Socratic seminars for many teachers are a traditional teaching practice which facilitates an opportunity for students to critically interrogate various genres of text and ideas through a face to face discussion with their peers.  However, with the emergence of new technologies students now have a chance to engage in this critical dialogue in a way which synthesizes formative assessment and technology.

I’m always eager to listen to the discussion from my students on the day of the seminar.  I finally get to hear them think and test their positions on the topics with their peers.  This is the formative assessment opportunity; a chance to listen to student’s current understanding of the topics against the learning target/expectation. Where this process becomes problematic is with the number of students – my class sizes are now 30+ which makes having a meaningful discussion where everyone has an opportunity to contribute very difficult.  Certainly making small groups of approximately five students per group is an option, but then it is impossible to listen to all of their conversations at the same time.  I usually travel from group to group and listen for 5-7 minutes before moving to the next group.  This provides a formative ‘snapshot’ of their learning progress but not a complete picture.

Using technology platforms, such as Moodle forums and others, facilitates this formative dialogue AND it affords a more complete picture of how well your students understand the topics being discussed.  Furthermore, this platform provides students a voice in the discussion which may be difficult to achieve in a face to face seminar with many students.

Here is an example of a recent Moodle seminar from my 9th grade Civics students where the discussion topic surrounds the ‘free exercise’ clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Students were asked to take and defend a position concerning the following situation and to explain their position:

  1. A Jehovah’s Witness, whose religion opposes war and all activities associated with war, is ordered by his company to work on an assembly line that makes parts for the military.  He quits his job and applies for unemployment benefits.  His application is denied because he did not quit “for good cause.”  He contends that being denied unemployment benefits violates his right to free exercise of religion.  What is your position?  Explain.

Sample student response A:
I believe there are wrong doings on both sides. It is fine for the man to believe in his religion, but there is also the part where he should respect other peoples’ wishes and do his job as an American. If his job needs him to assemble parts for the military, it does not mean that he supports war- only that he is doing his job as an American citizen. Now, for the unemployment benefits, there were also some subjects that may have not been touched on by the people employed to accept the applications. They should know that the man was deeply offended by the task of assembling parts for the military and should have respected that. If a Christian were to be in an assembly line that did not respect their god, I believe it would have been handled differently.

Sample student response B:
I think it violates that man’s freedom of religion. He quit his job because he had a moral problem with what he was being asked to do as a part of his job. He made the choice to quit his job, and he has the choice between doing something that he sees as wrong and getting paid or quitting and not being able to support himself.  I think moral conflicts should be a valid reason for resigning from a job, and receiving unemployment benefits. I don’t think that the government should be able to decide what moral or religious issues we have with a given job are valid reasons for resignation; I think that borders on limiting an individual’s freedom of religion.

The students may also reply to the posts from their peers to refute and/or acknowledge a position.  We spend time in class talking about how to disagree with peers without being disagreeable, which mirrors the established protocol of our face-to-face seminars.

Finally, the archived Seminar dialogue can be reviewed and analyzed with students.  This additional formative assessment step in the process provides students a chance to critically reflect on the quality of their discussion so they can make improvements for the future.

The use of Moodle forums in this manner provides an effective synthesis of technology and formative assessment practices.  Certainly other platforms such as blogs will work just as effectively and recently some teachers have used a site called www.todaysmeet.com to facilitate a back-channel chat during face-to-face seminars, but the point is that traditional practices and emerging technologies can be brought together with the result often being a better learning experience for our students.