Socratic seminars are often used in upper elementary through high school classrooms in any subject level to promote inquiry, discussions, and connections. As a high school English teacher, I’ve found them to be a very effective classroom discussion strategy; however, students began to react negatively to the planned discussions.
My students candidly expressed how Socratic seminars felt like a forced, fake discussion. They felt like they had to talk over one another and contribute even if it wasn’t on topic, and they even shut down with the pressure of speaking. I was determined to make my discussions more authentic in the classroom.
Facilitating any type of discussion takes time and detailed planning. My first step is to identify the standard I want to assess and create clear learning targets. When planning a discussion, consider your end goal. Is your discussion around a certain standard? Do you want students to compare and contrast different texts? Is this serving as a summative assessment? How will you have total student participation? Envisioning the result is the first step in planning an authentic discussion.
In my English class, students have been looking at the impact that characters have on the plot and theme of novels. Our discussion revolves around that specific standard, and I have students prepare with that focus in mind to create questions and gather evidence. This provides students with a clear focus and expectation. When you identify the standard and focus, you can plan what you want your students to know by the end of the discussion.
Students need time, practice, and a model to move toward achieving a more authentic discussion. In planning and creating questions, I provide students with the Bloom’s Taxonomy question chart, which provides students with a structure for planning higher-level questions. Finally, I prepare roles for students during discussions. These roles include facilitator, recorder, researcher, participation checker, and questioner.
1. Thoughts, Questions, and Epiphanies: This is best completed after introductory information. Originally published by Cult of Pedagogy, this strategy provides a deeper lens into what the students are thinking. On the board, I write the words “thoughts,” “questions,” and “epiphanies,” and students brainstorm and contribute to the list on the board. I have students brainstorm in their groups first before adding their ideas to the board. This helps create stronger contributions and deeper thinking about the objective. It allows students to practice their questioning skills, build off one another, and make connections.
For example, when my students and I discuss Frankenstein, my students will write thoughts like “Victor Frankenstein was wrong for this action,” questions like “Who is responsible for the monster Victor created?” and epiphanies like “this relates to our current topic in biology about cloning.” These contributions by students serve as a foundation for the discussion. This method allows students to think critically, participate without fear, and make deeper connections. As a teacher, you are able to gain insight on how students are thinking and their level of understanding.
I usually use this discussion method after reading a chapter in a book, an informational text, or a video. You can also have students analyze the trends and themes on the board and have groups brainstorm answers to and evidence about the thoughts, questions, or epiphanies.
2. Mind mapping: In introducing a concept or striving to have students make connections, this method allows students to visually think and discuss. Students can be provided with one central idea and be asked to extend it. The teacher can also provide the different concepts, ideas, and topics, and students then discuss how the connections are made. I also like to have students brainstorm their mind map first before sharing.
Although this is not a traditional discussion method, mind mapping allows students to openly discuss and make a visual representation to track ideas, build connections, and extend their thinking. In first implementing this, I provide students an example template with a category they know well, such as food, TV shows, or music. I scaffold as the year progresses with characters in our novel and with figurative language, and eventually, by the end of the year, students make a mind map to reflect on how everything connects.
3. Harkness Discussion: In this method, students take ownership of the discussion. Students are charged with creating the questions and group norms, facilitating, and tracking participation. Students sit in a circle, as in a Socratic seminar. The teacher does not participate in the discussion. Teachers can plan to teach students how to create higher-order-thinking questions, have practice sessions, or find a video to show as an example.
After the discussion is over, students reflect and agree on a score for the entire class. In their reflecting, I found that students are extremely honest and fair. The score is based on a checklist of criteria. Teachers can use this as a formative grade and just record without weight in the grade book or grade a reflection of the discussion after. In reflecting, students usually cite some who over-participated and others who under-participated. When first introducing this model, ensure that the stakes are low so students can accurately reflect and identify areas of improvement, such as participation of all students.
When discussions don’t go as planned
It is important to acknowledge that quality discussions take time and planning. My go-to for when a discussion isn’t going as planned is a time-out. Students all stop, and we free-write on the topic we are studying. Depending on the discussion issue, I will have students brainstorm new questions, do research, or review expectations. Some classes take longer to fall into the habits of strong discussers. Teachers need to begin planting seeds throughout classes. All of these tips help ensure that you have total participation during discussions.
As an educator, I strive to improve my questioning techniques to model for students. Building habits in the classroom will help lead to a successful discussion and deeper learning. The first step is for students to practice and know the expectations. After each discussion, reflection is key to the success of the next one. Before the next discussion, I review the reflection with all students, along with class-created discussion expectations. This process allows students to build the community and confidence to continue.