Engage Everyone with Socratic Circles

At least once a week, I’ll say to my students, “let’s make one big circle” and so begins our Socratic Circle.

The goal of the activity is for everyone, myself included, to work together and construct meaning. It starts with an open-ended question, one which there is no right or wrong answer, and a discussion ensues. It is an approach is based on the belief that participants seek and gain deeper understanding of concepts in the text through thoughtful dialogue rather than memorizing information that has been provided for them.

It all dates back to Socrates, who believed teaching and understanding were inseparable.

He learned from his students’ thinking as they learned from his questions. This reciprocal relationship formed the foundation of his teaching method, which did not involve conveying knowledge but rather had him asking question after question until his students clarified their understanding.

While he was the teacher, he also played the role of the student, using his own ignorance to learn from others.

Socrates is famous for his teaching method, yet he is also renown for his intellectual humility. He is famous for saying “I know that I know nothing.” Legend has it that he declared it when the Delphic oracle had named him the wisest man in Athens. His denial demonstrated a keen awareness of his own ignorance.

We can bring similar humility to the classroom to achieve a collective wisdom. In doing so, we can empower our students to teach us, engage every student, and model how questions are at the heart of understanding.

The Socratic Method

Socrates described himself not as a teacher but as an ignorant inquirer. His method used discussion, based on asking and answering questions, to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. He used questions to understand generally held truths and he scrutinized them to determine their validity.

The basic form of the Socratic Method involves:

  • a text that forms the basis of the discussion
  • an opening question that has no right or wrong answer
  • a progression of questions that test the reasoning behind assumption
  • opportunities for everyone to hear other perspectives, discover new ideas, articulate thoughts, and refine beliefs

Key Features of My Socratic Circles

Articulation — I allow my students to reflect on 2-3 important questions that will likely come up in the discussion. They write for 10 minutes first to examine the text again, gather their thoughts, and articulate ideas. This allows everyone to bring something to the table.

Shape — the shape is important because it allows all participants to see each other. In literature the circle represents notions of totality, wholeness, the infinite, eternity, and timelessness. In my classroom, there is a wholeness to the discussion — everyone is on the same level in a Socratic Seminar. Instead of all eyes looking up to teacher, every student speaks to the room. It is for this reason that I don’t do an inner circle and an outer circle. Instead, everyone is a participant.

An Opening Question — the opening question has no right or wrong answer. Nearly always, I’ll ask an either or question and go around the circle allowing everyone to answer. For example, after reading Act III of The Merchant of Venice last week I asked my students who they had greater pity for, Antonio or Shylock. The opening questions allows me to take the pulse of the class, but more importantly, it helps to build rapport and comfort. With the opening question, everyone answers — no one feels overpowered by the stronger personalities and every opinion matters.

Refine and Redirect — I can go anywhere I want after the opening question, but almost always I will ask for clarification for the opening question. I want to know why students made the choice they did. From there, the discussions emerge organically as students offer points and counter points. When it is really rolling, the students take command of the conversation and anticipate all the places I wanted to go. My job is to occasionally redirect students, send them back into the text for evidence, and allow everyone an opportunity to speak and ensure that the stronger personalities in class don’t dominate the discussion.

Final Reflection — the final piece of my Socratic Circles is a homework assignment, a one-page reflection that results from a final question that I pose when the circle is done. This is the final form of participation. Some students do not think as quickly as others, some have valuable thoughts but don’t always have the courage to express them. The reflection not only allows students to synthesize what they have learned from each other, it allows those quiet souls the chance to give a voice to their thoughts.

How do you structure your Socratic Circles? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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4 thoughts on “Engage Everyone with Socratic Circles

  1. Excellent article the somewhat seems to simplify three intense days I had several years ago in Harrisburg on Socratic methods. That instructor drew maps of who was sitting where and drew lines during the discussion regarding who answered who and studies the patterns of exchanges. This was the deal-breaker for me. Another colleague graded her discussions and this appear equally difficult to assess, especially given that I also wanted to take part in the discussion. The methods presented to me looked like a futile exercise in massive multitasking. That being said, my students and I often “circle up” for discussions and I generally structure them as you do — a few open ended questions for a reading assignment, time for them to take individual or group notes, and then a circle discussion, sometimes with a reflective online follow-up discussion. I have been teaching for 28 years and this was the teaching style my high school teacher used with me, way back in the 80’s, so I tried to model it in the late 80’s when student teaching. It made my Ed Supervisor uncomfortable. He said it would only be acceptable for them to be in a circle if I remained standing and walked around among them, which, as can be seen from this article, defeats the purpose of a shared inquiry. I don’t think many teachers are comfortable doing this because it requires truly knowing the material and being comfortable with students moving beyond the teacher at times. Personally, I love it. It is when I am doing this that I feel like we are truly teaching and learning together.

  2. My students and I love Socratic discussions! One feature that I sometimes begin with is a “Quescussion”. In this format, students are only permitted to pose questions–no statements/answers allowed. It gets everyone thinking and enables me to “take the pulse” of the class and what they are “wondering” about a piece of literature. I participate as well, adding some real thought-provoking “zingers”. https://www.uwo.ca/tsc/resources/resources_graduate_students/ta_handbook/leading_discussions/discussion_models.html

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