Word-Phrase-Sentence. Method of responding to a text by identifying a single word, a phrase, and a sentence from the text that stands out for them and then giving reasons for their choice.

• What Comes Up? Protocol. General response to a text using the prompt: “What came up for you when you read this?” All responses are collected and then the discussion ensues.

• Final Word Protocol. Each individual identifies a powerful passage from the text. The first person’s selected passage is shared, and each member of the group responds to the passage, saying what it means to them. The originator gets the ‘final word’ by saying why he/she found it powerful.

Debating and exploring issues:

• 4 Corner Debate. A provocative statement is shared and individuals decide if they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement. Individuals go to the respective corners to discuss their choice and prepare an argument to convince others to move to their corner.

• Tug of War. The class identifies the pulls or tugs for both sides of an issue and then debates the strength of those pulls in order to place them appropriately on the tug-of-war line.

• Claim-Support-Question. Claims or assertions are made and then debated in terms of the evidence that supports the claim or the evidence or reasons why one might doubt or question the claim.Analyzing a group’s discussion and learning about what makes a good discussion

• Inner-Outer Circles/Fishbowl. A small group engages in a discussion while the rest of the class observes (in an outer circle) the discussion and makes notes of participation structures, effective questioning, use of evidence, listening, etc. The observers then feedback their findings to the group.

• Leaderless Discussion. Structure for small group discussion in which everyone shares responsibility for moving the group’s discussion forward. Group members need to prepare questions that will encourage discussion and then must listen to and encourage one another to speak.

A Typology of Classroom Questions

Created by Ron Ritchhart, Cultures of Thinking, 2009

  • Review: Recalling and reviewing of Knowledge and information
    Terminology
    Procedures
    Content
    Events and context
  • Procedural: Directing the work of the class
    Going over directions and assignments
    Clarifying
    Checking for attention, agreement.
    Task completion
    Organizational and management related
  • Generative: Exploring the topic
    Authentic questions or wonders that teacher doesn’t know the answer to.
    Essential questions that initiate exploration of a topic
  • Constructive: Building New Understanding
    Extending & Interpreting
    Connecting & Linking
    Orienting and focusing on big ideas, central concepts, or purpose
    Evaluating
  • Facilitative: Promotes the learner’s own thinking & understanding
    Requesting elaboration, reasons, evidence, justification
    Generating discussion among the class to hear different perspectives
    Clarifying and Uncovering

Good visual guides to questioning

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