Socratic Seminars

Socratic seminars are my newest interest/fascination/obsession – sometimes it’s hard to tell these three apart. I’m curious to see if there is some kind of magic formula to making this structured discussion a success. Admittedly, my initial sample size is small… Ok, it’s just my class. But the goal is to observe other classes and find the common elements that work, and those that need tweaking.

Bit of context, whilst this is a super nice Year 11 group they’re not the chattiest bunch. Crickets have been known to work overtime in our room. Que awkward silence. And yet since we’ve started the seminars I feel like I’m actually hearing their voices. Their real voices. Not just the answer that they feel like they’re expected to give, but their real insights and questions. It’s kinda cool sitting on the outside and just listening. Some of these students I’ve taught for three years and it’s only been the past three weeks I’ve seen them voluntarily contribute to a lesson. I don’t know if I can handle unpacking that one…

Here’s what I know so far, and again, not polished or perfect.

They’re in charge from the beginning.IMG_0029.jpg

If the ultimate goal is to sustain a 40 minute conversation without the teacher, then my voice should be out from the beginning. Right? Before our first seminar I asked them to make three key decisions:

  • Select the norms (rules)
  • Decide on the structure (fishbowl, big circle etc)
  • Pick a leader for the first circle

Embrace the awkward silence.

The leaders of our first circle came perfectly prepared. I’m talking adult level preparation. But, they got super nervous about the silence. They would ask a question and then leave around a three second pause before answering it themselves or moving on. And I get it. It’s nerve racking feeling responsible for a productive experience. But at the end, the groups exit cards all reflected they hadn’t felt they had the opportunity to speak. The secret? 5-7 second silences. Snuggle into the silence and get comfortable with it, eventually someone steps up.

Preparation is everything

Ok, the only reason someone wouldn’t step up is if they’re not prepared. If they haven’t done the readings, jotted down thoughts and questions prior, they just can’t participate. It’s too much weight on the others to carry the conversation. 90% of the exit cards from the first seminar indicated the students didn’t feel they were prepared enough to contribute to the discussion, at the level expected. However, second seminar 90% of feedback indicated they were relieved/satisfied with their level of preparation. No surprise the second discussion was far more insightful and interesting for all involved. And this is coming from them, I’m not hinting or swaying. My group of relaxed, passively sweet kids are saying: preparation is everything.

It’s not about me.

This has to start and end with them. In my view, anyway. I’m aware that I may appear mildly neglectful during the seminars. I speak as minimally as possible. I greet them in the hall but do not enter until they’ve arranged the furniture as we agreed. I pretty well ignore them for the first five minutes as they revise their notes, have those frantic hushed whispers. Then I begin very formally, welcoming them to our circle and reminding them of the norms before handing over to the leader for that session. I started in the circle, I maybe asked three questions. Then I’ve been slowing moving myself out as they become more confident. At the end of each session we spend about 10 minutes debriefing. They critique themselves and make any changes for the next session. So far, the magic number seems to be about eight students. Any bigger than this and they feel like there are too many voices. Their solution? Break the class into two separate groups, running two simultaneous seminars. I love their problem solving.

I get that this could be seen as just another buzz word for discussion. But you know what? I suck at whole class discussions. Having a highly structured way to conduct a student centered discussion works for me. And, so far, it seems to be working for them. Three seminars in and we’re all hooked. Bring on number four.

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