Throughout our first few months of team-teaching using Skype and a thirty dollar webcam to connect our two schools, we were extremely frustrated with our inability to incorporate Socratic seminars in World Dynamics. World Dynamics is a blended-curriculum course between two classrooms, twenty-three miles apart, where Earth Environmental Science, World History, and English I are taught simultaneously in order to give students a contextual understanding of the world.
In our face-to-face classrooms, we have been amazed by how the Socratic seminars teach our students to talk and listen to one another. In prior classes, we both utilized a handful of Socratic seminars to teach controversial topics: poverty, racism, human rights, and other conflicts. Unfortunately, in larger classrooms traditional Socratic seminars lose their effectiveness, so we began experimenting with discussion boards to maximize student participation during fishbowl discussions.
Inner-Circle, Outer-Circle Layout
Initially with over fifty students enrolled in the course, coupled with the hybrid delivery of instruction, our teaching environment did not allow for both schools to participate simultaneously in larger discussions. The fishbowl layout or the "inner-circle, outer-circle" as many educators call it, is the go-to structure for Socratic seminars in larger classes. This format, which splits the class in half, is an effective way to get the number of students in the inner-circle down to a more manageable number. In a traditional fishbowl, students in the outer-circle take notes on the inner-circle's discussion and do not directly contribute to the central conversation -- an accepted tragedy and a small tax for the rich dialogue that occurs in the inner circle's discussion.
Use Technology to Set Up Hybrid Socratic Seminar
Setting up a hybrid Socratic seminar between two schools is easy. In traditional classrooms, chairs are usually moved around in order to create an environment that encourages dialogue - the inside and outside circle. The layout for this hybrid model is an even simpler design. We place a table with four chairs and a microphone at the front of the room: this is the inside circle. While the inside circle discussants talk about the article, the outside circle is required to submit original posts and responses to other students' posts on the Collaborize Classroom discussion board. These original posts are usually responses from statements made from within the inside circle and are normally experiential or observational in nature. This often breeds a unique and altogether separate conversation on the discussion threads.
Online Discussion Threads Facilitate Meaningful Dialogue
Once we started using online discussion threads to engage our outer-circle students in meaningful dialogue, we realized that we now had the missing tool to facilitate Socratic seminars between both schools. Using discussion threads in the outer circle gives students more interaction and connection with classmates. Our students appreciate the interaction that discussion boards provide them during their time in the outer-circle. One of our World Dynamics students, fourteen-year-old Olivia, said, "I liked the discussion board better [than taking notes] because you can talk to everybody about what is going on." The human interaction fostered by using online discussion threads in real-time does much to engage students in the content.
Increased Participation by Quieter Students
Another benefit of using discussion threads that emerged in World Dynamics was the participation of our apprehensive talkers. On the online threads, we were elated to see our quiet students leading rich analysis of the inner-circle's discussion. We asked Sarah, a soft spoken student, whether she participated more in the inner-circle or the outer-circle? She said that the discussion boards prompted her to participate more: "I don't really like talking out loud that much. Everyone else just kept talking [in the inner-circle]." We questioned other students and many of them agreed with Sarah, explaining that they preferred the discussion boards because it gave them more time to formulate their responses before sharing with their peers.
Powerful Implications for Meaningful Dialogue
Socratic seminars teach students to listen, communicate, and learn from individuals who have different experiences and viewpoints. Our post-globalized generation will need these critical skills in order to solve the world's growing problems; Socratic seminars should be a part of every classroom. Although we have not yet extended the application of this hybrid Socratic seminar to other school districts or beyond, the engagement offered by the discussion threads creates an opportunity for students to partake in meaningful dialogue with schools across the globe. What if our students could connect with Malaysia and discuss the effects of a globalized economy? Or talk about food shortages with the Sudanese? Or brainstorm ways to handle rapid population growth with students in India? The ability to participate in honest dialogue with the world's citizens will help our students make a positive contribution to the advancement of the human race.