Maria Montessori once said, “never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” At their core, Socratic circles are simple things, but their effects are complex. Montessori’s message was simple: if a child feels capable, the teacher (or parent, friend, colleague, etc.) need do nothing more. Once that child feels unable to do something, then intervention is justified. The secret of Socratic circles is in making children trust that they are able to do more than they previously thought possible. Once mastered, Socratic circles allow students to grasp information more deeply through peer-to-peer learning while teaching a critical life skill that often goes unaddressed: effective dialog.
It takes time and repeated effort to make Socratic circles functional in class. When they do begin to work, a sense of equity and community arise, students take ownership of their learning, and teachers find great pleasure in shifting from classroom Authority to authoritative peer. Effective use of wait time, both prepared and Bloom’s scaled questions, and refraining from commenting to let students do the talking are musts to make Socratic circles work like a well-oiled machine. Too much structure and students will not be invested in bouncing thoughts around the circle. Too little structure and the conversation will degrade into frivolity, defeating the learning goals of the circle.