written by Todd Beach

“Obviously he would not have become a famous philosopher had he confined himself purely to listening to others… He just asked questions, especially to begin a conversation as if he knew nothing.  The essential nature of Socrates’ art lay in the fact that he did not appear to want to instruct people.  On the contrary he gave the impression of one desiring to learn from those he spoke with.  So instead of lecturing like a traditional schoolmaster, he discussed.”  –Sophie’s World, by Jostein Gaarder

One of the challenges associated with facilitating Socratic seminars in the classroom is trying to create an environment where every student feels they can contribute and have a voice.  This is best accomplished by placing students in small groups (usually 4-6 students per group) which I’ve found to be a nice size for pure and thoughtful discussion without the forced, sometimes coerced dialogue.  The small group size affords students a chance to contribute and synthesize ideas being voiced while also being accountable to the expectations of a scholarly discussion, which is to build upon the student’s current knowledge of the topic and challenge new ideas students have about the topic.

Simply placing students in small groups is easy, but when the teacher attempts to formatively assess each student’s preparedness, attentiveness, and thinking within the seminar environment then the small groups become problematic because the teacher cannot be in five places (sitting in each small group) all at once.  And, let’s face it; the richness of the seminar discussion is limited by the efforts and dynamics of the students within the group.  If four of the six students are unprepared then the scholarship is minimal.  Furthermore, for students and the teacher, it would be nice if there were some written account of the seminar discussion which would give students a chance to look back on the ideas that were articulated so they can be more thoughtful when writing a reflection paper about what they learned.  Technology can help with some of these challenges.

Recently, my 9th grade American Government students read the novel, Animal Farm by George Orwell.  This satire based on the rise of totalitarian government in Russia under Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, serves as good context for students in preparation for a thoughtful discussion about the role of government in people’s lives and about the differences associated with the terms citizen and subject… “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” (Chapter 10).

One seminar model which many teachers are familiar with is a fishbowl format.  This is when you place a small seminar group (4-6 students) in the middle of the room to have their discussion with each other, while the rest of the class remains on the outside of the group, listening to the discussion taking place in the center.  The procedures vary from teacher to teacher, but in general the students take turns.  Small groups engage in their discussion for a set amount of time or number of questions before being replaced by another small group which rotates into the fishbowl, and the group that was in the middle rotates out of the fishbowl to the perimeter.  This format allows the teacher to listen to the discussion and assess the contributions and participation.  However, where this format becomes problematic is with the students who sit outside of the fishbowl.  While these students are encouraged to keep notes and remain engaged in the discussion, the passive nature of their role makes it difficult for them to feel that they can contribute to the scholarship being created.  Technology can help students with this dilemma.

One of the online platforms which we have used during our seminar discussions is the website TodaysMeet.com.  This platform is incredibly simple to use and facilitates a backchannel chat during the seminar for students to utilize when they are on the perimeter of the fishbowl.  The process is simple: students can use their own laptops, tablets, or cell phones (any device with a browser) or we have a cart of school laptops which students can use during the seminar.  The teacher creates the chat room from the website which is incredibly easy because there is no registration or password needed.  Once the chat room has been created, the teacher announces the URL and the students log-on to the chat.  I always require the students to use their first and last name and we talk in advance about the scholarly expectations for the language and contributions to the chat.  Teachers have the option of archiving the discussion for as long as they want (the default is one week).  This allows students to go back and examine the chat at the end of the discussion as they write their reflection paper and it affords the teacher a written archive as well which helps with assessment as well as accountability on the student’s part for the scholarship being created.

The characters in Animal Farm help students understand why having a voice in their system of government is essential:  “…they had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere” (Chapter 7).

Socratic seminars are a provocative formative assessment practice which places the responsibility for learning and advancing scholarship with the students.  The experience invites engagement and affords a voice to all throughout the seminar while allowing the teacher to monitor and more accurately assess the quality of the contributions and participation.