For many Australian students, a return to schools after lockdown meant shifting to face-to-face interactions again and, for some, this has been difficult. For teachers now suddenly adept at delivering lessons online, the question of how best to work with these students’ challenges and shortcomings, whilst building their social capabilities, is front of mind.
Indeed, with the pause brought about by COVID-19, the discourse around schools as social and community hubs has been made clearer. One way of making full use of reclaimed classroom spaces – whilst building collaborative, and pro-social skills and behaviours – is Socratic Circles.
Sometimes referred to as a ‘fishbowl discussion’ or ‘Socratic seminar’, this teaching technique is focused on students interacting with one another around a closely studied text.
The purpose of schooling
This reconsideration of teaching, and the implicit role of schools and schooling within it, is part and parcel of this approach. Gert Biesta reflects on the ‘learnification’ of education (Biesta, 2009), that sees students recast as learners, which runs alongside the push for ‘datafication’ and data performativity (Hardy & Lewis, 2017) that simplify the teaching process to data points. This viewpoint does not regard students as whole, complete people, but rather as those who produce the data that is then analysed. The Socratic Circle approach runs counter to these narratives, as it focuses upon free-flowing discussion and student empowerment.
Biesta notes three primary purposes of education, qualification, socialisation and subjectification. Qualification represents the ‘rite of passage’ of completing schooling and receiving a socially acceptable form of knowledge and an ability to ‘do something’ in a codified manner. Socialisation is preparing students to be a part of the world, as social beings, part of the fully social tapestry of our society. Subjectification is the manner that students can exist as a subject, and secure freedom within those boundaries (Biesta, 2009 & 2020).
As teachers, it is common to focus solely on the qualification aspects. Yet we know, for example, that many students had difficulties connecting with others, either online or in person, amid the previous pandemic-addled period. The Socratic Circle approach takes both a focus on the qualification, acquisition of knowledge element; but also touches upon the socialisation and subjectification. They are entrusted to interact with one another in deep, adult-like and collaborative ways, not merely to socialise, but to genuinely collaborate and co-construct knowledge with their peers.
What is a Socratic Circle?
The Socratic Circle approach is a structured, dialogic and student-driven discussion that takes place with the teacher as guide and facilitator rather than as a ‘sage on the stage’ (King, 1993).
Functionally, it involves a structured discussion where students array themselves in two concentric circles, forming two distinct groups. Members of the ‘inner circle’ are actively involved in discussion with one another, whilst those in the ‘outer circle’ take notes, observe and notice patterns within this discussion. As discussants, students are provided with a prompt or initiating questions, closely tied to a written article they have read, and annotated closely, prior to the discussion (Copeland, 2005).
The teacher’s tasks
The teacher's role is in selecting the artefact to frame the discussion, which can be a piece of writing, image, film, storyboard, diagram, or anything that is likely to spark discussion. As students gain confidence in the activity, and the expectations of it, they may be able to source their own artefacts for the class to discuss.
Teachers are also called to select the initiating question and then observe the discussion, perhaps nudging or steering the discussion only when necessary. An important piece of teachers’ work in this is giving instruction and guidance about how to best annotate a text in preparation for a discussion, asking students to take a personal response lens, and to read critically.
Benefits and outcomes
Drawing on the discussion of the purposes of schooling, we can see that Socratic Circles serve more purposes than merely driving the content being covered forward.
Educational research into Socratic Circles provides a wide range of positive, pro-social outcomes, rather than a focus upon standardised, summative assessment purposes – although adopting this teaching approach does not mean sacrificing the latter. If we value the role of teachers as democratic workers, and desire for our students to become active citizens (Heggart, 2021), we need to have them involved in democratic debate before they receive their qualification and ‘complete’ their formal schooling.
In my experience, and those of colleagues, this approach brings forth both rich discussion and genuine and earthy development among our students. Reading reflections of students across a year, we see students reflecting on their role within the group dynamics and ways that they are developing confidence and strategies to both listen and share. Whilst the notes taken on the discussions themselves often show elements that far outstrip the content being delivered and invariably make links between course content and the wider, dynamic world.
As a brief outline of some of the outcomes established from the literature, it has proven useful in ‘helping students overcome their reluctance to speak publicly’, alongside a ‘sense of belonging and overall satisfaction’ (Fisher & Machiori, 2021, pp.1). Students learn to ‘look at the world from different perspectives, to accept differences and maintain esteem for others’ (Acim, 2018, pp. 1). It allows ‘students to collaboratively create their own understandings about content with their peers’ (Thomas & Goering, 2018, pp.1), rather than their teachers directly. It has been noted that ‘These discourse patterns demonstrate how students try out ideas, evaluate, co-construct, and adjust their thinking about texts’ (Brown, 2016, pp.2).
The above findings have great utility for teachers seeking a deeper engagement with the content. For those seeking students who can collaborate with one another politely, avoiding the idea of an adversarial debate too common elsewhere, this strategy has great relevance. The discussions among students of the outer circle, who reflect on the discussion within the inner circle, brings this approach to the next level.
Having students discuss the correct way to have a discussion, of how best to include the views of the softly spoken students in the class and find ways to truly listen to one another's ideas is greatly revealing for teachers.
This type of open forum also allows teachers to observe students' misunderstandings as they arise and build upon ideas raised within these discussions.
Acim, R. (2018). The Socratic method of instruction: An experience with a reading comprehension course. Journal of Educational Research and Practice, 8(1), 4. https://doi.org/10.5590/JERAP.2018.08.1.04
Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), 33-46. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11092-008-9064-9
Biesta, G. (2020). Risking ourselves in education: Qualification, socialization, and subjectification revisited. Educational Theory, 70(1), 89-104. https://doi.org/10.1111/edth.12411
Brown, A. C. (2016). Classroom community and discourse: How argumentation emerges during a Socratic circle. Dialogic Pedagogy: An International Online Journal, 4. https://doi.org/10.5195/dpj.2016.160
Copeland, M. (2005). Socratic circles: Fostering critical and creative thinking in middle and high school. Stenhouse Publishers.
Fisher, R. L., & Machirori, T. L. (2021). Belonging, achievement and student satisfaction with learning: The role of case-based Socratic Circles. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 58(1), 25-35. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2019.1675528
Hardy, I., & Lewis, S. (2017). The ‘doublethink’ of data: Educational performativity and the field of schooling practices. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(5), 671-685. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2016.1150155
Heggart, K. (2021). Activist citizenship education: a framework for creating justice citizens. Springer Nature.
King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching, 41(1), 30-35. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.1993.9926781
Styslinger, M. E., & Overstreet, J. F. (2014). Strengthening argumentative writing with speaking and listening (Socratic) circles. Voices from the Middle, 22(1), 58-62.
Thomas, C., & Goering, C. Z. (2018). Socratic circles in world history: Reflections on a year in dialogue. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 91(3), 103-110. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2017.1411132
What techniques do you use in your own classroom to encourage student discussion, collaboration and reflection? What impact did the time away from school during the lockdowns have on your own students? Have you put any additional measures in place to strengthen their social skills?